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Ah Leng stepped off the bus at Zhong Shan and hesitated. A line of trucks and taxis passed. In Guangzhou, as in all of China's cities, drivers of motor vehicles paid almost no attention to pedestrians.
"Da Ma Zhan is a very narrow street," Wu San, his friend in the chemistry laboratory at the university had told him, "not wide enough for automobiles. You will enter through a small gate."
Ah Leng saw the gate and ventured cautiously onto the street as another string of taxis approached. A bus appeared, but halted for passengers. Bicyclers rang their caution bells. A taxi changed lanes, looming at him. Ah Leng darted aside, stiff-arming a bicycle to avoid being brushed. The rider, forced off balance, scolded him.
Ah Leng reached the gate of which Wu San had spoken and looked through to Da Ma Zhan. The street appeared to be as old as the Manchus.
Since his boyhood, Ah Leng had been fond of old and narrow streets. He moved forward beneath protruding poles of laundry rustling in the evening breeze. Families sat at their doorsides, grandfathers looking blankly out onto the way and into the past, mothers sifting rice, and dogs drowsing.
A clutter of men, some playing, some observing, surrounded a noisy game of mah-jongg, similar at first glance to dominoes but more complicated. Tiny shops offered clothing, tobacco, and sundries. The blended aroma of pork, fish, steamed rice, and vegetables wafted from hawker stands. Ah Leng moved along, ignoring the sounds and smells, his eyes intent on the house numbers--63, 49, ...
"Take care not to miss it," Wu San had cautioned. "The entrance is hard to find, so watch closely for the number 35 Da Ma Zhan."
Ah Leng slowed his pace, and there it was: residence unit 35. Even if he had missed the small number, Ah Leng would have found the house, because from the floor above street level and the floor above that, he heard the melody of many voices.
To suffer is to serve our Lord.
Our tears, like His, touch Heaven.
We are the children of His Word
To whom all grace is given.
The lyrics and the music stirred in the student a strange feeling. Confucius had once said, "Poetry arouses, music is our crown." What might the venerated one have said if he had heard the singing of these Christians? How strange for Ah Leng to think such thoughts--Ah Leng, a student of the late 1980s--a scientist, materialist, and atheist.
He moved to the bleak, narrow stairway, hesitating as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. A small dim neon light at the top of the stairway gave scant but sufficient illumination to silhouette nearly a dozen people sitting on the concrete steps.
"Church," Ah Leng said to them. "My friend says I go up these stairs to a church."
"One does. Welcome," a woman near the bottom responded. "The Lord be with you this beautiful evening of his making." She gestured for him to sit on the step immediately below her feet. Since this was Ah Leng's first time to visit 35 Da Ma Zhan, he did not realize that these people, like himself, had arrived late. "Welcome," the woman repeated.
"Sit with us here," a man near the top called out. "Seats above are already full."
"But young people can always make room for one more," the woman said pleasantly. She pressed her feet tightly against the hallway wall and motioned for Ah Leng to proceed upward. He squeezed by the others in the passageway and slowly moved up the stairs.
When the singing stopped, Ah Leng heard a man's voice coming from the overhead speakers. It was a strong voice, authoritative but kind. "We welcome you in the name of our Lord Jesus. If you are with us for the first time, we give you double welcome! You will find our only purpose is to declare the Gospel and to learn together how to live the Christian life."
Pressing tightly against the stairway wall, Ah Leng reached the top and came into a narrow corridor packed tightly with more people--some on a narrow bench, most on stools the size of bicycle seats. An elegant woman dressed in peasant trousers and a plain mandarin jacket looked up at him and smiled. For a moment he wondered if he had seen her among the faculty at a campus convocation. Next to her a man, most likely her husband, studied some mimeographed notes so intently that he didn't notice Ah Leng.
A college-aged girl stepped out from an adjoining doorway. Her appearance drew Ah Leng's attention to her and to a small room where over a hundred people crowded into a space meant for fifty people. The girl was attractive, with curious, wise eyes. She wore student clothing and had a braided pigtail hanging to the middle of her back. She smiled warmly as if they had met before, although they had not.
"You visit us for the first time," she whispered, not as a question but as a greeting. "We have closed-circuit video at this lower level, as you can see, but perhaps you wish to go upstairs. Many students have come again tonight." She smiled, her eyes twinkling. "They always seem able to squeeze in one more."
Ah Leng watched the video screen where the man spoke. "For our next song of praise to the Lord, turn to number 63 in the Spiritual Voice hymnal."
"This way," the girl motioned, having inched her own way to the foot of a second stairway.
Praise Him! Praise Him!
Jesus our blessed Redeemer!
The people around Ah Leng began to sing, maintaining close tempo with those on the floor above. The experience was new to him, although it did not surprise him. He had heard that Christianity was a religion whose teachings were conveyed in various ways.