“Mr. Hill!” the woman exclaimed, stepping backwards to let them in. Quickly she locked the door again. “Thank you so very much for coming.” Joy radiated from her face.
“I remember you…from somewhere,” Mr. Hill said, stroking his scruffy chin thoughtfully. “What’s your name again?”
“Sa–” the woman began.
“–rah,” Mr. Hill finished. “Sarah!”
Lilly raised her eyebrows in surprise.
“And your last name has to do with the animal family? Am I right?” Mr. Hill asked.
The woman chuckled. “Had to do,” she corrected. “It was Bird.”
“Aaaahh,” Mr. Hill said, clapping his hands together. “I have a great memory!”
Lilly jabbed him lightly in his ribs with her elbow. “Dad, we’re here to help. And it’s not polite to brag,” she whispered.
“Yes. This is my daughter. She moonlights as my corrections officer,” Mr. Hill joked to Sarah.
“Lilly’s my name,” Lilly said with a warm smile while shaking Sarah’s outstretched hand.
“And a beautiful name it is,” she complimented her. “Nice to meet you!”
Right then, a young man with a worried face and slicked back hair poked his head cautiously around the corner into the room. Catching sight of Mr. Hill, he straightened and fully walked into the room.
“Mr. Hill!” he cried, throwing his arms into the air before breaking out into a lopsided grin. “Thank God you have come!”
“Manchu Carrig!” Mr. Hill said in greeting. “Is that you?”
“I am,” the man confirmed, still grinning.
“My, my, you haven’t aged a bit. How have things been going? I see you moved back to China.”
Lilly raised her eyebrows again.
“Yes,” Manchu replied. “First, I married my love, and we are coming up on our third anniversary. As you can see, we have a baby due any day now.” He looked adoringly at Sarah. “Afterward,” he continued, “we settled here in China as I said I would to start a church in my native land. We have done so and God has blessed us!”
“Excuse me,” Lilly said turning to her father. “So you all have met before?”
Mr. Hill nodded in the affirmative before introducing Lilly to Manchu.
“I’d be happy to tell you how we came to know each other,” Manchu said quickly before slapping his forehead. “Wait. Where are my manners? Please have a seat.”
“Hold on a minute,” Sarah told him as she left the room.
Lilly and Mr. Hill sat on a camel colored couch while Manchu plopped into the matching sofa opposite them. From her position, Lilly surveyed all she could of the house. Though it was sparsely furnished, the house lacked nothing of necessity. Certainly, the Carrigs had given off no signs that they were in need of help from their warm welcome. Lilly was eager to get to the bottom of the barrel and find out what they really needed.
Sarah returned with a plate of tiramisu cut into perfect squares, and placed it on the low glass table between the couch and the sofa, instantly creating a picturesque scene.
“Take one!” she urged.
Lilly did so. “Splendid,” she said after taking a bite.
Sarah smiled at her, and she smiled appreciatively every time Lilly reached for another square.
“Where should I begin?” Manchu said smoothing his arm hairs in the same direction.
“Well, the beginning is always a good place to start a story,” Lilly advised.
“Of course,” Manchu said.
Lilly leaned forward on the edge of the couch—something she always did when someone was relating a story—no matter if it was truth or tale.
“Sarah and I met your father at a cafe in California about four years ago,” Manchu began. “It wasn’t a planned meeting. The cafe was full that day, but your kind father offered to share his booth with us. We got to talking and I told him of our upcoming wedding. I remember this especially because he recommended a beautiful love song which we did dance to, by the way.”
Mr. Hill lowered his head sheepishly.
“I also told him how that I had recently graduated from USC with a degree in International Relations, but felt as if God was calling me back to China to minister to my native countrymen. As you can imagine, Sarah and I were delighted to find out that your father was a believer. He encouraged me to follow God’s leading, and at the close of our conversation, he gave me his firm’s card and his direct number so that we could contact him if the Chinese government tried to cause any problems for us. I put them in my wallet and forgot all about our meeting until just a few days ago. Well, actually, it was Sarah who reminded me.”
Lilly and Mr. Hill looked at each other. Then Mr. Hill asked, “I take it the government has been attempting to thwart your church building plans?”
“Oh, yes,” Manchu said. “At first, about a month after we arrived here and got settled in, we held services right in this house. I was amazed at our congregants’ thirst for the Gospel. Quickly our little house church exploded in numbers. This was absolutely wonderful, of course, but it did cause one problem—we needed more room. Thankfully, our church family back in the U.S. provided the money for us to rent out a building. I had the audacity to put the name of our church on the front of the building in both English and Chinese only to attract even more people to learn about Jesus. However, I quickly learned that this wasn’t a very smart move. Several officers barged in mid-service one Sunday, and asked if our church was registered with TSPM. I said no. They told us that we had to apply for a license immediately or stop holding services because we did not have permission from the government, and we were disrupting the peace by inciting citizens to rebel. I promptly told them that we were only sharing the Gospel and did not need permission from the government to do this because we had permission from God. This only infuriated them, and by the next Sunday, they had the owner of the building to kick us out for ‘breaking the sound ordinance.’ I am convinced this was just a setup.”
Before Manchu could say more, Lilly asked, “Why not register with the Three Self Patriotic Movement?”
“Simply because it is headed by the Communist Party and they control and restrict Three Party churches,” Manchu replied. “They twist the true teachings of Christianity and decide who can preach and what can be preached. For one, you cannot preach Jesus’ resurrection or His return. Neither can you give out Bibles. It would be easier for us if we submitted to their rule, but then we would serve no purpose over here. The Chinese people need the truth, just as everyone else does!”
Manchu sighed passionately.
Lilly nodded earnestly. “I see,” she said. “I totally agree.”
Manchu continued. “Anyway, after that week, Sarah, our members, and I decided to meet together at a local park and hold services. The police continued to harass us. They attacked us with batons at one point and threatened arrest. I feared for our congregants.”
“Yes!” Sarah interrupted. “The police even pushed their way into our house about three weeks ago. They confiscated our Bibles, and all our Christian literature, and my cross necklace!” She hit the sofa arm with her hand as she mentioned each item. “I wanted to fight them.”
Manchu put his arm around her as if to protect her from her own outrage.
“But our faith cannot be taken away,” he said calmly.