Growing up in communist China, LiMin An was told there was "no God, just government," so practicing any kind of religion remained off limits. Since he and his wife, Hong Yan Yang, worked in the science and math professions, where all problems have clear-cut answers, there was little need for faith.
Throughout his life, however, An has been met with situations that couldn't always be logically explained.
When he and his wife moved to Wauwatosa, they had the opportunity to explore religion and the Bible. In 2003, they started attending meetings of Chinese Fellowship-Milwaukee, a group that meets every Saturday at Elm Grove Evangelical Lutheran Church.
While the Chinese Fellowship is not affiliated with Elm Grove Lutheran, the local church has welcomed the group to socialize and worship in its facility.
Welcoming year of the boar
On Feb. 17, the fellowship invited friends and members of Elm Grove Lutheran to a Chinese New Year's celebration that included three long tables full of homemade traditional Chinese dishes and 26 performances of music and dance.
"It's the biggest holiday in China, like your Christmas," said Li Juan, who moved to Brookfield with her husband and daughter in 2003.
Because the Chinese operate on a different calendar year, New Year's Eve occurs in January or February. Each year is represented by one of 12 animals; this is the year of the pig or boar.
"If you're born in this year, you are said to be similar to that animal's personality," Juan said.
Boars - those born in 1995, 1983 and every 12 years before - are smart, honest and hardworking.
Juan said it's important to her to celebrate the Chinese holiday to expose her teenage daughter, Lailai Sun, to the traditions of their homeland.
"The children who grow up here don't know a lot of Chinese culture," she said.
Lailai attends the Elmbrook School District, speaks fluent English and listens to American music. She, like many of the other children attending Chinese Fellowship, has been baptized, although her parents have not.
Embracing new religion slowly
All members of Chinese Fellowship are from China. Many of them came to the U.S. to work as researchers at the Medical College of Wisconsin, General Electric and Marquette University.
It took An some time to feel comfortable attending organized religious activities. He attended infrequently for the first year, but his children embraced Bible study and the family made friends who were struggling with the same questions.
"For most of Chinese (people), when you tell me there is a God, I don't believe," he said. "But we are on our way to believing. I need some time to accept some things."
Yu Liu, the chairman of Chinese Fellowship who lives in Mequon, joined the group to learn about Western Culture and to give his children the opportunity to make up their own minds about their beliefs - an opportunity he wasn't afforded in China.
Like An, Liu spent his life rejecting the idea of a higher power, but now finds himself becoming more accepting. His children - ages 12 and 10 - didn't find themselves conflicted.
"They came to my wife and I and said they wanted to be baptized," he said.
Worshipping their own way
To date, Chinese Fellowship has seen 33 baptisms and numerous confirmations, said Pastor Gerald Lange, an Elm Grove resident who organizes the fellowship.
Lange, who is not Chinese, served as a missionary for six years in Hong Kong. He taught religious studies for many years at Wisconsin Lutheran College. Now he teaches Bible study at the Blood Research Institute in Wauwatosa, which has employees from around the globe, many of whom have joined Chinese Fellowship.
"This is an opportunity to reach them with the gospel," he said.
Because the group includes people from across the belief spectrum, it doesn't host typical worship services. The group typically holds a potluck dinner and Bible study for adults and children. Members sing hymns and take communion once per month. Religious materials are in English and Chinese.
Members also participate in activities including volleyball, basketball, cards and watching movies. An teaches tai chi to members who prefer less rigorous exercise.
There is also time allotted for members to practice their English skills.
Juan said it was the ability to learn about American life in a nonthreatening environment that attracted her to the group. Today, Chinese Fellowship has become an integral part of her spiritual and social lives.
"Late on you start to feel like you're into a group, that you should be here," she said.
Staff Writer Stefanie Scott can be reached at (262) 317-8565. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
BY THE NUMBERS
60 to 70
average weekly attendance
at Chinese Fellowship-Milwaukee gatherings
attended Chinese New Year celebration
year Chinese Fellowship-Milwaukee formed
people came to first meeting
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