In the 1940s, following a missiological vision of “Back to Jerusalem,” a group of visionary Chinese Christians set out with a heart for evangelizing Muslims, aspiring to traverse China’s northwestern provinces and neighboring countries.

He Enzheng and her future husband Zhao Maijia (Mecca Zhao) were among this group of pioneers. Their goal was to bring the gospel to Xinjiang, the autonomous region in China where the Uyghurs are the dominant ethnic group. Their efforts planted seeds that continue to shape the spiritual heritage of the Chinese church, motivating Christians to carry on their mission.

Born in rural Hebei province in October 1917, He grew up in the church in Tianjin and experienced spiritual rebirth at a revival meeting at age 15. At 17, she felt called to distant mission fields and pursued this vision at a Bible college. After she graduated in 1937, no opportunity for mission to unreached areas materialized, leading her to serve locally while seeking God’s direction.

In time, He joined the mission of the Northwest Bible College in Fengxiang, Shaanxi, teaching the Bible while caring for female students. The school was established in 1940 by Dai Yongmian (the Chinese name of James Hudson Taylor II, grandson of Hudson Taylor), with a focus on evangelizing the Muslim regions of northwest China. The college played a key role in training preachers and evangelists who served in that area.

On Easter 1943, Ma Ke, the vice president of the college, along with He and 13 others, received a vision to evangelize Xinjiang, a large region in the northwest. They formed the “Chinese Back to Jerusalem Evangelistic Band,” a groundbreaking, interdenominational Chinese organization free from foreign missionary leadership and financial dependence. Its formation was a pivotal moment in Chinese church history, and five out of seven of its members were women.

In 1947, He, Zhao, and other members of the Evangelistic Band embarked on a mission to Shule, Xinjiang’s westernmost region, from Xining, the capital of Qinghai province. Whereas other northwestern provinces including Shaanxi, Ningxia, Qinghai, and Gansu had established churches, Xinjiang was still unreached. The journey from Xining to Shule was around 3,000 kilometers (about 1,800 miles). Despite the arduous journey and their awareness of potential dangers, the band moved forward in faith, supporting churches along the way and sometimes stopping to assist local ministries. They persevered through challenges, including bandit attacks, sustained by their faith and God’s provision.

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However, their journey ended abruptly when troops sent by Qinghai province’s Muslim warlord governor Ma Bufang, who opposed Christian missions in the northwest, stopped them. All but Zhao, who stayed to handle the camels and goods, were turned back to Xining. Despite this setback, He remained undeterred. She returned to Lanzhou, Gansu, continuing her service and learning Arabic to prepare for future missions.

In spring 1948, Zhao ventured from Gansu to the city of Hami, becoming the first Han Chinese missionary in the southern part of Xinjiang. That same year, He Enzheng also made her way to Xinjiang, finally reaching Urumqi and serving in its only church.

In 1953, after the Communist Party took over the power to rule China, He and Zhao decided to marry in southern Xinjiang. When He was preparing to go to Shule to join Zhao, some tried to dissuade her, saying, “The situation is tense now, and many have been imprisoned. Zhao might face forced labor, if not death. It’s enough for him to suffer; why should you also take the burden?”

She replied, “The door to southern Xinjiang has just opened, and a church has been established. If Zhao dies, what will happen to the church? He has committed himself there; if he is not afraid to die, how can I be afraid? If he is sent to forced labor, I can bring him food; if he dies, I can continue his work.”

After marrying in Shule, the couple served in Shache and Kashgar, where they encountered resistance to their evangelistic work from Muslim leaders. Moreover, the local Communist government suspected them of being counterrevolutionaries or spies for Western countries and continuously pressured them to confess. Amid these harsh conditions, He explained, “Wherever we went, people were kind to us, but we couldn’t evangelize openly, which was hard for us.”

The situation grew more precarious. The churches they had established were forced to close, and there was no longer a place for them to serve, so they had to take other jobs. Zhao took an accounting position, while his wife found work in a garment factory and a kindergarten. Although they couldn’t preach openly, they served the people with a heart for God wherever they were, earning respect from the locals.

In 1966, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, He, guided by divine revelation, left Xinjiang with her two sons. They returned to Shanxi and Beijing for two years, avoiding the severe persecution in Xinjiang. However, Zhao stayed in Shache. He was labeled a spy, traitor, and counterrevolutionary, enduring harsh criticism and struggle. After the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976, Zhao remained in the region and continued his accounting work until his retirement in 1987.

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After the Cultural Revolution ended, He Enzheng returned to the Xinjiang region with her children and was finally reunited with her husband. Both served faithfully in their workplaces. In 1989, Zhao suffered a stroke, which severely limited his ability to walk and speak. However, until his death in 2007, he was always moved to tears whenever he heard the words Back to Jerusalem Evangelistic Band. He Enzheng continued to diligently share the gospel in southern Xinjiang until she passed away in 2014 at age 97.

With regard to the ambitions of the Evangelistic Band, He said:

Sixty years ago, we joyfully embarked on this path. We are still here now, not seeing much fruit … but I firmly believe that he who began a good work in us will carry it on to completion. … Zhao Maijia and I will die here. We never planned to return alive, but we see that others will follow. … I pray that the Lord will continue to call more brothers and sisters with the same Spirit who called us, to complete this work together.

Though Zhao and He did not witness the complete fulfillment of their original vision, their faith and sacrifices have inspired many Chinese Christians to devote their lives to mission. Today the mission of “bringing the gospel back to Jerusalem” through the Xinjiang and Muslim regions in middle Asia continues in various forms within both Chinese and Western churches.

Editor’s note: The Chinese version of this article is reposted with permission from Remarkable Women in Church History, published by Overseas Campus Ministries. The author met and interviewed multiple past coworkers in the Back to Jerusalem Evangelistic Band as well as pastors Dai Shaozeng (James Hudson Taylor III) and Thomas Wang, who personally heard the testimonies told by He Enzheng herself.

Edwin Su is founder and trustee board chairman of Overseas Campus Ministries (OCM) and an expert in Chinese church history. Ding Yijia s a student at Logos Theological Seminary in California and is engaged in full-time student ministry in Pennsylvania with her husband.

Translated to English by Ariel Bi

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文. ]