The news of the death Feb. 3 of Dr. Han Wenzao in Nanjing, China, caught my wife and me by surprise. Jody put her hand to her mouth, for it was like losing a member of the family. We paused to pray for his wife, Zhuo Zhaohua, who was by his side for six decades.
Han was as fine a Christian leader as my wife and I have ever met. The term “Christian statesman” fit Han Wenzao perfectly. We enjoyed the fellowship of the Hans both in their home and through our work with the China Christian Council, which he led for many years.
In 1953, when Jody and I felt God was leading us to China as missionaries, political realities made it impossible. We took the next-best assignment, that of Taiwan, the Republic of China, some 100 miles off the East China coast.
The mainland of China became the People’s Republic of China in 1949 under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. America broke relations with the PRC and recognized Taiwan as “China.” The Taiwan government and China proper remain to this day in an unresolved civil war. Though the two governments still do not recognize each other, they work well together in making money.
We were living in Hong Kong when the first opportunity to visit the China mainland came in 1982.
Communist China was opening to the West under the leadership of Chairman Deng Xiaoping.
In 1985 the Amity Printing Company was organized, with Han Wenzao in a leadership role. The United Bible Societies of the world made possible the publishing of the Bible and hymn books in China for the first time in more than 40 years.
At the same time the Amity Foundation began programs for foreigners to teach English and other languages in universities and institutes. Work in health care and rural development helped the Chinese to see that Christianity was good for their country. His efforts narrowed the gap between believers and the citizens who knew so little of Christianity.
The Communists had made a great deal of how Christianity entered China with the blessings of foreign governments, and how it had a part in the attempted dividing up of China, much as Africa had been treated by the European powers. Because of that, it has taken time for the truth and value of Christianity to be recognized by the people as a whole.
I met Han Wenzao the first time on a rainy February day in the Nanjing Theological Seminary. It was 1984, and after an exchange of letters arrangements were made for us to meet.
My purpose was to discuss the possibility of making a documentary film to tell the story of what Christians in China had been through and where they were at the moment. There were to be no foreigners in the film, only testimonies by laity and clergy.
The need for Christians around the world to learn first-hand these things drove me to see if the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention would back such a venture.
They were not as easy to convince as Han. As we talked for hours, he asked if I were a Baptist like Jimmy Carter or Jerry Falwell. Even then he knew the difference. I was the first Baptist he had met.
The FMB (now International Mission Board) made the film, “Winter is Past,” in 1985. Han’s brief appearance in the film revealed the kind of man of faith he was. He described how the people loved the Bible and how the faith of the re-opening churches was completely on biblical foundations.
Now, 20 years later, Amity has published more 40 million Bibles in China. (I have often said that Chinese Bible is the only thing made in China that Wal-Mart does not sell.)
In 1994, on one of my last visits to China, Han met my plane in Beijing and drove me to my hotel. As busy as he was with the People’s Consultative Conference going on at the time, he wanted to keep up with his friends. I admired his ecumenical spirit, and his many international trips opened the eyes of many that China was entering a new era in Christian history.
The healing between the Christians in Taiwan and the mainland was further strengthened when Samford University honored Han and a Taiwan colleague, Chow Lien-Hwa, with doctorates. That university should be proud of such an honor at a time when healing was needed between Taiwan and mainland China.
As Philip Wickeri, close friend of the Han family, wrote: “May they [the family] find comfort in knowing that he will be remembered all over the world, and that his work for China, for the Amity Foundation and for the Church will constitute his living legacy.”