Some people thought it was a pretty big deal, even mildly heroic, when President Clinton attended church in China and later talked publicly about religious freedom in a country not especially known for it.
Oh, the stories Dan Wooding of Garden Grove could tell the president.
Wooding is a 57-year-old writer-broadcaster who's made the plight of persecuted Christians his life's work. Most of his life, that is. We won't count the mid-'70s while working for a London tabloid, when three years of sleazy stories and good ale succeeded in stealing his faith.
Back in the fold since 1978, however, Wooding now surveys the world from his office on Trask Avenue, where a Web site links him to a global network of personal contacts and religious news services. "Within hours of someone being arrested almost anywhere in the world," he says, "it's on the Internet."
So if a story breaks, as one did recently in Saudi Arabia, where 11 Christians were arrested, Wooding springs into action. "Five different versions are coming in, so I go to the one source that I know is conservative and accurate and that doesn't rush into print."
Once he's convinced he's got the story right, Wooding begins shipping his copy to his outlets around the world, most of them religious-oriented publications. "In 10 minutes, I can be in 1,000 media places."
In a way that Americans can't relate to, millions of Christians abroad have to worship secretly or risk going to jail or losing their lives. And while repression still exists in many parts of China, Wooding says, the overall situation is improving.
"There's never been, in the history of Christianity, a situation so incredible as China. It has the fastest-growing church in the world, the great majority of whom are illegal because they're unregistered. Clinton went to a registered church, but you've got maybe 80 million illegal Christians meeting in homes and secret places."
Because it seems to best fit with ancient Chinese traditions involving the supernatural and the spirit world, the form of Christianity most popular in China would be considered "charismatic" in the United States, Wooding says. The Chinese government probably will grow increasingly powerless to repress Christians, Wooding says, if only because their numbers will become so large. "Even as we speak, Bible smugglers are arriving at Chinese airports with suitcases full of Bibles."
With the president's trip in mind, Americans may think the biggest problems Christians outside America face have in China. Not so, Wooding says: "Saudi Arabia is now listed as the world's most discriminatory country against Christians. China is not in the same league as Saudi Arabia. When many believers today shout about human rights abuses in China . . . they might want to turn their attention to a much worse abuser of Christians, and that's the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. China would be about five or six on the list of persecuting nations."
Having traveled the world the last 25 years to meet with and write about Christian dissidents, Wooding's admiration for them is matched only by his disappointment for how Western churches react.
"This [worldwide persecution] is one area churches seem to have forgotten about," he says. "Churches in the West and particularly the United States often are self-focused and tied up in their own situations. They look inward too much, instead of outward. If I read the Bible correctly, we're told we have to bear each other's burdens. To be perfectly honest, Christians in persecuted churches around the world have been bearing the burdens, and we've been doing most of the whining."
Despite the sometimes dour news he receives from around the world, Wooding is an innately upbeat and funny man. And although he walked away from his Godforsaken days, it's not as though he's totally disclaimed them. On a recent trip to London, he returned to his old haunts, hoping to revisit the Stab in the Back pub, where he downed a lot of grog and, perhaps more important, reaffirmed his religious faith one night.
Alas, it was closed.
Worse yet, his old paper, the Sunday People, and some other infamous Fleet Street tabs have moved to another part of London. "All my memories have gone," Wooding laments. "They've moved to hopeless, dreadful skyscrapers. They've lost all their character."
Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821, by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.