Late night church serves restaurant workers
BY MELISSA LAUBER
They're on their feet often 10 hours a day, serving food in one of the area's most successful Chinese restaurants. Come Sunday morning, the prospect of driving to a church to worship a stranger called Jesus feels too foreign to even consider.
But their souls are too important to the Rev. Ek Ching Hii and the congregation at Cabin John UMC, which started a restaurant fellowship from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Mondays.
"If they can't come to church, church will come to them," Hii said.
A year ago, the congregation began gathering restaurant workers after their shifts every other Monday night for fellowship at the Taipai 101 Restaurant in Bethesda. The 11 or so workers spoke the same Mandarin dialect as Hii. "They come from China, they are good people and spend long hours working. No one reaches out to them."
Hii and others from his congregation delight in offering fellowship and sharing good food, music, testimony and prayer. "We search for the meaning of life and share together," he said.
As a result of that fellowship, several people have accepted Christ as their savior and begun attending church on a regular basis. One couple was baptized last Christmas. Another woman and her daughter have been coming to the church regularly and will be baptized this Easter. Others also find their way from the restaurant fellowship to worship on Sunday.
"They didn't know who Christ is. They didn't know God," Hii said. We introduced them. "When they know Christ, when they know what Christianity is, they are surprised, especially by our love for them. They couldn't find such love in their culture."
This outreach ministry is just one the predominantly Chinese-speaking congregation engages in.
Hii, in conjunction with AU's chaplain, the Rev. Mark Schaeffer, also provides a time of fellowship at American University, where about 10 of the more than 100 Chinese students enrolled gather for a time of fellowship.
"These are very educated people," said Hii, who just finished a doctoral program himself. They require a different kind of outreach than the restaurant workers.
But finding the right approach for the right people is not a new concept for the people at Cabin John. "We may be alike in appearance, but there are several different dialects, cultures and traditions among the Chinese. It's sometimes difficult. We can't be just mixed together."
Each year, Hii also takes a group of eight to 10 youth from the church to China on a mission trip. Last year, the group taught English to 50 youth, but in their lessons, on topics like "American holidays," they were able to share pieces of Gospel. We told them the word for Easter, and then told them about the resurrection, explained Hii.
Religion was banned in China for decades under Communist rule, until just three decades ago. Today, the government estimates there are approximately 21 million Protestants among China's population of 3.1 billion people.
However, Protestants in China tend to be part of a "Three-Self Movement" that stresses removing foreign influences from Chinese churches.
The United States is home to about 1.6 million Chinese immigrants (including those born in Hong Kong), making them the fourth-largest immigrant group in the United States after Mexican, Filipino and Indian immigrants. In the Washington, D.C., area there are about 60,000 Chinese immigrants.
Hii grew up in Malaysia. He learned about faith from his grandmother, who was taught by missionaries. It's been a long journey to the Washington, D.C., area. Hii cherishes the opportunity to lead Cabin John UMC, which draws 35 people for a growing contemporary praise service and about 45 people for a more traditional Chinese-language service that follows. His son Caleb leads the praise band at the early service.
The Rev. Warren Ebinger, a retired pastor who sometimes preaches at Hii's church, believes the Chinese-American congregation is a special one.
"I fell in love with this church and its people," Ebinger said. "In worship they're very spirited. Whenever I come here I feel like I leave with something I didn't have when I came in. It's like a door that opens."
Hii is excited about the possibility of expanding Chinese ministries in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, perhaps creating a new faith community. "I don't know how or when, but we want the chance to be more," he said.
In the church bulletin the name Cabin John is not translated literally. Rather, the first character means "Chinese." The second is "American." The next two are the most important, Hii said. They're "united." "We talk about a united, a uniting, Methodist church – we unite cultures. We unite people. We're a Methodist Church – uniting all kinds of Chinese and all kinds of Americans in Christ."