My first surreptitious baptism in China was in Canton in 1978. The idea of doing a baptism in the then very repressed communist country was against all the rules. But I did it anyway. It wasn't like I was being more rebellious or contrary than usual, but, rather, I had been asked to do it – not so much as a favor, but as an obligation.
At the time, Hong Kong missionaries like me were sneaking into China and smuggling all manner of religious materials into our "Brothers and sisters in Christ behind the bamboo curtain." This was the last whimper of the Cultural Revolution that had been going on since 1965. This was a time when all foreign sponsored evangelistic efforts in the Mainland had been quashed – at least as far as the outside world knew.
My wife and I, and many others of various religious persuasions, had been studying Chinese in Hong Kong "on faith" that God would "open the door" to China, so that we all could go in and resume the preaching of the Gospel where everyone had left off when we had all been so unceremoniously kicked out by the overtaking communists in 1949.
Well, I distinctly remember the day in Manila when I saw the headline in the newspaper: Mao Dead. A simple two word headline, but to me it didn't have to be anything more. I got the picture. "We are going to be in China very soon," I prophesied in the spirit. I was still given to such things at the time. That was 1976, and within two years of that time, I was walking on the grimy grubby streets of Canton, picking my way down dark narrow alleys with several Hong Kong friends and a flashlight, dodging mud puddles in the dark.
The believers had heard that a missionary from Hong Kong was in town – not just a Chinese Christian friend, but a real white Western, American "Mohk Sih." This was part of the amazing Chinese Christian grapevine so much touted in churches in the West. It was a real thing, I knew and I will admit. It was rather exciting to be slinking my way through the dark humid alleys that were completely devoid of any street lighting whatsoever. My mission was to baptize an elderly couple that had converted right after the Second World War.
The house was typical. It was near the end of a tiny muddy lane. It was of dull, colorless bricks partially covered over with equally gray, dingy plaster. Inside the place was the humble dwelling of Mr. and Mrs. Leung, a very elderly crippled couple seated in the midst of a collection of believers from "around the area." This vague description they gave me of the gatherers was specific enough, as it was still very illegal to have more than two or three visitors in a private home at a time. There was the standard uncovered 40 watt light bulb hanging by frayed wires from the center of the ceiling.
In the dim room we had an ad hoc church service without the trappings of formality of any kind. The Leungs talked of their lives. It was pretty grim, and though I had made several trips into China already at the time and heard many such tales, I felt really crushed and sad that these two little old people had once been young, strong, and hopeful. But their lives, like those of millions of other Chinese, had been destroyed by war, invasion, and revolution. They had spent their adult years faking their way under communism, pretending to be "true believers," but knowing full well that it was all a big lie. But, who could stand up to the liars? All had learned to just keep their heads down, to not draw undo attention to themselves. Of course, we all knew that even this meeting in their house was in the category of drawing attention. But they had taken my presence as a sign from on high that God wanted them to be baptized before either was to die. So, they felt it was a divine risk. "And besides," they said, "at this point, what can they really do to us that we haven't been through before?" And I knew that they were right.
I had struggled with the notion of doing a baptism without standing water. But I decided to just go with it, and let God sort it out in heaven when these two stood in judgment. As for me – was it my task to try to figure out how to find a pool, stream, or river, that were nonexistent? An open sewer, of which there were many, just seemed so gross.
I did the traditional prayer in Chinese, and carefully poured a small bit of water on each of their heads. And that was that. We very quietly sang the doxology. Then, there was a moment of unscripted silence. In a regular Pentecostal church I would expect someone to shout forth with a "message in tongues." (Like that would be a wise thing to do at the moment, given the circumstances.) But instead, Mrs. Leung quietly pointed to a picture of Jesus hanging on the wall. It was one of those ubiquitous Catholic prints with a beautiful, glowing Caucasian Jesus, complete with halo and flaming heart. I had seen it when I came in, and had just tried to ignore it. But then everybody was looking at it as she reverently said, while pointing to me, "Wah, ho‑chi Yeh‑So gam!" Just like Jesus! The beard did it every time.
Months later, I was talking to an American pastor from California who was visiting Hong Kong, eager to hear new stories of "the Lord's moving in China." I obliged with current stories and then mentioned the baptism story of the elderly couple (without mentioning the beard or the flaming heart of course). He seemed perplexed. "Well," he said sort of wistfully, "I see the problem. But I can't help but think that if it had been me, I would have tried harder to find a river or something."
I never mentioned that baptism again. I figured that word might get around in churches in the States that Tom was over there "sprinkling" instead of doing real proper baptisms. Of course, I felt a bit of a twinge of doubt whenever I had cause to think of it. The next time I was in Canton I happened to be walking on foot across the Pearl River Bridge. I stopped near one end and looked over the railing. The river was low, exposing wide mud flats on both banks. There, sticking out of the grayish, filthy, oily mud, and covered in raw sewage, was all manner of disgusting refuse. The broken bottles made the biggest impression on me of all. I tried to imagine if it would have been possible for us to carry those two old folks through the muck and mire and broken glass to immerse them in those fetid waters of the ill‑named Pearl River. Would that have been a real baptism? Did their home baptism really count? I guess I'll never know. It's up to God now.