China's small Christian community takes heart in revival of Y's in the cities

''Our purpose is Christian character-building,'' said Shi Ruzhang, assistant general secretary of China's national YWCA. Or, as Li Shoupao, general secretary of China's national YMCA puts it, ''We emphasize the C in YMCA.''

One sign of the more liberal attitude toward religion by the Chinese leadership since the fall of the ''gang of four'' and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 is the revival of YMCAs and YWCAs in China's principal cities.

The substantial, seven-story YMCA building in downtown Shanghai, which was used as a hotel during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) has been returned to its original owners and now serves as national headquarters both for the YMCA and the YWCA.

Not having been maintained properly for years, the building is dilapidated, and being without heat, this correspondent and his hosts sat around in overcoats or padded jackets during a recent interview. No penetrating winter chill, however, could dampen the bubbling enthusiasm of the officers of the YWCA and YMCA.

''The YWCA, said Mrs. Shi, ''doesn't take the place of church. We witness our belief through our actions.''

These actions include classes in English, music appreciation and Chinese history; excursions to nearby tourist sites; the running of nurseries; and training courses for kindergarten and nursery teachers.

''Recently, we opened a course for 45 people from small neighborhoods to teach them how to run nurseries. We had excellent teachers, including doctors and health care workers, and our pupils all passed their exams with good grades. Now they are all working in their respective neighborhoods.

''If we keep our eyes open and are aware of our social responsibilities, there is a lot of work we can do. We mustn't rely on the state alone.''

Gan Xianzhen, senior secretary of the Shanghai YWCA, has been active in the YWCA movement for more than forty years. Like many other Christians, she was shipped off to what was called a ''cow shed'' during the Cultural Revolution where she had to engage in manual labor. Now she teaches English at the ''Y'' and is active in a revived church in western Shanghai.

''It's a small church, and you'll probably think its very shabby,'' she said. ''It was taken over by a chemical factory during the Cultural Revolution and we only got it back recently. It was in such bad shape that we had to rebuild it completely. The members did a lot of the work themselves.''

Shanghai now has 15 Protestant churches, Mrs. Gan said. All are filled to overflowing on Sundays. Her church, which seats 500, has two services on Sunday and every seat is taken.

In the days of foreign missionaries, Mrs. Gan said, many Chinese Christians looked to the missionaries to do the work. ''Now, every member feels this is my church. I have to do something for it. Our offerings are much greater than before.''

Among church-goers are many young people disillusioned by the chaos and empty sloganeering of the Cultural Revolution and looking for spiritual support.

''As for the 'Y,' we are not a church, but we do teach people about the Bible , and so they come to know Jesus Christ and Christianity,'' said Huang Zuyi, assistant secretary of the Shanghai YMCA. Like Mrs. Gan, Mr. Huang is a 40-year veteran of the ''Y'' movement.

''Our purpose is to train young people how to become true citizens with a Christian personality - healthy in body, mind, and spirit,'' he continued.

Besides Shanghai, the ''Y'' is active in Peking, Tianjin, Nanking, Wuhan, and Canton, Mr. Huang said. ''We have just had word the 'Y' in Fuzhou has gotten its building back but has not yet started to work.

The Chinese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion and of atheism. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and other religions are tolerated so long as they do not owe allegiance to a headquarters outside China. Protestants have had no difficulty with this restriction, but Roman Catholics have had to choose between a ''patriotic'' church that rejects Rome and an underground church that is loyal to the Pope.

Many adherents of the latter group, including priests and bishops, have spent long terms in prison. Some are still there. So far, the Vatican has failed to reach an understanding with Peking.

Until the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, Mrs. Shi said, ''many people looked down on Christianity as a foreign religion. Now, they know that we love our church and love our religion.''

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