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PrologueYang Zhen-Li was nearing thirty but at times felt twice that old. Her back was becoming permanently bent forward from the heavy pails she carried daily, one attached on each end of the thick bamboo rod that stretched across her shoulders, mirroring the heaviness of her heart. There had been a time when she’d been acclaimed as a beauty, but she could scarcely remember why…or imagine that it would matter.
She tried to fight the encroaching darkness, tried to hold fast to what she knew was true, but the constant lies and propaganda were taking a greater toll even than the physical labor and abuse or the burning, gnawing hunger. If her situation didn’t change soon, she knew she would never live long enough to see her husband or son again. And with nearly eight years of her ten-year sentence left to serve, the possibilities of her emerging from prison alive grew dimmer by the day.
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. She forced herself to focus on one of the many scripture verses she’d had opportunity to memorize between the time she accepted Zhu Yesu as her Savior and her arrest by members of the Public Security Bureau (PSB) on charges of teaching religion to children, including giving them papers containing religious writings. Even before her arrest, her parents had written to her—warned her, begged her, threatened her—and finally had her kidnapped in an attempt to convince her to go along with the government rules, especially the one limiting each family to one child. After all, she already had a healthy son. Why would she want another baby when they could scarcely afford to feed the first one? But though her abductors had forcibly aborted her second child, they had not succeeded in convincing Yang Zhen-Li to abandon the faith she had adopted before marrying her Christian husband. If anything, the ordeal had only strengthened her resolve to take a stand for the meaning of her name—Zhen-Li, “Truth,”—and spurred her to begin actively sharing the Good News of Yesu every chance she got. As a trained teacher, that quite naturally included talking with children about the gospel, a practice expressly forbidden by the government.
And now she was paying the price. Separated from her family and sentenced to ten years of hard labor and “re-education,” Zhen-Li struggled to survive against pain, exhaustion, and bitter loneliness. Worst of all were the times she felt God had abandoned her. It wasn’t enough to know in her mind that He promised never to leave or forsake her. She needed a visible reminder—soon—if she was to continue to remain faithful behind these prison walls.
Zhou Chi, affectionately known by fellow members of their modest house church as Brother Zhou, struggled within himself each time he left his four-year-old son, Zhou Chan, with his older sister, Zhou Ming. Yet he was grateful for her loving care of the boy. Chi had no choice but to go to work in the fields and try to earn enough money each day to feed himself, his sister, and his only child, but it had been so much easier when Yang Zhen-Li was still there to run the tiny household.
Yang Zhen-Li. Chi’s heart squeezed with pain as he mounted his beat-up bicycle with the bent frame and nearly tireless rims to make his way to the nearby farm where he had found temporary employment. Though the morning light was just beginning to pierce the darkness, Chi had been up for more than an hour, praying for his family, particularly his beloved wife who was enduring the unimaginable for her faith. How he continued to beg Yesu to allow him to take her place in the prison camp, but God had not granted his petition. And why should He? Chi knew he had not been a faithful follower of Yesu, though he’d had the privilege of being raised in a Christian home. His halfhearted, lukewarm acceptance of his parents’ faith had broken their heart, though they had been encouraged when their soon-to-be daughter-in-law, Yang Zhen-Li, joined their Christian faith so she and Zhou Chi could establish a godly home of their own. But Chi had continued in his mediocre commitment, careful to maintain a low profile and not arouse the suspicions of the government. He would even have been willing to register as a member of the state-approved TSPM—Three-Self Patriotic Movement—the only Christian churches approved by the government. But Zhen-Li had resisted, convincing him to remain in their little house church, though it was technically illegal to do so. Now, his faithful wife behind bars, the brokenhearted husband and father, who wished only to trade places with his beloved Zhen-Li, instead continued to labor in the fields and to care for his son as best he could, even as he pleaded with God to protect Zhen-Li long enough for her to return to them.
His sister’s arrival on the scene, just days after Zhen-Li’s arrest, had compounded Chi’s pain but had also eased his concern over what to do with little Chan during the workday, particularly now that Chi’s parents were no longer alive. Chi had despaired over how to care for Chan, and then Zhou Ming’s husband had been caught in the melee of a raid on a nearby house church and accidentally killed. The terrified widow had fled to her brother’s home, not knowing that he too had just suffered a tragedy of his own. And so the two siblings had banded together to help raise Zhou Chan as best they could, even as they prayed fervently for Zhen-Li’s release.
