GUANGZHOU, CHINA — LIN XIANGAO doesn't engage in politics, but he finds that as the pastor of one of China's illicit ``house churches,'' politics engage him. The skinny minister with a smile that seems too wide for his cramped church was jailed for more than 20 years for the ``counterrevolutionary'' crime of sharing his Christian faith.
Recently, Mr. Lin has defied official orders to shut down his two-room chapel. And since the Beijing massacre last June, dozens of young Chinese seeking a haven from repression have mounted the narrow flight of worn, creaky steps to his ``Damazhan Church.''
Amid China's severest political crackdown in more than a decade, Lin tells his congregation of 1,300, 70 percent of whom are under 35, to obey the state. He reminds them that Daniel became one of Babylon's most honored citizens when he followed all the commands of the king but the decree against prayer to God.
``We've had no connection with the student demonstrations and we're not mixed up with political things,'' says Lin, waving a slim arm in a faded, baggy sleeve of China's standard blue cotton work clothes.
Yet the mere existence of his tiny church building is a political burr to the communist government. Although China's constitution ensures freedom of religion, the atheistic state bans worship outside of organizations under its strict control.
In the 1950s, Beijing placed all Protestant sects under a state-run ``patriotic'' church. Nevertheless, missionary groups in Hong Kong estimate that there were some 2,000 independent churches nationwide before the latest tempest of repression. Many congregations started as underground prayer groups during the 1960s.
Several times, local officials have ordered Lin, a Baptist, to close down his church and barred him from distributing religious tapes and pamphlets without their approval.
Despite the threats, Lin continues to give three sermons a week to 300 congregants who jam into his home. At least nine times a week his apartment also rings with hymn sings, Bible study, youth group testimonies, and prayer meetings. And he has opened two branch churches on the outskirts of Guangzhou.
When intimidation failed, officials offered to build a large church for Lin on one of three sites if he bowed to their control.
``They wanted to give me a big piece of candy but I refused because there's a big hook in it,'' says the bespectacled minister.
Squeezed in an alley among ramshackle shops and squat apartments, the church testifies to how unconcerned its founder is with ecclesiastical finery. Pock marks in plaster walls, rather than stained glass, stare out at the congregation. Overhead, cracked wooden rafters and chipped gray tiles suggest a 19th century warehouse rather than a soaring cathedral vault.
To Lin, ample pew space is far more important than grandeur. A plastic baptismal tub pulls down from the wall. Lin's telephone rings from a small booth built into a wall alongside the altar. And downstairs, in a small chamber connected during services to the main room by closed circuit television, worshipers ascend by a ladder to a small, jerry-built balcony.
Lin's religious training is also makeshift. The son of a Baptist pastor in Macau, China, Lin has not been ordained. He builds his services primarily on his own study of the Bible and his recollection of his father's ministry.
Lin acknowledges that the support of ``foreign friends'' has helped deter the state from closing his church. Most other illicit churches lack the shield of such guanxi or connections.
Billy Graham preached at the church during a visit to China in 1988. And Lin shows visitors an album with a photograph of former President Ronald Reagan addressed to ``Pastor Lamb,'' Lin's English name. Group snapshots of congregants after baptism, starting with four in 1980 and ending with scores in recent months, surround the photo of Mr. Reagan.
Lin, however, is emboldened most by past hardship.
``If a Christian has never suffered, then he cannot understand God's blessings; he is like a child without training,'' he says.
LIN was first arrested in 1955, five years after opening his first illegal church. He was released after about 16 months in prison but seized again in 1958 and assigned to forced labor on a farm in Guangdong Province.
On the farm, Lin was caught attempting to write a copy of the New Testament. He was dispatched to a mine in Shanxi Province and assigned to the perilous task of coupling coal cars.
Prison officials tried to induce Lin to renounce Christianity at the start of the period of leftist fanaticism know as the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Showing the political savvy that has helped him to continue preaching today, Lin satisfied the officials by criticizing hypocritical Christians. He was released in 1978.
``I found that through faith one can do everything; we should never worry about our future,'' he says, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with worshipers transcribing prayer books.