By Emily Bontrager
Esther’s father was arrested by Chinese authorities on November 16, 2013.
“It was a Saturday,” Esther said. “My dad was just going to the church for work, like normal. The government came in and arrested him without any papers. We lost him for two months. We didn’t know where he was or what happened.”
House Churches and Government Approved Churches
According to Open Doors USA, there are around 97 million Christians in China, with more possibly in the underground church. Esther’s father had been a pastor at a church in the Chinese province of Henan since 1998. Their church had grown considerably between then and 2013, hosting around 8,000 members with 46 home churches that met in connection with their church.
Home churches, which are usually small congregations that worship together in a house, in China are illegal. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) closely regulates churches, requiring that churches register with the government to be considered “legal.” Registering with the government gives the CCP control over what a church teaches and how it functions. The CCP’s “Administrative Measures for Religious Groups” sets guidelines for registered churches about what values they can teach, who they can hire as pastors, and how they can spend their money. Some registered churches believe the government is god. Home churches are unregistered with the government and therefore are illegal and often raided by authorities. However, home churches have more freedom to preach the true Gospel. Because of this freedom, quickly growing house churches are a threat to the CCP’s control. According to ChinaAid, 100% of house churches experienced some form of persecution in 2020.
“Anywhere they can see Christians growing faster, the government wants to control [the church],” Esther said. “They worship the government, then Jesus. [The government] doesn’t think that’s a problem, so they get to stay.”
The church where Esther’s father was a pastor began as a home church, hosting about 20-30 people at first.
“The government didn’t want us to grow fast,” Esther said. “They wanted us to sign government papers for a permit for our church.”
In signing the papers, Esther’s fast-growing church agreed to the government’s regulations, but they did not abandon Biblical truth. Esther’s father made it a point to always preach the true Jesus Christ.
“We became a government church only because we were growing from a home church and we wanted a place [to worship.] The government was trying to control the church and my dad was the only pastor. He didn’t agree [with the government], so he still taught the Bible every Sunday morning. We wanted to follow Jesus, not the government. We wanted to tell [others] about Jesus. We just wanted to talk about the real Jesus. The government hates that.”
Her Father’s Arrest: “I work for Jesus first.”
On November 16, 2013, government officials arrested Esther’s father and 36 other church employees without papers or an explanation. For the first two months, Esther and her family heard nothing about her father’s whereabouts. In the coming months, the 36 church employees who had been arrested with her father were released. He, however, received a 12-year prison sentence.
Esther’s father knew the risk of continuing to preach the true Gospel. Getting arrested was never out of the realm of possibility, and to a degree, it was inevitable. A 2019 report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom stated that “more than 5,000 Christians and 1,000 church leaders were arrested in 2018 because of their faith or religious practices.”
Esther reflected on this and said, “Before they came for my dad, my dad said ‘You should remember, I work for Jesus first. Then second is family–I’m your dad, I’m a father, I’m a husband, I’m a son. But the important thing is that I belong to God. I need to use my life and my energy to work for Jesus. Any day they catch me, please don’t feel sorry, don’t cry. I’m working for Jesus, I know what I’m doing.’ So when they caught him, he was not surprised. They must have been coming one day.”
Esther’s Arrest: “Stop being a Christian.”
The court date for her father’s trial was quickly approaching, and Esther was coordinating with ChinaAid to spread the news about her father’s arrest and his upcoming trial in the United States.
“The first day after they caught my dad, ChinaAid was already sending news to the U.S. Only because my dad had a court date coming and they didn’t want me to tell the truth. I was trying to tell the truth and make news, trying to let everybody know how they gave my dad his court date. So they arrested me and put me in prison for seven days.”
Esther was arrested by CCP authorities. Both she and her 13-month-old daughter were taken to a prison concealed on the first floor of a hotel.
“We could hear the customers leaving the hotel. You don’t know which hotels have prisons in China,” said Esther.
She described her cell: “My daughter was only 13 months. She could not talk yet. I was still breastfeeding her. They had eight people around me. In the same small room, there were five ladies. In the other room, three men. The whole room had four cameras to cover everywhere, to watch me. The worst thing was when I would go use the restroom and shower, they [would] all watch me. That was the worst time in my life.
The five ladies who watched me, they came from the government. They would talk with me. I think they had to do their job. They said, ‘Stop being a Christian. See your Lord never save your life. If your Lord is working, just let your God bring you out of this prison. See! Your God didn’t do anything for you.’ They were trying to make me give up my religion. But I never hated them. I prayed for them, saying ‘God they don’t know what they’re doing.’ I never felt like I was scared and wanted to give up my religion. But I still really prayed for the government. They don’t know God. They don’t even know what they’re doing. I still continue to pray for them.”
