Friday, November 4, 2011

A Slow Boat to China

Frank Loesser penned the lyrics in 1948, and Kay Kyser first recorded the song, “Slow Boat to China.” That song came to mind as I read Charles Leonard’s book, Repaid a Hundredfold. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese and America’s entrance into the war, Leonard (who already had been withdrawn from Manchuria) was asked by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention to head up an international relief program in western China. This program was administered by the International Y.M.C.A. Headquarters in New York. Chapter 13 in his book, “Famine Fields of Free China,” tells of his travel to China from New York and his two years of work in humanitarian relief efforts during World War II.

This cooperative spirit of working with other groups was an original hallmark of Southern Baptist missions and missionaries. Much of that spirit has been lost in the last couple of decades. When doctrinal purity takes precedence over human needs (both physical and spiritual), missions begins to look more like the proselyting efforts of the Pharisees in the New Testament than the ministry of Jesus to the poor, sick, and oppressed. The entire ministry of Charles Leonard is a testimony of cooperation with anyone who shared a commitment to care for the poor, the needy, and the lost. In both World Wars he linked up with other agencies to address critical needs, and this was done with the blessing and commitment of the Foreign Mission Board. Unfortunately, cooperation like that today too often requires passing a litmus test of orthodoxy.

Those of you who have read stories about Adoniram Judson, Lottie Moon, and other pioneering missionaries are familiar with how arduous travel was before the advent of air travel. We are now able to travel to China by air in a single day. When I first went to Taiwan in 1964, three days was more the norm. Charles Leonard’s trip took two months, but that was greatly influenced by the fact that he was traveling during a time of war when German submarines in the Atlantic and Japanese submarines in the Pacific threatened all ocean travel. The two months were not wasted, however. Leonard used this time to write the first draft of his book, which was not published until two decades later.

One other sacrificial aspect of this assignment is that Charles Leonard left his wife and three children in the United States and was separated from them for two years while he addressed these humanitarian needs. Many American soldiers faced similar separations, but this assignment was voluntarily accepted and willingly embraced out of a compassion for the human suffering being experienced by the Chinese people under Japanese threat. “There was a great need and a tremendous opportunity for service to God and my fellowman in famine-stricken China, where thousands were starving for food and millions without a knowledge of God and His gospel,” Leonard wrote of his waving goodbye to his wife as the convoy of 50 ships set sail.

Departing New York, the flotilla sailed down the eastern seaboard of the US, traveled through the Panama Canal, down the western coastline of South America, swung two or three hundred miles south of Cape Horn, and then headed east for 3,600 miles to the southern tip of Africa. Crossing the Indian Ocean, they landed in Bombay but had to sail on to Karachi traveling by night because every berth was taken in Bombay. From Karachi, he traveled by train back to Bombay. There he sent copies of the first manuscript of his book to the American Embassy in Bombay, to the Foreign Mission Board in Richmond, and to his wife. Three more days of train travel brought him within range for a final 12-hour military flight over the Himalayas to Kunming in the Yunnan Province of China. Some of the refugees he met there had fled 2,000 miles from eastern China to escape the Japanese invasion. To them, even Charles Leonard’s arduous journey had been “first class” travel.

We need more people like Charles Leonard today—people of compassion and commitment who are willing to set aside their comfort and ease to address the humanitarian and spiritual needs of the 7 billion people in our world. Thousands are still starving for food and millions are without a knowledge of God and the gospel. God still asks, “Who shall I send, and who will go for me?”

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