Grace Baptist Church marks its 50th year as a milestone of faith
Karyn Hsiao, TAIPEI, Taiwan, The China Post
December 28, 2003, 12:00 am TWN
With its tapered, tile roof and raised entrance plaza, the Grace Baptist Church has become a sort of landmark in its Taipei neighborhood near National Taiwan University.
"I'll meet you at the McDonald's by that big church," students say into their cell phones.
Also, "I'm at the bus stop in front of that church, where are you?"
So passengers getting off buses 50 and 505 yesterday may have realized something special was happening at the red brick worship house whose looming presence and "God is Love" sign is something passersby usually take for granted.
A lone trumpet sounded fanfare just before 10 a.m. as the church began a special service to mark its 50th anniversary at its location, number 90 on Sec. 3 of Hsin Sheng South Road.
The church's highest-profile pastor, Rev. Zhou Lien-Hua, presided over the celebratory prayer meeting. Zhou led the church as head pastor for nearly a quarter century before retiring and beginning work with smaller Taipei ministries.
Over the years, Zhou has heightened the church's visibility in Taiwan as he participated in the funeral services of several national dignitaries, including that of Madame Chiang Kai-Shek this year in New York.
When he returned to Hsin Sheng South Road yesterday, some members of the Chinese congregation, now middle-aged themselves, remembered calling him "Uncle Zhou."
"I must have been young then," Zhou joked during his sermon. "Children now call me 'Grandpa Zhou'."
The now gray-haired Zhou stood in front of a towering Christmas tree during the service that included Bible readings, a performance from the church choir and recognition of old friends who had traveled to attend the commemoration.
Many reminisced about the congregation's beginnings.
The Grace Baptist Church, founded 50 years ago by a Southern Baptist missionary from the United States named Innabelle Coleman, started out in a small building with just a few faithful.
Now its membership hovers around 2,000 if one counts those who attend the weekly Chinese, English, bilingual and Taiwanese Sunday services.
The current worship house is relatively new to the block, having gone up in the mid-1980s, says Rev. David Brown, the church's English-language pastor. About NT$45 million in renovations are also presently underway.
"The Southern Baptists have been a part of this church for many years, but it has now really become a Taiwan church," he says. "It has really come into its own."
Leading up to the anniversary meeting, the church decided to hold 50 prayer meetings. They took place each evening, starting from Nov.8, at the church.
In terms of theology, the church, known as "Hwai En Tang" in Chinese, is a Bible-based Christian denomination.
The self-proclaimed mission of the English-language congregation, for example, is "to glorify God in all we do as we worship, pray and serve together; to lead all people to salvation in Jesus Christ; to draw them into the loving fellowship of the church; to train believers towards maturity in Christ; and to minister to one another."
Brown's congregation, which holds Sunday worship at 10 a.m. and 500 p.m., serves both the expat and local community.
Combined, the church's body of worshippers has evolved into what members call a "big multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-generational family."
Pastors will conduct a series of special "thanksgiving" services today to "give thanks for the past 50 years and begin a new era of the next 50 years," says Brown.
To highlight the different generations of the church's history, Zhou invited three of the ministry's fold to share their experiences.
The first was "Grandmother Wang," a woman who, although stooped with age, remembers with piercing clarity how she first discovered the Grace Baptist Church.
"It was 1954, and one of my friends was learning English from Miss Coleman," she says. "One Sunday she invited me to 'Miss Coleman's church' and I remember feeling like my spirit had found a home."
The next was Rev. Liu, who flew in from Hong Kong to attend the celebration. With a hint of Cantonese melody in his Mandarin, Liu recounted a time in the late 1960s when an influx of Cantonese-speaking students populated the church, which has Taiwan National University for a front-door neighbor.
"In those days I had to take a boat for three days to get from Hong Kong to Taipei, and now it's just one hour by plane," said Liu, who has ministered for 27 years, now in Cantonese. "This church changed my life and gave me opportunities to see that I really loved serving."
Finally, a middle-aged mother shared her feelings on being a "child of Hua En Tang" since her parents brought her to the congregation as a child. It is the same congregation where she now brings her own children.
"It's home," she says.
"For 50 years we have raised high your crucifix and spread your gospel," Zhou prayed during yesterday's worship. "May you lead us for the next 50 years, and the next 100 years, and even the next 500 years after that."