The News & Record (Piedmont
Triad, NC); 2/8/2004; Steadman, Tom

Byline: TOM STEADMAN Staff Writer

GREENSBORO — Stephen Townsend heard the knock
on the door and knew it meant trouble.

“Uh-oh,” he thought to himself. “We’ve been busted.”

Townsend, 29, and his wife, Kari, 28, had spent
five years in mainland China, ostensibly teaching English while
covertly working as missionaries helping to organize an illegal
Christian church. They had ignored warnings from police to stop
meeting in homes with Chinese nationals.

“We didn’t stop,” Stephen Townsend said. “We felt
God had sent us there for a reason.”

With 60 people gathered for a surreptitious religious
workshop in an isolated schoolroom in a major city in southeast
China, dozens of police officers burst into the room, halting
the meeting and detaining a handful of foreigners, including
the Townsends.

“I was shocked and scared,” said Kari Townsend,
a Greensboro native and, like her husband, a UNC-Chapel Hill
graduate. She was seven months pregnant and had left their 2-year-old
son, Josiah, at their apartment with a baby sitter.

“I knew we were going to be questioned,” she said.
“I was worried about the answers I would give.”

The Townsends were taken to an administration
building, placed in separate rooms and interrogated for hours.
On the way, they saw that scores of militia had surrounded their

“They wanted to know who had arranged the meeting
and what organization we were with,” Stephen Townsend said.

In return, both Townsends tried to offer as little
information as possible.

“They said, ‘You’re lying,”‘ Stephen Townsend

The questioning continued.

Kari Townsend was accompanied back to the apartment
to retrieve their passports. They were taken to an immigration
office and had their visas canceled. Finally, it became apparent
they would be deported. Nine hours later, they were allowed
to go home. The family had five days to get out of China.

“I think the punishment had been determined before
they came,” Stephen Townsend said.

The Townsends arrived back in Greensboro on Halloween,
greeted by the surreal sight of costumed trick-or-treaters as
they pulled into The Cardinal subdivision after long flights
from China to Hong Kong, Chicago and, finally, Greensboro.

“We were definitely sad to leave,” Stephen Townsend
said. “But the church we helped start is still going strong.
The people we were priming are now leading the program and cell
groups that encourage the whole church.”

Nearly 200 people attend the secret church, he
said. But members in China are so fearful of government repression
that Townsend won’t go public with either the church’s name
or the city in which it is located.

Deportations of foreign missionaries are hardly
uncommon in China, where the communist government allows worship
only in government-monitored churches, temples and mosques.
But tens of millions of believers belong to unauthorized “house”
churches, whose clergy and members often are harassed and detained.
Government officials seem worried that such churches could help
rally opposition to communist rule.

“We’re praying and believing that China will get
a vision of true Christianity,” said Wayne Graham, a leader
in the China ministry of King’s Park International Church, a
multi-ethnic Durham congregation that sponsored the Townsends’
work in China.

King’s Park sponsors about 20 missionaries in
10 foreign countries, Graham said. But in China, nearly all
of the work must be done underground.

“Despite what the government says, men and women
are still being tortured, imprisoned and being put into forced
labor, and their only crime is the practice of Christianity,”
Graham said. “That’s not freedom of religion in any sense that
we know it.”

It was their zeal for mission work that brought
Stephen Townsend and Kari Towery together at UNC-CH. Stephen
was a sophomore from Banner Elk and Kari a freshman from Greensboro
when they met in 1994 through their involvement in the Campus
Crusade for Christ.

He majored in public policy, specializing in economic
development of Third World nations. She was an English major.
Both wanted to be missionaries.

“It was the only thing we had in common,” Stephen
Townsend said.

Soon, they were laying plans for mission work.
“But we always thought it would be in Africa, living in a hut,”
he said. “We never thought about China.”

Then, before her senior year at UNC, Kari Towery
joined a group of students visiting China to study language
and serve as an unofficial outreach group.

“I fell in love with it,” she said. “The people
were so precious.”

