A review of My Dreams and Visions: An Autobiography, by Ted Choy with Leona Choy. Co-published: Winchester, Virginia: Golden Morning Publishing, and Paradise, Pennsylvania: Ambassadors For Christ, Inc., 1997.
When the story of the stupendous growth of the protestant church in China is fully told, the part played by overseas Chinese believers will surely be a prominent theme. This autobiography of Theodore (“Ted”) Choy (Tsai ), written by his wife Leona, contains in the life of one intrepid man (and his equally intrepid wife of 45 years) the various ways in which Chinese living outside of Mainland China have contributed to the spread of the Gospel there.
Ted Choy was born in Shantou (then called Swatow), Guangdong, in 1916, one of ten children. His father (Chua Hang-nguan) had become a believer in Christ through the witness and effective treatment of a Christian missionary doctor. His grandmother (Yang Hiang-sui) first opposed her son’s new faith, but eventually turned away from her idols to follow Christ as well, as did Ted’s mother. The whole family attended Bethel Church in Shantou.
Ted Choy started his education at the Bethel church grade school, then went to Hong Kong with his brother to attend St. Joseph’s College (a junior high school) and then LaSalle College ( a senior high school), both run by Roman Catholic priests. An indifferent student, he later regretted his lack of ability in Chinese and in English.
After going through a dark period, he committed himself to Christ towards the end of high school. During a revival meeting held in Hong Kong in the 1930s by the evangelist Dr. John Song, Choy dedicated himself to full-time Christian service. He first enrolled in Jia (Chia) Yu-ming’s seminary in Nanjing, but war conditions forced the school to close, so he transferred to the Canton Bible Institute (C.B.I.), which had moved from Guangzhou to Hong Kong. He graduated in 1939. Then he traveled to the U.S. with some of his teachers, who were returning on furlough, and entered the Evangelical Free Church Seminary in Chicago, Illinois (now called Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). After graduation from Trinity, he entered Wheaton College for further biblical and theological studies, supporting himself by working at odd jobs.
His career at Wheaton was interrupted when he volunteered to join the U.S. Marine Corps as a specialist interpreter. The Marines sent him to North China, where he also helped with Youth for Christ meetings for Chinese young people. After World War Two ended, he returned to Wheaton to complete his college degree. There he met Leona Spryncl, a second-generation Czech immigrant. They were married in 1947, right after Choy received his B.A.
Returning to Hong Kong in 1948, Choy took a position as pastor of the Swatow Christian Church in Kowloon. Three sons – Richard, Clifford, and Gary – were born during that period. Choy accepted a position to teach in a seminary in Singapore for one year, then sailed back to the U.S., where he began studies in the School of Religion of the University of Iowa, receiving an M.A. in 1955.
As an international student, Ted Choy could sympathize with others who had come from foreign countries to study in the United States. He and his wife joined International Students, Inc. (ISI), concentrating upon Chinese students for six years from their base in Washington, D.C. This work involved extensive travels to colleges throughout the country. Starting from a home Bible study, the Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D.C. was formed, with the Rev. Moses Chow as the first pastor.
In 1962, the Choys left ISI and co-founded a new ministry for Chinese students, Ambassadors for Christ, Inc. (AFC). Besides traveling to visit students, they opened their home to Chinese, using warm hospitality as a way to demonstrate the love of God. The ministry soon outgrew their home, however, and a generous gift from two Christian ladies (Christiana Tsai and Mary A. Leaman) enabled them to purchase property in Paradise, Pennsylvania, for the permanent headquarters for AFC, which was dedicated in 1971. Ted Choy served with AFC until his retirement in 1981, during which time he saw the rapid growth of both the ministry and the number of students coming from China.
The next phase of the Choys’ ministry began even while Ted was still serving with AFC. Soon after China began opening its doors to Western tourists, Leona joined one of the first tours. She took along some English-Chinese scriptures, as well as some Chinese Bibles, just in case she would have an opportunity to share them. People eager to read anything in English quickly exhausted her supplies of the bilingual books, but she wondered how she would find anyone who could use the Chinese Bibles.
A fellow Westerner on the tour, who had been a missionary in China, had arranged to meet with an old pastor whom she had known years ago. Leona packed all her Bibles into a shopping bag and went along. The reception they received by Christians desperate for the Word of God overwhelmed her, and left an indelible impression. Much of the rest of the book describes subsequent visits by both Ted and Leona, mostly to house church Christians, who joyfully accepted Christian literature, especially Bibles, and asked for Ted to share his knowledge of God with them. I was struck by their willingness to endure hardship, including illness, in order to serve this expanding church.
These were the heady days of rapid church growth, when Christians were still widely persecuted but refused to slacken in their devotion. Moving tales of courageous persistence in faithful witness to Christ make this biography also a narrative of Chinese church growth in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Choys made a dozen trips, often to isolated and hard-to-reach places, in order to minister to hungry souls. They even went to Hainan Island, at that time still a remote destination, to share the Gospel. Ted’s experience, and his extensive biblical knowledge, made him a valuable resource to churches bereft of pastoral care and teaching, while his fluency in the Shantou dialect gave him access in regions where he had spent his youth.
When the Choys showed them pictures of Chinese students who had become Christians in the US, their hosts were amazed, for they had been told that no educated person believe in Christ, and that Christianity had died out in the West.
In the 1980s, Leona organized tours to China, some of them for Christians, on which Ted accompanied her. They also used the postal service to send cassette tapes and Christian literature to Christians in China, until that became risky. Ted set up an “English Teaching Center,” which established links with people in China wanting to study English, using specially-published books, cassettes, and a magazine. Relationships with a university in Shanghai led to exchange programs for American Christian students, who were able to befriend and share their faith with their Chinese classmates. On rare occasions, they gave money to help pastors and their families in need.
As time progressed, so did the church in China, as Ted Choy’s biography describes in vivid detail. Now the greatest threat comes from the prosperity which has overtaken millions of Chinese after decades of deprivation. While depicting the courage and zeal of Chinese believers, the book does not gloss over the weaknesses of this burgeoning church. Indeed, it provides a rather accurate portrayal up to the early 1990s.
Ted Choy died in 1992 at the age of 76, after a life replete with varied, but always faithful, service to Chinese in the U.S. and in his home country. His career illustrates the crucial function that overseas Chinese Christians have served in the growth and maturation of what may now be the largest group of Protestant Christians in the world.