Dancing Through: North Korean Christians in China

When is the last time you danced?

Ecclesiastes 3:4 writes about

“a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance...”

All four are a part of Crossing Borders’ annual retreat for North Korean refugee women.

Murmurs of government oppression and tension surrounding Christianity have spread even to the remote, rural regions of China. Crossing Borders staff have exercised more caution than ever to continue efforts to minister to North Koreans in hiding in 2019. Missionaries on the field have shared that the persecution of Christians is growing each year. Reports from International Christian Concern state that in the Guizhou province, reporting “suspicious illegal religious sites and activities” to the police could be awarded with cash up to $1000 USD beginning in July. Articles from the Washington Post further verify that Christian churches in the same region are being closed and their congregants closely monitored.

It is not easy to be a faithful Christian believer in today’s China. But despite such heavy persecution, the number of North Korean women and children accepting faith is growing more than ever in Crossing Borders’ network.

This year, missionaries found themselves facing the largest attendance ever welcomed into Crossing Borders’ annual retreat. With much clamor and excitement, 41 North Korean women and 51 of their children flooded into the courtyard of a small motel in China where activities, song and conversation would fill four days and three nights. Crossing Borders staff are consistently astounded that the missionary network seems to expand rapidly every year alongside greater persecution. 

North Korean refugees are illegal defectors living in hiding in China. There seems to be little to gain from associating themselves with a body of people so persecuted in the country. But why are North Korean refugees, despite all odds, gathering more fervently in faith than ever before?

On the one hand, a painful truth for many North Korean women living in China is that there is nowhere for them to turn for the comfort and strength of community. As defectors from their homeland, the pain of rejection North Koreans endure as outsiders in hiding and the alienation they experience as illegal migrants goes unshared and uncommunicated for several years, sometimes decades. Sought out by the authorities and often treated like property, North Korean women become trapped in small towns or their very own homes, utterly alone.

The women in Crossing Borders’ network are desperate for a time and place to express themselves openly. Missionary staff can attest to the fact that the women in Crossing Borders’ retreats so often fall into weeping and reminiscing as they spend time together. The burden of the grievances committed against them has grown insurmountably between their time as citizens of North Korea and refugees in China. Their thoughts, recollections, stories are overflowing. They want to weep bitterly in the open. They want to mourn over lost family, lost time, lost children.

A missionary at the Crossing Borders retreat commented, “In our discussion groups, we asked the women about the Bible. But so often, they just ended up sharing about their lives.”

North Koreans need a place to open their hearts. They want to grieve. But the North Korena women in Crossing Borders’ network also want to laugh with sheer delight over the moments they find happiness with others. Joy can be rare. The women and children gathered each year want to express what is on their minds. But according to the accounts of Crossing Borders missionaries who have ministered to women and children in China, those gathered at Crossing Borders retreats do not only gather to share of themselves. They come to receive. 

The gospel that Crossing Borders shares is a terrifying and frightening thing for many who realize that persecution of faith is growing in China. Rejection to Christian claims and beliefs is being reinforced, even encouraged by government authorities. But the message of the Christian gospel is simultaneously deeply attractive. Under the intense and expanding pressure of rejection, Christianity somehow manages to be deeply desired, even welcoming. Why else would a religion that is largely rejected by China, an officially atheist state, have a rapidly expanding population between 93 million and 115 million Protestants, according to Purdue University’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society? For North Korean refugees, the gospel is an immense source of hope, encouragement and joy. It is the gospel that the women come to hear. It is the gospel that the North Korean women take home with them as they dive back into lives of hardship and toil. They continue to struggle, to endure.

Every year, the North Korean women who gather at Crossing Borders’ annual retreat do not only weep and laugh and mourn. They dance. Their expression of worship is a spectacle. It is a reminder of their resilience and persevering spirit. In the eye of the hurricane of doubt, pain and grief, they have found incredible hope.

This year, 92 North Korean women and children danced in the middle of a forgotten spot in China. And their faith grew.