John** watched anxiously as his students hungrily devoured meager portions of rice gruel and traditional, plain wheat-buns called 'mantou' during mealtime at the music school in Beijing.
Earlier, he solemnly apologized to his pupils that he was unable to buy better food. Chinese authorities were constantly monitoring the school. It was no longer safe for donors and patrons to stop by. The situation was growing desperate.
During prayer, a student recited the Bible verse -"You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil, and my cup overflows." (Psalms 23:5)
Reassured by these words, John felt certain that he would see his students mature into China's newest generation of Christian musicians despite the adversities.
In 2005, John’s perseverance and dream seemed to be realized as he led the alumni to perform to crowds throughout China.
His music school was finding gradual acceptance even in secular Chinese society.
The same year, John brought his prodigies to Singapore to perform before an audience of ten thousand people. Eight hundred people at the concert later became believers.
"I think…[our school] is different from other music schools," a soprano named Ning later recalls. "It is not because [we had] exquisite skills or much intelligence, but the biggest difference is that there was love. There was real acceptance and encouragement, and the real presence of God."
[Starting with a Dream]
John, who is shy of his 40th birthday, often downplays his role since those events occurred -preferring to tell audiences that God was always "watching over the music school," and that the faith of his students in the "Heavenly Father" allowed the school to persevere.
The composer was once a rising-star at a state-owned symphony, but left after he turned to Christianity in 1996 and attended an underground house church.
As a Christian, John sought to make a difference in his newfound spiritual home.
In 2000, he started a music school, which could only provide barely-usable electric keyboards for students to practice music. Three years later, the first class of graduates was being dispatched to house churches throughout China.
Since then, the school grew to include several classrooms, new pianos, an ornate music hall, a practice room and a library.
Nonetheless, John says, the school remains to "train young worship leaders for house churches" so that "the holy music of churches will get developed…and attract more people to come in."
The students at the school come from virtually every corner of China - from Yunnan Province in China’s southwest to the northeastern province of Heilongjiang. Though most students are of Han-Chinese origins, a few are from the Miao ethnic minority.
"I’m especially happy here, just like when I was still a child," an ethnic-Miao believer shared.
Each day, students at the conservatory spend hours attending class and practicing music - only stopping to eat or rest at night in the school’s dormitory.
Though the work is hard, students are generally appreciative of the school.
"I thank God that I learned a lot here," said a 16-year-old male student from Heilongjiang Province.
"Because of… [the school] I began to desire to seek the Lord and make a relationship with Him, that’s the biggest benefit for me," a female student recalled.
John continues to believe that his pupils through "church music could affect society and culture" in modern, secular China.
His students often travel the world, performing at booked concerts in Europe and North America.
Favorite selections at the concert include the Canaan hymns. The hymns, commonly sung in house churches through China, were entirely composed by a musically-illiterate peasant girl named Xiao Min – who sang into a tape-recorder, and jotted down the lyrics for someone else to write the score.
Despite seeing amazing growth in the music school, John expressed wishes to see it push further in its development.
“We know that presently there are still a lot of needs in China’s house churches – it is far from being fulfilled,” he said. “I really hope there will be more brothers and sisters who can participate in our works. “
“We pray that every province has [our music school], so that more music of praise shall ring to all of China,” he added.
[**Editor’s Note: Names have been changed to ensure the anonymity and safety of the sources represented in the article.]