In 1981, Christians in China weren’t allowed to gather at church, or own a Bible. Many were imprisoned, tortured, or even killed for their faith in Jesus.
A plan was hatched by Open Doors to courier one million Bibles into China, overnight. It was called ‘Project Pearl.’ Many of the crew of 20 had never been to sea, yet they stepped out in faith as they boarded the custom-built barge carrying one million Bibles.
Time magazine called the ‘risky rendezvous’ the greatest smuggle of the 20th century.
But what happened on 18 June, in 198, when a barge in Hong Kong was loaded with 232 one-ton waterproof packages, full of Bibles?
The morning of June 18, 1981, the sea was flat. Pablo was commanding the small tugboat that would ferry the Bibles from barge to the shores of the secluded Chinese beach. He started the morning on the bow of the boat reading his daily devotional. It read:
‘At last we are on our way to the Promised Land. Come with us and we will do you good; for the Lord has given wonderful promises to Israel! … Keep a close watch on all you do and think. Stay true to what is right and God will bless you and use you to help others.’
The sea remained calm and Captain Bill began steering the barge, with the tug boat in tow, out of international waters and into China. The crew raised the Chinese flag on the foremast. The mission had begun and there was no turning back.
When the sun began to set and the ocean remained glassy and smooth, Pablo spotted several Chinese gunboats in the harbour ahead of their barge. As one headed straight towards them, the crew of 20 began to pray. Anyone who was not Chinese was forced to hide and the crew waited for the gunship to pass. It glided past them without raising the alarm, and the barge continued toward the designated cove.
The ship’s lights were turned off and Captain Bill reduced their speed as they entered the cove during high tide. A flashlight beam signalled them from the beach three times.
They had reached their destination.
Some of the crew travelled to shore with 50 pairs of shears for local believers to cut off the waterproof wrapping around the packages of Bibles that they would soon deliver.
The barge carrying the Bibles was partially submerged to allow the one-ton waterproof packages to float.
Thousands of local believers met the Open Doors crew at the beach. Many even waded into the water up to their necks, desperate to get their hands on a Bible.
Several of the Chinese men pulled the packages of Bibles up onto the sand. They cut open the waterproof wrapping and passed the cardboard boxes of Bibles up the line as believers lined up from the beach to the tree line. There, the Bibles were packed onto bikes and cars and dispersed deep into China.
Over two hours later, the Open Doors crew had unloaded all the Bibles and returned to the barge.
The crew had a praise meeting in the mess hall before they were finally able to begin the trip back into international waters.
Over celebratory cake the crew exchanged their experiences of unloading the Bibles onto the beach:
“There had to be more than two thousand people on the beach at the height of the delivery.”
“I‘ll never forget the moment the first packages came to shore. They wanted to keep touching the books. The joy on their faces will be with me forever.”
“I helped a Chinese believer pull them up on the sand. Our eyes met and we hugged each other just briefly before I had to jump back into the boat.”
“Sister Lili told me about a lady who’d been coming to this beach every day for two years to pray that God would send His Word to the Chinese church. How neat to see her faith and faithfulness being rewarded on this very night.”
The Bible smuggling barge crossed back into international waters and Captain Bill’s radar indicated no other ships had followed them from the cove. The crew burst into praise.
Beyond Project Pearl
After Open Doors delivered the Bibles into China, the nation was flooded with the good news of the gospel.
But God was far from finished.
Later that night, some of the fishermen who witness the operation reported it to the authorities. The Christians who met them on shore had packed the Bibles on the back of their bikes, motorcycles, and cars to disperse them across China. But the Bibles that remained behind, the authorities attempted to throw back into the ocean or burn.
However, a downpour of rain put out the fires and the current carried the remaining Bibles into the next cove. Fishermen collected the books, dried them, and sold them at the market.
For many years, the Bibles travelled widely throughout China’s provinces, just as the house church movement was growing across the country.
40 years later, China has never been the same.