When she returned, Kari and Stephen changed their
plans; they felt led to do their work in China.

They were married in July 1997; a year later,
they left for China, armed with jobs as teachers in an English-language
training school and a zeal for sowing Christianity.

In China, they struggled to learn the language
and adapt to a new culture. They weathered the SARS epidemic
and depended on computers and

e-mail to stay in touch with family and friends
in America.

They taught English at a school, which like many
others was mainly a front for Christian missionaries seeking
to enter China to help foster the underground church movement.

Recruiting church members was easy, they said.
They focused on school campuses, where they found a ready audience.

“Students are particularly open to it,” Kari Townsend
said. “Their grandparents were Buddhists, which they found out
didn’t work, and their parents grew up under the communist system,
which also didn’t work. They’re open to something else.”

Just being American was enough to draw the attention
of many students.

“In a half-hour on campus, you could have 30 to
50 contacts,” Stephen Townsend said. “They’re very interested
in America and anything American. People want to come up and
practice their English on you.”

The couple got most of their news from English-language
TV stations broadcasting from Hong Kong. That’s how they learned
about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In China, it was
9 p.m.

The news was stunning, they said. But the TV reports
couldn’t convey the emotional jolt felt throughout America.

“I felt removed from it,” said Kari, who was pregnant
at the time. Still, she remembers that night as a sleepless

The Townsends loved the local food, learned the
language, used public transit and enjoyed visits into the countryside.
They also attracted the attention of local police, who twice
broke up underground church meetings they were holding. They
warned the Townsends they were breaking Chinese law.

Back in Greensboro, Kari’s mother, Carol Towery,
had the usual motherly concerns but said she felt her daughter
would be safe.

“I realized their calling and what they had been
called to do,” she said. “Actually, I didn’t have many problems
trusting in that area.”

Towery is familiar with missionary work; in recent
years she has assisted with medical missions in Central America
and has visited China on several occasions, doing what she could
to help foster that country’s system of underground Christian

“I’ve been to China four or five times, staying
up to three months, instructing and discipling leaders of the
underground church,” she said. “I’m for it 100 percent.”

Towery – whose other daughter, Jill, works as
a Christian psychologist in Virginia Beach, Va. – described
her family as having “a heart for missions.”

Like Kari, Towery said that she has developed
a real love for the Chinese people and culture and its underground
Christian movement.

On one visit, Towery said, she and Kari met Samuel
Lamb, a legendary Chinese preacher in the underground church
movement who was imprisoned for more than 20 years for noncompliance
with government restraints on religion. In his late 70s and
in ill health, he still pastors a large “house” church.

“They call him the Billy Graham of China,” Towery

Her daughter and son-in-law won’t be going back
to China anytime soon, but Towery says she plans to keep visiting
the country.

The Townsends, with a second son – 1-month-old
Nathan – have settled in Greensboro, where they’ve joined the
staff of Piedmont International Church. Piedmont International,
an offshoot of Durham’s King’s Park International Church, holds
services on the UNCG campus.

With Piedmont International, Stephen and Kari
will focus on campus outreach at UNCG. Senior Pastor Ron Echols
said that campus ministry, along with world missions and church-planting,
is the prime focus of Morningstar International, the Nashville-based
Protestant affiliation to which both King’s Park and Piedmont
International churches belong.

Their work will be much the same, the Townsends
say, only they’ll be working on an American campus instead of
ones in China. The goal will be the same.

“We’ll still be reaching out to interested students,”
Stephen Townsend said.

“It’s something we’ll be doing for life.”

Contact Tom Steadman at 574-5583 or


Photos special to the News & Record< Stephen and Kari Townsend (back row, center) and their son, Josiah, 2, are joined by members of their underground Christian church in the Townsends' apartment in China. Below, the Townsends pose for a snapshot in China.

KIM WALKER/ News & Record< Kari and Stephen Townsend. "We were definitely sad to leave," Stephen Townsend said. "But the church we helped start is still going strong."

COPYRIGHT 2004 News & Record

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