Crammed with Heaven: Smuggling Bibles and the pervasive scent of Heaven

A monthly column in which Jenni Pretorius Hill shares stories of hope which bring Heaven’s perspective to Earth

On my first flight from London to Beijing, I didn’t sleep at all. It was an overnight journey, but my insomnia was not surprising since my thoughts were consumed with the contraband I would soon be taking through customs. In retrospect, I don’t know how I ended up on that flight, alone, without friends and fellow smugglers, on my very first excursion into communist China.

I had collected a box of Bibles from a Christian bookstore in ChinaTown in London, the week prior. These I stacked into my suitcase among the few items of clothing I would be wearing on repeat for the two weeks I would be away. The missions organisation my church was aligned with usually supplied us with Gospel tracts that our teams would take across the border, but this time they had requested Bibles, and it fell to me to take them. 

On arrival, I climbed a flight of steps towards a looming portrait of the benevolent-looking face of Chairman Mao, and immediately plunged into the cloud of unfamiliar scents that I soon discovered infuses every inch of that giant land. It’s a smell of brewed tea leaves, and a mix of aniseed and fennel and cloves and the spices that flavour just about every dish, and are breathed out of every pore. I recall this most of all, and the strangeness of it, and my lack of sleep, took me dazed through the security check as my laden-bag rolled over the belt and illuminated on a computer screen. I looked straight ahead, my heart recklessly loud in my chest, and prayed that the green-clad officer would not see what looked like wads of stacked bank notes. If he did, he didn’t care; he waved me through and I hefted my bag back onto my baggage cart.

Jenni Pretorius Hill on Tiananmen Square, Beijing on her first visit to China

My bag was light after I had delivered my cargo. I dropped the Bibles off at an apartment in Beijing that served as the base for the organisation we were helping. I don’t know where those Bibles ended up, but I know they changed lives. In the West, we are careless with printed words on a page. We take pamphlets and flyers for granted as they are poked through our windows at traffic lights and stuck under the wipers on our windscreens. Words are cheap. But in China, there is, (or at least there was at the time) a near reverence for the written word. Perhaps it’s because of the artistry of the script, and the skill required to master the characters. I also think books are treasured more highly now after the mass burning of precious literature, and texts during the Cultural Revolution. Whatever the reason, posting Gospel tracts under doors and through letterboxes in the middle of the night, was a very effective means of evangelism. Receiving a Bible would be the next step once a person had responded to the invitation in the tract. 

When students gathered for their fateful protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the area was bombed with Gospel tracts. Our friend who had been working in the organisation for years, told us that he and others had hurled tracts from car windows as they drove past. Perhaps there were lives saved that day because of the courage of these believers. As Christians we choose to live our lives by faith, believing that in a word, or action, or decision, we sow a seed that will one day birth a garden. Paul describes himself, in 1 Corinthians 3 v 6, as the one who sows the seed of the Gospel, but he attributes the watering, or the nurturing of the seed, to Apollos. We don’t always get to see the fruit of our faith but we can be confident that it is never wasted. Being part of the Body of Christ means we have a part to play – however small that may appear – and we cannot afford not to bring our offering to the altar.  

My sacrifice to take Bibles into China wasn’t overwhelming. It cost me money, sleep, and nerves, but for the most part, it was a wonderful adventure that I would do again in a heartbeat. There were other people who paid a much higher price to see people introduced to Jesus. I was once taken to a secret location, which was serving as a home and training base for young, female Chinese missionaries. These missionaries, I was told, had left their homes and families and were preparing to be sent out from China to take the Gospel back to Jerusalem, along the ancient Silk Road. Their journey would take them through countries where proselytising could cost them their lives, and part of their training was for that – preparation for martyrdom. They were no older than 15; and their shining faces, as they greeted me at the door, will be something I remember forever.

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Through you and I, God wants the knowledge of Himself, to pervade every part of our planet. Like the cloud of tea and spices that hangs over China, we carry a fragrance that distinguishes us from unbelievers. The fragrance of Jesus is different from what saturates our senses in this world. His is one of hope, and salvation, of peace and joy. 

When He is the feast from which we are nourished, we cannot help but exude His life and His fragrance from our every pore. There is no burdensome effort on our part, no striving or anxiety to be His witness; because we are so infused with Him, it becomes a matter of simply breathing out His breath upon our world.

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