Bumping down the muddy, rutted road, Zhou Chi continued to pray as he tried to ignore the rumbling in his stomach. As a peasant farm worker, Chi was among the poorest of the poor, and as such, there was often not enough food to go around. That had been the case this morning, and so Chi had left what little there was for his sister and little Chan. God would just have to give him the strength to do his work so at the end of the day he could bring home sufficient food for an evening meal for all three of them.
Julia hoisted herself to her feet, thankful for the added support of her familiar walker. She felt rested and refreshed after her afternoon nap, brief though it had been, since she’d spent most of the time in prayer. The routine at the senior home had become second nature to her during the five years she’d lived there, and she looked forward to the quiet time in her room each day following the noon meal. Though a couple of the home’s ten residents refused to go to their rooms to take naps, Julia had heard from the caretakers that those who stubbornly stayed in the family room after lunch nearly always fell asleep in their chairs.
Julia smiled. Not only did she not mind the solitude of her room in the early afternoons, she rather looked forward to it. It gave her a chance to recharge her physical batteries for the rest of day, and it also gave her the peace and quiet she needed to spend time alone with God. Though she had once considered herself a morning person who always had her prayer and Bible study before breakfast, her routine had changed drastically when she broke her hip nearly six years earlier. Until then she’d had no problem living alone, though she had often wondered if the old two-story clapboard home she and Joe had bought soon after they were married was a lot more house than one old lady needed. Still, the extra room had been nice when the children and grandchildren came to visit.
The thought of Joe and her former life turned her mood melancholy, as it always did. Her beloved husband had been dead for nearly twenty years now, killed in a car accident just when he and Julia thought they were finally going to be able to enjoy their retirement years together and possibly make that long dreamed-of missions trip to China. Now even the dreams of traveling together had long since faded away, while the memory of Joe’s face or the sound of his name flitting through her mind continued to bring back the pain of his death as if it had been yesterday.
Sighing, she pulled herself back from the edge of depression that always seemed to beckon at the reminder of Joe and the life they’d once shared. Instead of allowing herself to peek over the side and risk falling off into an abyss of sadness, she consciously switched her focus to the many undeserved blessings God had given her over the years. Though her marriage to Joe had been cut short by the accident, they’d shared more than forty years of being lovers and best friends, raising four children in their small, pleasant California beach town of Carpinteria and having the joy of seeing all of them make the choice to serve God in their individual lives as well as in their own families. It was more than many people ever experienced or could hope for, so how could she dare feel cheated because she had to live her final years on earth alone?
Her smile was back, as she glanced in the mirror above her dressing table. “You silly old woman,” she said aloud. “Have you ever really been alone? Of course not! God is your Husband now, and He’s never left you, not even for a moment. Your kids and grandkids visit when they can, and you’ve got this new family here at River View Manor —wonderful cooks and caretakers, a dear prayer partner, and a whole crowd of lost souls who need Jesus.” She laughed and shook her head. “What a mission field! You’ve got your work cut out for you, Julia Crockett! And from the looks of some of those old folks out there, you haven’t much time to get it done. So what are you doing standing here, talking to yourself? Let’s get busy!”
With another chuckle, Julia pushed her walker toward her private bathroom a few steps across the room. There was just enough time to wash her face and pat a few short gray curls into place before heading out to greet her fellow residents and see what God had in store for her this afternoon.
The guard named Tai Tong was only in his late twenties, but his dedication to the party and efficiency at carrying out his orders had quickly gained the approval of his superiors, practically assuring him of a successful career with multiple promotions. His rock-hard muscles and persuasive tactics hadn’t hurt either. Most of the prisoners, and even many of the other guards, feared him. Even his wife and son cowered when he entered the room, though they obeyed him without question.
Tong smiled at the thought. Respect was important to him, even more than to most Chinese. He would rather die a slow and agonizing death than to be publicly shamed. And so he followed every rule, excelled at every undertaking, and tolerated nothing less than complete compliance from those beneath him—whether prisoner or family member. It was a lifestyle that had served him well so far, and he saw no reason to change it. Compromise was simply not an option. If anyone under his authority failed to grasp that fact, he would do whatever was necessary to re-educate them.
The prisoner named Yang Zhen-Li seemed poised to become his next student. He had heard that despite their efforts to punish her crimes and correct her thinking, she continued to pray and to speak of Yesu to any who would listen, including the prisoner who had told Tong of Zhen-Li’s indiscretion. As a result, Tong would watch Yang Zhen-Li more closely than the others. If the report was true, she would pay dearly.
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