Crystal Houston, venturing to Asia from Munord Baptist Church in Atoka, Tenn., nudges closer and closer until she's in their walking path. She holds up a red packet filled with a Mandarin Bible and Christian literature. At first, everyone walks past her. She scoots closer to the bus until, finally, a woman reaches out and takes the packet. When she realizes it's a Bible, the Chinese woman bows and thanks her.
"Wow! That's exciting," Houston says, noting that she probably has four or five Bibles of her own but this Chinese woman probably had none. "Handing out that first Bible just makes you want to keep doing it. Let's get to work!"
More than 50 volunteers from six states and two countries are handing out Bibles this week through the Chinese Bible distribution ministry in Asia called Southern Cross Project. Their volunteer efforts are part of a special emphasis surrounding the two-week Chinese New Year celebrations. Chinese New Year is Thursday, Feb. 3. (Follow their work on the live blog www.mreport.org until Feb. 8.)
FIRST NIGHT FULL OF SURPRISES
More than 500 Bibles were given out the first night, Jan. 29, of the Southern Cross distribution. The current Bible count stands at more than 2,000.
Michael Berkley's heart broke when a young Chinese woman tried to get a Bible, but an older woman jerked her arm away. The pastor of Victory Baptist Church in Henning, Tenn., says the woman came back to him but another person pushed her away.
"Her face will be etched in my brain for a long time," Berkley said. "She wanted a Bible, but no one would let her take one. I'm praying she'll be able to get a Bible at one of the other Southern Cross distribution sites."
Across town, Chinese tourists exit dinner boats and pass the distribution spot. One Chinese man stops to talk to Lily Wang*, a Chinese woman volunteering alongside the Americans. Wang falls in step with him as a tour guide ushers him back into the line to the waiting bus.
"I've been reading the Bible for 15 years," the man says. "I want to be baptized, but I'm a sinner."
Wang explains that Jesus died for his sins. He immediately asks to pray, receiving Jesus in his heart. The entire interaction happens in the few minutes between walking from the boat to the bus. As the man's bus pulls out, he presses against the window and waves to the volunteers.
Then, he declares, "I'm finally ready to be baptized."
WORKING THE WAREHOUSE
Stacks of books and Christian tracts piled high on the table wobble as Paul Cox leans over to greet a fellow Southern Cross Project volunteer. They lament over how the warehouse is the "boring" job on this trip but quickly add that it is one of the most important.
Without someone manually stuffing the Bible packets with Mandarin Bibles, the "JESUS" film, various Christian tracts and CDs, there would be nothing to hand out at the distribution sites. Everything piled on the table eventually ends up in a small red bag and put in a box. Each box holds 25 packets.
Cox, from Memorial Baptist Church in Pulaski, Va., and a four-time cancer survivor, has stuffed so many envelopes in six years of volunteering with the Southern Cross outreach that he's lost count. His hands go easily through the motions, picking up and stuffing the small red bags while he shares stories with first-time volunteers.
Cox retired 16 years ago and immediately started on his current career -- volunteer missions. He's traveled all over the world with his wife Jolene. They spend six weeks each year in Southeast Asia working with Southern Cross. Cox fills the time at the warehouse by relating some of their favorite stories to first-time workers and reminiscing with returning volunteers.
"One time, a Chinese lady came running up with a smile. She didn't want a Bible, which surprised me," Cox recounts, pausing to draw out the suspense. "She wanted the Jesus film DVD!
"She'd worn out her old DVD because she had shown it so many times," he says, holding up the DVD in his hand. "Can you imagine showing it so many times that it's worn out? Well, I loaded her right up with several of those Jesus film DVDs."
Cox goes back to stuffing tracts in a red bag and then encourages everyone to pray over the packets as they stuff: Every piece of material in the bag is important -- someone could read it and come to know Christ.
VOLUNTEERS MAKE IMPACT
Sible Tharp offers a Bible and packet of discipleship materials to Chinese tourists as they pass. Her husband William stands beside her, holding a bright red sign inviting tourists to take the free gift.
Sible and William are longtime Southern Cross volunteers from First Baptist Church in Las Cruces, N.M. They arrived in Southeast Asia a week and a half before the short-term volunteer teams came. The Tharps will stay a few weeks after the others leave to wrap up the distribution work. It's their fourth year giving Bibles and their enthusiasm is written all over their faces.
Sible smiles at the crowds passing by and watches for people she's already given a Bible to at other distribution points around town. As some pass and recognize her, she smiles broadly to encourage them. They smile and wave to her. She grins back.
A young boy, holding his father's hand, waves shyly.
"I gave him a Bible yesterday," Sible says. "He got off the bus to check into the hotel with his parents. They didn't want him to take it for a moment, but then he convinced them to let him take one of the packets. When they came out of the hotel later from checking in, he was still carrying that Bible. He didn't want to leave it in the hotel room."
As crowds pass, Sible and William offer more and more Bibles. Some accept them; others refuse. Others run back to receive the Bible after seeing other tourists get one. Crowds ebb and flow, going from bus to restaurant, restaurant to bus, passing by the volunteers along the way.
More packets are staged and ready to be handed out. At the moment, the walkway is clear, with no tourists passing through. Soon, however, more will come -- and the volunteers are ready and waiting.
SISTERHOOD AROUND THE WORLD
A college-aged Chinese woman runs from the tour bus holding out her stone cross necklace for all to see. She stops breathless in front of two young Tennessee women, pointing excitedly to the cross and then to herself.
As she conveys to the Southern Cross volunteers that she shares a special bond with them, more young Chinese girls crowd into the huddle.
"Jesus loves me! Jesus loves me!" the Chinese women repeat as tears fill their eyes.
Deborah Stiles and Laura Yates look shocked at the outburst, hardly believing their ears. It's their first time on a Southern Cross trip and these Chinese women are the first to want Bibles from them.
Quickly recovering, the Tennessee women smile and give their Chinese "sisters in Christ" a hug before handing them a Mandarin Bible packet, their own eyes welling with tears. Never in their wildest dreams did they expect distributing Bibles to be so exciting and emotional.
One of the Chinese women explains that the excitement started when she saw the sign from the bus window. Her heart jumped with joy. All she could think about was getting to those Bibles and talking to her fellow Christians.
"Seeing you standing here giving out Bibles was the most wonderful feeling," the Chinese woman shares through a Taiwanese volunteer translator. "We are so happy to see you giving Bibles to people who need them. Chinese people need Bibles. people need Bibles. All people need Bibles."
Reported by communications staff in Asia. The Chinese New Year's Southern Cross Project will continue on a live blog post at www.mreport.org until Feb. 8. You can join six volunteer teams as they pray and distribute packets of Christian literature. To learn how to get involved, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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