With backpacks and books in hand, a group of Chinese university students head to the basement of a small church in Göttingen, Germany. They gather around a buffet table outside the kitchen, lined with ornate rice bowls and authentic wooden chopsticks. But the familiar scents of steamed rice and savoury stews are what really grab their attention. It’s time to eat. Pastor John Chan says grace for the meal in Mandarin. His wife, Ruth, gingerly skirts the table one last time. Satisfied with the spread, she then encourages the students to fill their bowls before Bible study begins.
“John always says I sound like a mom,” says Ruth. For more than eight years, the couple lived in Germany serving as Team Leaders of Chinese Ministries for CBM, meeting the needs of newcomer students from China. While John and Ruth don’t have children of their own, the students would affectionately call them their “parents in Germany”.
In 2009, the Chans partnered with CBM and a German mission organization to establish an outreach for Chinese university students arriving in Germany. The Chans approached CBM with the idea after participating in a short-term mission trip to the Czech Republic. “At the end of the trip, I felt a sense that Europe was going to be my ministry ground,” says John. “But I didn’t know why.”
Shortly after the mission trip, when the Chans went to visit a friend in Germany, the picture became clearer. They noticed a high population of Chinese students living in various cities. “It’s very simple,” explains John. “In Germany, the university education is free.”
Every year, thousands of students leave China to study abroad. In 2015, more than 523,000 students travelled to foreign countries to obtain an education, according to the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. During the first few years of their ministry, the Chans went from holding services in one city to four. “It was a little bit crazy,” John remembers. Today, a robust team now serves the needs of the burgeoning Chinese student population in Germany.
Many of the students who arrive in Germany come from poor families in China. Although their education is free, they often struggle to pay for their living expenses. Through flyers and online ads, the Chans offered Chinese students free cookware, counselling, and support with medical and legal services. They also invited students to attend their weekly Bible studies and church services.
“In China, it’s a communist state. So everybody grew up, including myself, being instilled with atheist thinking. We don’t believe there is a God; we have no religion,” explains John, who came to faith in Christ after immigrating to Canada in 1982. “So for most Chinese students, they come in contact with Christianity once they come to Germany.”
Xiaohua*, then a 19-year-old from mainland China, was one of the first students to attend Bible studies with the Chans. Like many of the new students arriving in Germany, he was lonely and needed a sense of community. Xiaohua also knew he could count on getting a free meal at every meeting.
“In Germany, it’s very difficult to get an authentic Chinese dish,” says Ruth, who would organize the weekly meal preparation, typically for 30 to 50 students. “Some students say that they come to Bible study because of the meal and that’s the best meal that they have for the week. It’s simple, but it’s authentic – just like you’re having dinner at home.”
Ruth found the best time to get students to open up would be in the kitchen. “Food is more neutral, especially for those students who haven’t had any connection to Christianity or church,” says Ruth. While chopping carrots and stirring meat in large stainless steel pots, Ruth would build strong relationships with many of the students gathering in the kitchen. This foundation of trust would often serve as a bridge to sharing the gospel.
“People don’t care what you say until they know how much you care,” says John.
Although China announced an end to its one-child policy last year, there is still a generation of students that come from single-child households. As a result, many students feel a sense of responsibility to succeed, especially if they come from poor families. These students are often the only hope of lifting their family out of poverty. “Foreign-educated young professionals are always in huge demand in China,” says John.
This pressure – coupled with the challenge of learning a new language and living miles away from home – makes the first year in Germany the most challenging. Some students suffer with depression and turn to substance abuse or casual romantic relationships for comfort.
“Our vision has always been to reach out to a new generation of these young intellectuals from China – to let them know what it means that God loves them,” says John.
In Xiaohua’s first year in Germany, he got drunk one night and found himself in trouble with the law. He turned to the Chans for help. After walking him through the legal process, Xiaohua was able to get his life back on track. A few months later, he expressed a desire to become a Christian.
“We don’t do ‘hard-sell evangelism’,” explains John. “But we do evangelism.” In the last eight years, more than 130 Chinese students came to faith in Christ and 88 of them were baptized in Germany.
“I believe what the Bible teaches about community and love,” says John. “That is something that people long for.”
While some students choose to stay in Germany after graduation, many of them return to China to secure lucrative jobs. In fact, the gap between the number of Chinese students studying abroad and that of those coming back has narrowed in recent years, says information from the State Council of the People’s Republic of China.
“Whether the students stay in Germany or go back to China, we hope that they will share their faith journey with their family and friends,” says John, who recently joined CBM’s Canadian office as the new Director of International Partnerships.
Although the Chans have returned to Canada, they are confident that the work they started in Germany will continue to thrive. With a full team of staff remaining, students receive follow-up calls and visits when they return home to China. In his new role, John is also in a better position to make strategic plans for the work in Germany.
Now 27 years old, Xiaohua is scheduled to graduate this year with a master’s degree in economics. He plans to get married and wants to become a pastor. Although he is uncertain whether he will stay in Germany or return to China, he is determined to share his Christian witness wherever he goes.
During their time in Germany, the Chans have watched Chinese students like Xiaohua succeed in their studies, grow in their Christian faith, and even start families of their own. “Now I have grandchildren, too,” Ruth says with a smile.
*The name of this student has been changed.