Mad Mission: a Shanghai Street Scene

The other afternoon I was in a very busy part of Shanghai, on my way into the subway entrance which I use several times per week. It’s been getting harder, though. Over the last two weeks the stairway has become a crowded marketplace of sorts, and it’s followed a predictable Shanghai-style progression: somebody gets away with selling a couple of video game cartridges, and the next thing you know there’s two guys with rabbit cages, a sharp-tongued lady with a box of puppies, and an abandoned carton of bagged goldfish that inevitably gets kicked down the stairs.

Anyway, that stairway has become so crowded and narrow that it’s impossible to tell, at first glance, who’s just trying to catch a train, who’s selling caged crickets, and who’s prophesying the end times (I’ll get to that). So, the other afternoon I’m about to descend the stairs when I notice a scrawny, gender uncertain presence in an old army shirt. She – and I think she was a she – had darker skin, long features, ragged hair, and hollow, round eyes – in other words, not a Shanghainese. She also had a broad, wild smile that she flashed at passersby, and a canvas satchel stuffed with crisp, stapled photocopies that she was handing out to anyone who caught that smile. She pushed one of the packets into my hand, and just as I grabbed it, pulled it back – the text was Chinese – and handed me an English version.

The rush hour momentum carried me down the stairs, and as I descended, I glanced at the packet: in decent English, it offered a particularly apocalyptic case for the immediate embrace of Christianity (it was signed by the authors, self-identified as “God’s two witnesses“). Now, as it happens, Christian missions are nothing new or unusual in China; they’re found in the biggest cities and the smallest towns. Though they often encounter push back from local governments, they’re generally tolerated so long as they keep a low profile, remain (apparently) ineffective, and don’t cross the wrong people.

For the record: handing out End Times literature at one of Shanghai’s busiest subway stations at rush doesn’t qualify as low-profile. It’s risky. In fact, it’s not just risky; it’s asking to be martyred – over and over (starting with the charming chengguan). So, as soon as I reached the bottom of the stairs, I rushed up the opposite flight and exit in hope of getting a better look at this mission. She was still there, still handing out her photocopied pamphlets. But now, beside her, was a tall, unshaved middle-aged gentleman in a navy fleece pull-over, black slacks, and a fanny pack. He was reading her pamphlet, chatting with her (she’s still smiling that wild smile) and – simultaneously – thumbing out a text message. As he pressed the ‘send’ key and slipped the phone back into his pocket, the scrappy young evangelist leaned over and said something in his ear. He nodded knowingly, smiled, and watched as she turned and dissolved into the busy rush hour crowd.

I watched him look for her over the hundreds of heads moving toward him, and the subway station, but she was gone. After a few seconds, he zipped the pamphlet into his fanny pack, and walked off. Who was he? No idea.

But this I know: the next day I was at the same station exit, and so was she. But instead of passing out literature, she was seated on the stairs, beside a woman handing out beauty product coupons, reading the very pamphlet that she’d handed out the day before. I gave some thought to approaching her, but then thought better of it and went on my way.

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