A Terrifying Mission Trip to China

Posted on June 10, 2021

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By David Ettinger

Note: I wrote this story in 2009 and just came across it. I still find it to be an engrossing read.

Steve Whitaker, Headmaster at The First Academy (in Orlando, Florida), now admits that he wasn’t in all that much danger. But that’s in retrospect.

At the time of the incident — his interrogation by a squad of Chinese police and military personnel — he was a just-college-graduated 22-year-old American looking to have a little bit of fun while handing out Gospel tracts in China.

And one more thing to remember: this was June 1989, just following the infamous Tiananmen Square killings. The Tiananmen Square protests were a series of demonstrations led by labor activists, students, and intellectuals between April 15 and June 4. They ended in bloodshed when the Chinese government unleashed the military on them. The death count varied widely, with the government claiming 200 to 300 casualties, The New York Times reporting 300 to 800, and the Chinese Red Cross estimating 2,000 to 3,000. Regardless of the actual count, this is the China Steve flew into almost 20 years ago — and just two days following the Tiananmen tragedy.

“I was considering several possibilities of what to do with my life when a friend said to me, ‘Why don’t you go with us to China [as part of church mission outreach],’” Steve recalled.

The objective of the trip was to go to the cities of Xian and Chengdu and distribute 15,000 tracts mostly to university students, but also in hospitals, marketplaces, and other locations that people frequent in large numbers. The group of 10 Americans worked under the guise of teaching English. Despite their efforts to conceal their intentions, it was obvious why they were in China. After all, it’s hard for Americans — especially blond-haired Americans such as Steve — not to be conspicuous in China.

“From the moment we landed, the Chinese police were there to watch us deplane,” Steve said. “There were some anxious moments, but we moved pretty easily through customs. Our bags containing all our literature were never checked. But once we started moving around the city, we knew we were being watched.”

Because of that, Steve’s group went out in pairs only, hoping to draw as little attention to themselves as possible.

“One challenge to that was the head of our group,” Steve said. “His name was John and he was a real renegade. He both spoke and wrote Chinese, which was unusual. But he pushed all the limits. He was not afraid to get into a confrontational situation or engage a police officer in a discussion on who Jesus was. He was very bold and brash.”

But the same can’t be said for the rest of the group. In fact, besides handing out tracts, they engaged in normal tourist activities, fitting in as much sightseeing as they could. “Actually, we had a blast,” Steve said.

Which included conversing with Chinese students. “Besides the purpose we were there for, we also chatted and answered questions about America,” Steve said. “They are wonderful people and we had great interaction with them.”

But then things began to unravel, and in a hurry. Steve can’t quite recall the exact moment, but he believes the team was there for about four or five days when activities came to a sudden halt. “Things were beginning to get a little serious,” he said. “We knew the police were following us and that they were observing the [Gospel tract] drops we were making — especially at hotels,” he said. “In fact, I believe it was employees at the hotels that tipped the police off about us. We really think they searched our rooms while we were out. Because we were being followed, we ended up dumping our backpacks filled with literature.”

Caption: One of the tracts Steve saved from his 1989 trip to China.

But that was just the beginning. The next step was when a Chinese official asked the group’s leader, John, to follow him. “In the hotel we were staying in, they set up an interrogation room in one of the suites, complete with two video cameras, bright lights and about eight military officers and police,” Steve said. “Until that point, because we were so young, we didn’t really take it too seriously. But when John was hauled in, we began to take it very seriously. We got very concerned at that point.”

As the hours crept on, Steve and his roommates became more fearful. “I was scared to death,” he said. “One person from our group [other than John] was already arrested, and I didn’t see him again. Next came the situation with John. Things were no longer intriguing — they were serious.”

It was time to pray. “We said, ‘God give us wisdom; give us protection,” Steve said. “I knew that I’d eventually be going into that room to be interrogated. In fact, it got to a point where, while on my knees, I said, ‘Lord, if this is the way You want me to go [die], so be it.’ We really thought this could be the time to bid farewell to everyone we knew and loved.”

The situation didn’t get any better when John came into the room, collected his teammates’ passports and went back out. “Again, if you were to talk to some older, more experienced missionaries, they would tell you that this stuff was pretty normal,” Steve said. “But when you’re 22, what do you know? I really thought anything could happen.”

Eventually, Steve and a friend were called into the interrogation room. “I don’t recall what I said or why we had to go in there; I just remember that little tribunal,” he said. “It was scary. I said to myself, ‘I didn’t bargain for this.’ They wanted to know why we were there. I can’t remember what we said, but, at that point, there was no use trying to hide it.”

When at last it was over, word eventually came from the Chinese officials that Steve and his team of Americans were no longer welcome and that they were to leave the country the following morning. “Though it wasn’t the way we wanted to leave, it was definitely a relief,” Steve said. “We just hoped that the tracts we left planted seeds in the people of China who read them.”

So, though the scare was momentary — but intense — it was something that left an impression on Steve for years to come. “That event was a pivotal moment in my walk,” he said. “It was the first time I ever reached a point where I had to say, ‘I really don’t know what’s going to happen.’ There’s something about that that really makes you consider your faith a little more seriously. It was a humbling experience, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”