Project Pearl: The 40-year legacy of smuggling one million Bibles into China

June 18, 2021 by Lindy Lowry in Persecution updates

What does 1 million Bibles in one space look like? You might be able to picture a hundred Bibles, or even a thousand—but a million is an extraordinary amount. That’s how many Bibles a team of Open Doors workers delivered to a Chinese beach in one night, 40 years ago. Here’s the extraordinary story of that night, and its legacy.

The months-long undertaking began with a request for 30,000 New Testaments. A believer named Mama Kwang led a wide house church network in China, after her husband was put in prison for his faith.

Bibles were banned in China, but there was an enormous hunger among the underground church for access to the Word of God. Mama Kwang requested 30,000 New Testaments to answer an immediate need—and these were smuggled by Open Doors workers over the course of 10 days. But Mama Kwang knew that this was only a short-term measure.

“Thank you so much for these New Testaments,” she said, “but we’re still short. If every Christian we know is to have a Bible, we need 1 million Bibles.”

And so Project Pearl was born. The covert project was named after Matthew 13:45, where Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a pearl of great value. Taking 1 million Bibles into China was a daunting task, but the leaders of Open Doors were filled with faith that God would enable them to undertake this mission.

232 tons of Scripture

“It was a big challenge because we had [the Bibles] printed in the United States—the only place that had two printing presses working day and night for weeks to print 1 million Chinese Bibles,” remembers Paul Estabrook, who was part of Project Pearl. “Each Bible weighed half a pound. It was like a very fat pocket-size little Bible, but it was a complete Bible in the simplified script of China. A million of them weighed 232 tons.”

Printing 1 million Bibles was one thing—getting them to China from the United States was another.

“It took 20 containers to get all the blocks of books to Hong Kong,” Estabrook says. “There, we loaded it onto Gabriela (the name of the barge specially built in the Philippines for the project). The deck was just exactly large enough for 232 of those one-ton blocks.”

Twenty Open Doors workers from around the world came together into a crew to deliver the Bibles. Nineteen of them hadn’t even been to sea before. Mama Kwang had asked them to bring them to a beach just south of Shantou city, which had a high population of Christians. They would only have two hours to unload all 1 million Bibles.

Estabrook details one aspect of the project’s ingenuity: “The idea was the barge, Gabriela, had a submarine-like function. It wouldn’t go underwater, but it could drop down to the level of the water. We had electric side doors that would go down and then all of these blocks could be pulled off of the deck – and they all floated. They could only be towed very slowly. All of these blocks were roped together, and we towed them in a row to the beach.”

A miraculous night

For the waiting Chinese believers, Project Pearl felt like a long-anticipated miracle come to fruition.

“Hundreds—possibly even thousands—of Christians were waiting on the beach for us,” Estabrook remembers. “The men would come out into the water, some of them right up to their neck, and they would pull those blocks up on the beach.

“When you’re in foreign territory and you’re doing something clandestine, you want to be quiet and secretive. But we made a lot of noise. It was a very noisy operation. And yet nobody ever came by or stopped us or intercepted us or anything. It was an amazing protection of God.”

Xiao Chen* was a believer on that beach when the Bibles arrived. He was only a teenager at the time, but he remembers the scenes vividly: “I saw my elder brother rowing a boat to the ship and speaking to a foreigner who might have been the captain,” he says.

“After some time, they started to work. My elder brother and three other men formed a team to pull the rubber boat to the shore with a thick rope. The rubber boat had a full load of boxes. After unloading the boxes at the beach, they repeated the process—there were countless numbers of boxes. I didn’t know what was happening. Eventually, I knew those boxes were full of Bibles! A Bible was a miracle to us!”

The fuel of revival

In one night on one beach, 1 million Bibles arrived—but for many years they traveled widely throughout China’s provinces.

“That one group [of Christians] we gave them to shared them with other groups all over the country,” Etsabrook says. “They were able to share them, but it took five years. It took us two hours to offload them and five years to distribute all 1 million because of security issues and having to hide them.”

Charlie, a Christian who lived in China, was part of this distribution: “I recognized that God had called three groups of us to cooperate and make this project happen,” he says. “First, He called the church in the city to coordinate Project Pearl with overseas brothers and sisters. Second, He called those in the villages around the beach to pick up Bibles from the ship. Third, He called us who lived in the town to distribute Bibles to different regions in China.

“Of course, we never forget the tremendous efforts made by overseas brothers and sisters. Without their prayers, it would have been too hard to walk through those difficult years, and we would not have witnessed the revival and freedom today.”

Project Pearl yielded an astonishing impact in China. God’s timing was perfect—the million Bibles came just as the house church movement in China was multiplying exponentially across the country. Estabrook now owns one of the Bibles of a young pastor and evangelist—using that one Bible, he grew a network of 400,000 believers.

“It’s just incredible. The [Chinese] Christians said it was what really fueled the revival and the growth of house churches,” says Estabrook. “We didn’t know that would happen—it was because of God’s timing. We met the request that came to us, but the side effect was absolutely miraculous. It was just the right time to have all of these Bibles available for believers in China.”

The persecution squeeze in China today

Since Project Pearl in 1981, China has seen periods of relative freedom for Christians. Today, Christians in the country are under increasing pressure as the Chinese Communist Party works to instill nationalism and suffocate the church. Believers, especially church leaders, are subjected to raids, surveillance and even prison. China is No. 17 on Open Doors’ World Watch List—in just three years, the country has risen 26 places on the list.

Today in China, printed Bibles are only available in bookstores of government-sanctioned churches. Bibles can be read online, but the government has banned the sale of printed Bibles online.

“I am very aware that persecution is getting worse,” say Zhang Ming*, a young Christian in China. “I won’t be surprised if bulk purchase of Bibles becomes more and more difficult. But I’m not anxious. In fact, I’m full of hope, because the Bible’s prophecies and promises have prepared us for what is to come. We can’t possibly withstand persecution and hardship by ourselves, but by trusting the Lord we will be victorious.

“When I think about Project Pearl, and the way Christians around the world came together to raise money so it could happen, I praise God. This is one of the biggest miracles of the story! If it were not for the Holy Spirit’s work, this would be impossible. Praise God!”

Pray with Chinese believers

Praise God for the extraordinary impact of Project Pearl for generations of Chinese believers

Please pray with us for China. Ask God to prepare people’s hearts and to open doors for Chinese Christians.

Pray for an increase in workers and harvesters for the gospel. Pray that God raises up more young believers to spread the gospel.

Pray that Christians in China would be free to worship God without being oppressed or persecuted

Pray that Bibles (hard copy, digital, audio) would be available to all Chinese believers.

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