“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were all listening to them” (Acts 16:25). This happened in a jail cell in Macedonia about 2,000 years ago.
Many years later in a jail cell in northern China, two Christian friends, Yang Xiaohui and Chen Shang (both are pseudonyms for security reasons) sang their own worship songs from prison. In a place of despair, their words to heaven rang out in the darkness.
“We started singing. Then everyone was singing,” said Xiaohui. “They said, ‘Such a good song with such beautiful music and lyrics. Sing for us again!’”
Xiaohui first learned about Jesus by singing. At home, her husband taught her Christian songs. At church, she sang with the kids.
Late in the summer of 2022, police seized Xiaohui from her home. Only eight months after her husband went to jail for his faith, authorities apprehended Xiaohui while she cooked dinner for her family in the kitchen. She was accused of “illegal gathering for religious activities.”
Several hours after she was first detained, the police threw Xiaohui into a cell with eight or nine others in the middle of the night. Xiaohui was nervous. But she believed God put her in this place to share his light.
“I forced myself to preach the gospel and to exalt God,” she said.
Xiaohui and the others in her cell swapped stories of how they ended up in jail. People from all walks of life end up in Chinese prison. Xiaohui met women in jail for fighting, prostitution, theft, gambling, protesting a broken contract, and violating immigration laws.
Xiaohui tried to explain to these women that she had been put in jail for gathering with other Christians. Though the government had banned her church, the congregation had continued to gather.
But her cellmates could not make sense of her story. To them, Xiaohui looked like a law-abiding citizen, yet the police claimed she was a danger to society because she joins others to worship God—which is against some government regulations of religion. Even the police officers sent to interrogate her seemed a little baffled. Knowing little about Christian faith and persecution of Christians in China, Xiaohui’s cellmates made fun of her for being jailed for a silly reason.
Xiaohui did not take offense to their mocking. When guards told the prisoners they had to clean their cell each day, the other cellmates refused. Xiaohui wiped the bathrooms, scrubbed the floors, meticulously folded all the blankets, and cleaned.
“I could sense that although they were laughing at my arrest, in fact, they secretly respected me. I took the task as a grace from God,” she said.
At night, the women took turns standing two-hour shifts while the others slept, a form of discipline tactic mimicking military practice. The rules were strict: no looking sideways, no moving, just standing motionless and silently staring at their cellmates. Guards watched them closely on the video monitor. If they moved slightly, the guards would screech through the monitors and wake the whole cell: “Stop moving. Stand straight!”
Early on in her time in jail, Xiaohui fainted during one of her night shifts. When she woke, the officer said Xiaohui could get someone else to finish in her place. But to spare the other prisoners from the deprivation of rest, she finished on her own. The next day, the other women couldn’t understand why she had sacrificed herself to allow them to rest. Xiaohui realized something had shifted in the atmosphere, and her cellmates began to look at her differently.
Jail began to take a toll on Xiaohui. Her body ached from consecutive poor nights of sleep. Though it was the summer, by night, the air grew cold and the building had little heat or insulation. Guards had cut the side of her dress, and her only outer layer was a vest, which didn’t keep her warm. She struggled to stay awake during her overnight shifts. Then guards began to transfer her from cell to cell for reasons she did not know.
The daylight hours were tedious. The prisoners sat for hours on stools, not allowed to chat or walk around.
“We were all terribly bored,” she said. “When people are bored, they love stories. … They would come to me and say, ‘Tell us some stories.’ So I told them stories about Jesus.”
As Xiaohui moved from cell to cell, she told her new roommates about Jesus and his sacrificial love. She told so many prisoners about Jesus that a police officer reprimanded her. After he interrogated her about gathering to worship with her house church, he said, “You can’t gather here in the detention center either.”
“I was a bit startled hearing that.” Xiaohui said. “Did he see me sharing the gospel through the security camera? But I thought, ‘You were the ones who put me in here. You were the ones who locked 12 people up in a 20-square-meter space, not me.’”
Xiaohui didn’t just share stories about Jesus. Each night, as she stood guard, she prayed for her cellmates and their families, asking God to meet the needs she had heard about in conversations with the other women.
After about a week, Xiaohui was transferred to Cell Number One, where the jail held its best-behaved prisoners. There she found a familiar face: her friend Shang.
Shang had been seized the day after Xiaohui while eating lunch. Her husband had also been imprisoned for his faith. Just as with Xiaohui, police were trying to keep Chen Shang from attending the court debate during her husband’s trial. Shang’s health had remained strong during her time in the detention center, and she nursed her now gravely sick friend back to health.
Although Cell Number One was ostensibly the best place for those being held to be, officers still cursed and screamed at the prisoners most of the day.
“It was as if the officers could not say anything beyond curse words,” said Xiahui. “The prisoners in the jail were like that, too. They were scared of the officers, but they screamed at each other.”
Despite her own traumatic experience, Xiaohui also began to worry about the officers. She fretted over their personal lives. Perhaps, out of habit, they returned home and yelled at their children? Maybe their anger would make them physically ill?
“I was moved to think about the officers in my heart all the time, so I also prayed for them,” she said.
And just like it had been with her mocking cellmates, something changed.
“I didn’t know if it was because I prayed, but I saw the harshest officer actually smile while talking to me,” she said.
Later, he gave her water and offered to let her sit instead of stand during her guard shift while she was sick. Other officers gave her medicine.
During her time in the detention center, Xiaohui realized in a fresh way that God was real and was with her.
The Bible tells believers to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). and that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). While in jail, these verses became more than words on a page. Although it seemed Xiaohui was helpless, in reality, the others in the detention center did not have the power of light that she possessed.
“Having been Christians for years, we may forget about the kind of hopelessness and despair one can experience without God,” she said.
But for Xiaohui, there was no shame in that shameful place. Her spirit was unshackled: “I learned to deal with hardship one day at a time. I was not overwhelmed by the circumstances or physical illnesses. Even when I was locked up in a jail cell, my soul was still free.”
Unlike in the other cells, in Cell Number One, the officers encouraged the women to chat with one another. In this cell, Shang and Xiaohui sang Sing a Heavenly Song, a Chinese hymn loved by many house churches. In English, the song translates:
River of life, river of joy
Slowly flows into my heart
I want to sing the song
Sing the heavenly song
The darkened clouds over my head
The saddened tears of my heart will all be gone.
At first, just the two Christians sang. But before long, everyone joined in. In the darkness of prison, a river of life and joy flowed in and through Xiaohui’s heart.
“There were times when your bottom hurt from sitting, when your legs swelled from standing, when you had no energy to work but had to anyways, when you felt tired after you finished praying for people, when you tried to avoid the mosquitos and couldn’t, when it was too hot because there was no air conditioner or fan, and when you had a hard time listening to all the cussing…and yet, I really experienced the miracle that with the Lord, a thousand years is as one day,” said Xiaohui. “Indeed, 15 days was but just a blink of an eye.”
This is an excerpt from The House Church in China, a new podcast telling true stories of today’s persecuted churches in China.
E. F. Gregory is the editor for China Partnership’s blog and the writer for The House Church in China podcast. She and her family live in the San Gabriel Valley outside of Los Angeles.