The beach was shrouded in darkness. The eerie silence was occasionally broken by the sound of waves gently lapping the seashore. Hundreds of Christians were silently clustered on the coast of Southern China.
They were waiting to take part in what is now considered a pivotal moment in the history of Chinese Christianity. This was Project Pearl, an extraordinary operation to smuggle a million contraband Bibles into the country in a single night.
Forty years ago, late in the evening of 18 June 1981, a barge called Gabriella emerged from the darkness with a crew of 20 and its cargo of a million Bibles. Waiting on the shore were Chinese Christians ready to receive the Bibles and distribute them to fellow believers throughout the country.
"I remember a giant ship with no flags slowly approaching the harbour," remembers Xiao Chen*, then a teenager who was in the waiting crowd.
"Everyone at the beach seemed very anxious. Then, a small rubber boat came down from the ship. I saw my elder brother rowing to the ship and speaking to a foreigner who might have been the captain."
The Project Pearl takes shape
The project's instigator was a Chinese Christian woman called Mama Kwang whose husband was in prison for his faith. Mama Kwang led a house church network they had established, and she told Open Doors they were in desperate need of Bibles. The church in China was growing but many thousands of existing Bibles had been burned during Mao's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.
After discussing the idea with Brother Andrew, the founder of Open Doors, the staff members were given the green light. They would reach China by sea. Everything had to be done in utmost secrecy, from the preparation to the sailing and delivery.
Terry Madison was one of the crew members. Before the trip, it was his job to write all the material to raise the millions of dollars that they needed for the mission – without being able to say what they were doing. "That was a challenge," Terry admits. "How can you raise millions of dollars and expect people to send in their gifts without telling them what you're going to do? But to their great credit, our supporters sent in gifts to make it happen."
Paul Estabrooks, another Open Doors team member on board that night, was involved in the audacious project at its every stage. The first challenge to overcome was the printing and packaging of the Bibles.
"They were printed in the United States where two printing presses worked day and night for weeks to print the Bibles," Paul says. "Each one weighed half a pound. It was the complete Bible in simplified Chinese script. A million of them weighed 232 tons."
The Bibles were then shipped to San Francisco where they were packaged into waterproof blocks each weighing a ton but still able to float on water.
Then, the blocks were sent to Hong Kong where Gabriella, the boat specially built for this project, was waiting. The crew, all of them Open Doors workers from around the world trained for the mission, loaded the Bibles with a crane onto the deck.
"As we got closer to the day, we realised that this was really serious: we could die or be imprisoned," Terry remembers. "So, there was one point, I think a day or two before the trip, when we were all given a chance to say, 'This has been wonderful, I have contributed what I could, but I'm not going to make the trip.' None of us did."
The night of miracles
They arrived off the shore of the beach at around 9pm. The plan was to drop off all 232 one-ton blocks in one hour.
Christians who were waiting on the beach, got into the sea to receive the precious cargo. Some of them up to their neck in the water. The volunteer army caught the ropes thrown to them and towed the floating blocks of Bibles to shore.
The task of unloading took the crew and the Chinese Christians two hours. In that time, no marine security guards or police officers showed up.
Paul Estabrooks recalls: "We made a lot of noise. And yet, nobody intercepted us. It was an amazing protection of God."
There was a lookout tower less than half a mile away from the beach and another one, the highest in the whole district, a little farther away. That night, the watchtower men had left their post for a quick drink, got drunk and fallen asleep, local Christians later discovered. By the time they returned to the tower, Gabriella was already long gone.
The secret unveiled
Although the vast majority of Bibles were collected and safely stored, there were still boxes floating in the sea, so the security guards quickly called the authorities.
The authorities launched an investigation into what had happened that night; it lasted eight years. Many Christians were investigated, arrested, and two were imprisoned for two years.
"The fact that a foreign ship successfully passed through the marine security and brought a million Bibles to China in one night was shameful to the government," says Wang Fang*, a woman from a nearby village.
Li Wei*, an elder of a local church that was involved in Project Pearl, was one of those arrested as part of the investigation. Years later, he wrote an account of his experience of that night: "All of our church members, who were physically able, gathered at the beach to salvage the Bibles. We worked until after 4am. Others in the village had called the authorities. After the sun had risen, security officials came to monitor what was happening. On the second day, they started to investigate and burned the Bibles that we had stored somewhere on the beach for later collection. But most of the Bibles were already hidden by us."
In the same clandestine manner, the Bibles were transported to different parts of China. According to Wang Fang, Project Pearl catalysed a major revival of Christianity in China and had a tremendous impact on the development of the growing house church movement.
"Many people in different regions received their own Bible, many churches rose up, thousands and thousands of people accepted Jesus, and many church leaders were born," she says.
* Names changed for security reasons
Zara Sarvarian works for Open Doors UK & Ireland. Open Doors is an international Christian charity which supports and speaks up for Christians around the world who face persecution and discrimination for their faith. It continues to provide biblical materials for Christians in China, with a particular focus on Christians from minority ethnic backgrounds.