“I told Jesus I would follow Him wherever He led me.” This statement of faith, affirmed by various characters throughout Exiles of Hope, defines the determination and perseverance that characterized the underground church in the early decades of Communist China. In this book, Anthony G. Bollback continues the story of Anching and Meiling, believers who are separated by war but hold to the impossible hope of being reunited one day. While left without means of communication for years, they each trust that God is protecting the other and that he will one day allow them to marry. Exiles of Hope picks up where Bollback’s first book, Red Runs the River, left off, but one can enjoy the second volume without having read the first. While it lacks literary style and is marred by unrealistic dialogue, this historical novel is an encouraging and convicting story of what it means to be a follower of Christ in the midst of hardship.
Set immediately after the Communist take-over of mainland China in 1949, Exiles of Hope starts with Meiling being sent to work on a farm in a rural town as part of her “re-education”. Her family’s wealth and religious identity make them stand out as targets of Mao’s reforms, and so they suffer the fate that so many other Chinese endured during that time. Her parents assigned to manual labor due to their wealthy background, Meiling is left with few friends. Her work is hard, but far worse is the pain of not being allowed to keep in touch with Anching. Through the first of many miracles, she is brought to a secret Christian gathering that connects her with fellow believers. Over the years, she takes on responsibility as her town’s “Bible woman,” spreading the Word throughout the local church. She resiliently endures the hardships that come with being an “enemy of the state,” including torture at the hands of malicious police officers, and continues her work of strengthening her fellow believers with a unshakable faith. Her commitment to Christ even in the face of open aggression brings the biblical story of Daniel to mind. Like Daniel, Meiling refuses to give in to the political demands of the state that would prevent her from serving God. She is repeatedly cast into the proverbial lions’ den, only to have God preserve her life time and again. Instead of allowing her trials to break her will, Meiling perseveres with her church duties and even reaches out to her persecutors. It is an impressive example of what true dedication means. Certainly the church in China (and everywhere else for that matter) would never have grown without the strong faith that allowed believers to share their faith even in the midst of suffering.
While Meiling is enduring oppression at the hands of the Communists back on the mainland, Anching, having fled to Hong Kong with other defeated Nationalist conscripts and supporters, does his best to contribute to his own community in one of the many refugee camps on the island. Risking his life in the face of organized crime, he gives himself fully to the good of his fellow refugees and earns a reputation as a compassionate and selfless man. Throughout the book, he and Meiling hold to the hope of one day being reunited- even when he encounters an attractive believer in his camp, he chooses to keep his promise to Meiling. Their willingness to forego marriage to anyone else is comparable to their lives of faith. Rather than choose the path of quick satisfaction and embrace the benefits that would come with renouncing their illegal religion, the two stand strong under relentless persecution in hopes of a future joy. Indeed, Bollback seems to be using the story of their relationship as a metaphor for a believer’s walk with God. To shun the world and its pleasures in exchange for eternal life is the decision every Christian must make, and like Anching and Meiling, it requires steadfast perseverance. Another character that the book focuses on is Pastor Yang, who has been sentenced to twenty years of manual labor for his faith. Rather than repent of his religion and be granted a shorter sentence, he holds fast to his faith, trusting that God can use him even in a prison camp. While there, he is able to witness to multiple other prisoners and give them hope in the midst of their hardship, and he even shares the Gospel with the guards who rule over him. His life is an example of how God can work even in the darkest places, a symbol perhaps for the church’s growth in China during the past half-century.
Bollback’s novel in many ways resembles the Book of Acts. Supernatural occurrences are common, and some even parallel actual events from the Bible. Miraculous healings, messages in dreams, and divine retribution fill the pages of Exiles of Hope and may even cause the reader to wonder whether the events actually took place. While Exiles of Hope is a fictional story, Bollback affirmed in his introduction that the happenings in the book are all based on reliable sources. He writes, “These incidents are not the figment of my imagination; they are things that actually happened as believers trusted in the Lord completely.” It is certainly convicting to read of believers offering to help heal a dying person and declaring confidently that the living God will indeed cure them. So often do we 21st century Christians assign miracles to the pages of Scripture, when Jesus’ promise in John 14:12-14 still holds true to this day. To believe him when he says “anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing” is something that many Christians find difficult, but Exiles of Hope is a testament to what true faith can accomplish. Equally thought-provoking is the way in which Chinese believers at the time would endure unthinkable torture and hardship and still hold fast to their faith. Jesus’ declaration that “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” is lived out in , and while reading, it is hard not to wonder if oneself would be able to be as faithful a witness in such trials. Beatings and Bible burnings aren’t as common of threats nowadays, at least not in America or China’s major cities, but the spirit of perseverance that we should meet the obstacles before us with remains the same.
Another similarity between Exiles of Hope and The Book of Acts is Anching’s mission to spread the Gospel throughout mainland China. After spending many years in Hong Kong, he finally sets out to find Meiling, re-entering Communist China in full knowledge that to do so is to put his life on the line. By traveling through remote villages, he is able to reach out to people who have no knowledge of the Christian faith, and are also further removed from the reach of the Communist government. Like Paul in his journeys through the Roman Empire, Anching is tireless in his mission to spread the Good News, even when it results in suffering. He displays God’s power through miracles and healings, and he begins to set up a network of believers across the countryside.
By Josiah Case