For Chinese, 'red envelope' Bibles special

SOUTHEAST ASIA (BP)--His ears flicking back and forth, the Chinese dragon stops only inches away from the prostitute, who waves money back and forth in his face. The dragon's head bobs along, never losing sight of the green bill. Suddenly the dancer inside the dragon darts a hand through the mouth, snatching the bill.

The prostitute laughs and reaches for a drink as the dragon moves to the next person in the nightclub. Gongs and drums pound, clashing with the club's techno beats, as the colorful dragon goes from table to table, receiving monetary gifts from patrons and prostitutes alike -- an offering for a good new year.

Out on the street, another dragon spits fire and smoke. The ornately decorated, green and red creature stops to stare at the crowd, shakes its head, then dips low and begins spinning round and round.

The constant circular motion creates a magical blur of colors, until the dragon stops in front of a spirit house. The dragon bows low, giving proper respect to the ancestors. Fireworks explode overhead while firecrackers shoot off at the feet of the dragon as it winds back down the street.

The crowd erupts in cheers. The three-day Chinese New Year celebration has officially begun in Asia.

Only five minutes from the strip club parties, a different, more peaceful celebration gathers a crowd of its own. The clear tones of two trumpets, played by volunteers from Taiwan, resonate from the Southern Cross Project Bible distribution point -- and many tourists stop to listen. The Southern Cross project is a Bible distribution ministry in Asia. (Follow their work on the live blog www.mreport.org until Feb. 8.)

The father-son duo plays traditional Chinese songs that the passing tourists easily recognize. One rendition -- the Chinese equivalent of "Auld Lang Syne" -- prompts the crowd to burst out in song. Erica Blair,* a Southern Cross volunteer from Taiwan, wishes the tourists a "Happy New Year" in Mandarin and offers them a New Year's gift -- a Bible.

The tourists' eyes light up at the sound of their heart language in an unfamiliar land, and most accept the gift. Volunteers from six states and two countries handed out more than 2,250 Bible packets the first night of the three-day Chinese New Year's celebrations, totaling more than 8,000 in the past five days.

"Those dragons dancing around and the fireworks were pretty cool, but this is where the real action happens," says Jack Hedrick, a 12-year-old volunteer from Ripley, Tenn. "Over here, you actually get to talk to people and hand them a Bible. How can you top that?"

Jack passes out more than 70 packets in one night. His strategy is simple -- stand where the action takes place and smile a lot. As a group of 20 tourists squeeze up the steps next to Jack, he jumps into action. He throws out the few words of Mandarin he's learned just for this trip, "Jesus loves you." Then, he smiles and hands them a few Bibles and red packets filled with Christian literature. He wishes them a "Happy New Year." The tourists all smile back and ask for even more Bibles.

There is a "special feel" in the air as the New Year begins -- everyone's smiling and friendly. They speak of hope for a year filled with good luck and fortune, but Michael Berkley, pastor of Victory Baptist Church in Henning, Tenn., doesn't see it reflected in their faces. He sees fear -- fear of the unknown.

As tourists clomp past his distribution station, Berkley looks into their faces. Despite the fact that thousands walk past him in just a few hours, he wants to memorize individual faces so he can pray for each one.

"I keep thinking, 'What if this is the last holiday for that person who just walked past me?'" Berkley says. "What if this is the last chance they have to get a Bible, their last chance to hear about Jesus in such an open environment? I don't want them to be searching year after year for the one true hope."

Berkley's voice is soon drowned out by the "bang-bang" of drums announcing that the dragon dance is about to begin again. Fireworks explode. A few volunteers stop to watch and ask Blair questions about the holiday. An American, Blair has lived in Taiwan for more than a decade and volunteers as a translator for Southern Cross each holiday season.

Giving a "New Year's gift" is a tradition for the Chinese. Blair* says. In Asia, Chinese New Year is very similar to the many secular Christmas traditions in the States. There are big elaborate celebrations with dancing dragons and decorations hang in storefronts. People go to the temples to pray -- for some it might be the only time they go during the year.

"Most importantly, Chinese New Year is a time for families to gather together. They eat big meals and just hang out with each other like we do at Christmas," Blair, an American who has lived in Asia for more than a decade, says. "They also exchange gifts -- or blessings."

She holds up a red packet with Christian literature stuffed inside, explaining that during the next several days Chinese all over the world will exchange red envelopes, like this one, filled with money. The gift is considered to be a blessing and the color red symbolizes good luck and wards off spirits.

"It's not by accident that we hand out our Bible packets in these red envelopes. When we give these to the Chinese, they know that we are giving them a blessing," Blair adds. "Our goal out here is to not only emulate the feelings of warmth surrounding this family holiday, but show them how to feel this peaceful all year.

"What we are offering them is an eternal blessing for this new year."


*Name changed for security reasons. Log onto www.mReport.org to see other stories about more than 50 Southern Cross volunteers from six states and two countries during this year's Chinese New Year's celebrations. For more information about the Southern Cross Project e-mail scptravel@pobox.com. Susie Rain and Ivy O'Neil, writers living in Southeast Asia, contributed to this article.

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