What comforted Esther in prison was the Bible she had hidden in her daughter’s diaper bag. She read her Bible everyday.
“I was only made to live there for seven days, but I made a Bible reading plan for half a year. I started in Job,” Esther said. “I remember I was reading Job 11 and crying and crying and crying. And I said, ‘I am in prison but You said You want my heart to be happy and my troubles will pass away like water.’ So I’m crying there with my baby next to me, and I’m trying my best to stay with her. I prayed for her. I know God stayed with me. I never felt as close with God [as I did in prison].”
Escaping China: “If it’s God’s plan, nobody can stop it.”
After seven days, Esther was released from prison, but quickly found that living in China and supporting her daughter would be near impossible. The authorities had seized her car and frozen her bank account.
In a phone call to Bob Fu, president of ChinaAid, Esther asked if it was possible to come to the United States. Bob Fu agreed to help. They got visas from the U.S. embassy in China, and Esther tried to fly from Beijing to California.
“But at the airport, they stopped me,” Esther said. “When I took out my passport, there were so many police officers around me. They said, ‘I can die in China, but there’s no way to leave the country.’”
Unable to fly out of China, Esther made a second phone call to Bob Fu: “I told him, ‘They stopped me at the airport. What should I do?’ He said, ‘Okay, we’ll do plan B.’ He said, ‘Friday, make sure you’re in Jinghong’ (a city in southern China near the border). I went back [home] for four hours and packed three bags, took a shower, and changed clothes.”
In Southern China, Esther stopped a bus on the highway. She couldn’t purchase bus tickets because her ID would alert the government that she was fleeing the country. Esther’s only option was to stop a bus. The bus driver let her board, remarking that the bus had been fully booked the whole year and that only on that particular day did he have three available seats. Any other day she wouldn’t have been allowed on the bus.
“If it’s God’s plan, nobody can stop it,” Esther said.
With her daughter, Esther rode the bus from Jinghong across the Chinese border to Laos. From Laos they took the bus to Thailand, from Thailand to Malaysia, from Malaysia back to Thailand, and from Thailand they flew to Japan. From Japan, Esther flew to the United States.
On July 14, 2014 Esther reached the United States after 15 days of travel.
The White Pill: “It’s making him crazy.”
Now in the United States, Esther receives updates from her family about how her father is doing in prison.
“Before COVID,” she said, “we could go see him every month for 30 minutes. During COVID, he was allowed to call us for six minutes each month. But since last year, in November , we totally lost contact with him. The government mailed us a letter saying they moved him to a new prison in Zhengzhou, the capital city of our province. My aunts went there, trying to see him. But they didn’t allow it. After he was moved to the new prison, he never called us.”
Even before Esther’s family lost contact with her father, Esther recounted that he was beginning to act strange. The former pastor was becoming angry, confused, and unable to remember people from his life outside prison.
“My mom was trying to tell him something about our neighbors, but he said he cannot remember them,” Esther said.
“My whole family feels like my dad has changed a lot. He was telling us he has medicine everyday–it’s a white pill. Before my dad was in prison, he was very healthy–no problems with him. Now he says he has high blood pressure and the medicine is to help. But we don’t think he has high blood pressure. If he doesn’t take the white pill, he feels so bad. We think maybe that white pill isn’t medicine. It’s making him crazy.
Other people, who are Christian lawyers in prison, say they’re giving them the same medicine. They all say it’s a white pill. Without the medicine, they have headaches. They are also getting crazy and cannot remember anything. We’re still trying to find out what the white pill is. But there’s no way to find out.”
Esther and her father are just two out of many Christians in China who are being persecuted and imprisoned for refusing to concede their faith to the government.
“My dad was not the first pastor to be put into prison and he’s not the last one either. Before my dad, many pastors were in prison. After my dad too,” Esther said.
“I’m praying that God will have me do whatever He wants me to do. That anybody who hears my story will be led to think ‘What’s God’s plan in their Christian life? Why do we have freedom in the U.S.? Why is there no freedom [in China]? Why are Christians different?’ That’s why I’m telling my story.
Before when I would tell my story, I’d say ‘Hey pray for my dad, pray for everybody to have freedom.’ Now I think [physical] freedom is not that important. Freedom from lies is more important now.”
Her father’s 12-year sentence will end in 2025.