To China and Back, and Beyond: How Ann and David Wilson hope to establish a future for volunteers in China starting right here at home

By Jennifer Colosimo

It’s all about who you know, so it is said. That’s how you stay in the loop, how you get ahead, and how you find success, many would agree. But, if we’re honest, that common phrase can mean something different for Christians, because we know it’s not necessarily about us, but about God.

That’s a little hard to stomach, right now, for field personnel and volunteers who’ve answered God’s call to serve in China. When the pandemic hit, China all but shut its doors to tourists, field personnel and anyone who wasn’t there for employment. It’s still that way today, tensions high over issues beyond just Covid-19. As Ina Winstead, one of CBF’s first field personnel to serve in China, would say, “Feet on the ground, means the Gospel is on the ground,” so without the feet for nearly two years, she knows there is a lot of ground to cover.

Ina and her husband, Ron Winstead, began working with CBF in China in 1996. They spent their first few years there working to establish relationships for CBF with different universities, the China Christian Council and The Amity Foundation so that, together, they could make a greater impact on the people there. From there, they led summer English camps at Guangxi University and established co-ops with local churches to conduct social ministry projects like building elementary schools, bringing electricity to remote villages, and digging wells for clean water. They connected CBF churches and individuals to these projects and opened avenues for donations of food and funds. They helped facilitate the CBF’s contribution to building an orphanage, and aided in the distribution of 2,000 Bibles to retired political leaders in Guangxi. The Winsteads retired from CBF in 2001, but their legacy—and long list of connections—paved the way for people to continue serving there.

Two of those people are Ann and David Wilson. Their story in China started in 1988, when Ann took her first trip there as part of the Lottie Moon Tour led by the WMU. Following that, Ann spent her summers teaching in China and traveling extensively, eventually leading a WMU tour herself. Aside from Ann’s stories, David’s introduction to China came while on a business trip to Beijing in 1996 when he went to a Baskin-Robbins for ice cream. That may seem trivial, but there he experienced “being the presence of Christ” leading his first oral English lessons with more than 15 Chinese people. He extended his business trip, went back to that Baskin-Robbins the next night, and had the same moving experience. He was hooked.

Ann and David spent the next two decades serving in China in various ways, including founding Volunteers for China to facilitate the placement of Christian volunteers in places where the love of Christ could be shown through teaching.

Ann and David Wilson’s story in China started in 1988 when Ann took her first trip there as part of a Lottie Moon Tour. The couple founded Volunteers for China to facilitate the placement of Christian volunteers in places where the love of Christ could be shown through teaching. David (center) pictured with a class of teachers.

“The organization provides conversational English teaching opportunities that make a difference in the hearts of Chinese teachers and students through friendship and the gift of English language,” Ann said. “English is sought after by Chinese as a way to improve life opportunities. Volunteers for China is in China to help improve people’s lives. English is that tool for building relationships of trust and respect. Through teaching and conversation, we are able to model a Christian life.”

The Wilsons also began aiding CBF in 1998 as Volunteer Project Assistants for China, after Ron Winstead asked them to do so, where they used their knowledge and expertise to organize conversational English teacher teams as well as college student cultural exchange trips, arranging travel, hotels, logistics, insurance, and visas for as many as 91 volunteers annually.

The essence of both couples’ stories is the potential that rests in making friends as a way to get the Gospel on the ground. Both the Winsteads and the Wilsons have made a lot of friends in China, lifelong friends even. They visit them year after year, and those friends have visited them in the U.S. Relationships have planted seeds across China, seeds of what it means to be a Christian in real life, rather than what they might hear from leaders there. Much in part to that, the Wilsons are officially known as, “Friends of China,” a term that originated during CBF’s first awareness trip to China in 2002.

So it is a little about who you know to get ahead—they’ve found success in sharing the Gospel by making friends; and their greatest hope is that more people will be led to do the same, and, then, to actually do it.

“You know, when I first heard about the teaching program, I was interested,” Ann said. “I wrote to them to send me an application, and a few weeks later, I got it. But I talked myself out of it and kind of just put it out of my mind. A few weeks later, right after David had asked if I had heard about the assignment, they wrote to me again, and sent me another copy of the application. David’s encouragement to seek God’s will in this made me complete the second application and send it in. If I was accepted, then it would be God’s way of saying that’s where I needed to be. I was and so I went!”

Once she followed God’s call, she never stopped. And it’s changed her, and David, too. Just listening to them talk about China is endearing, story after story, ones to make you laugh, and ones to get you choked up. They’re inspiring, motivating and hopeful.

Of course, Covid didn’t care a bit about how much the Wilsons were fulfilling God’s call during their retirement in China and, when programming in the country was brought to a halt for Volunteers for China in 2019, they chose to temporarily find another way to fulfill God’s call.

In 2016, the Wilsons had started a fund through the CBF Foundation in honor of and respect for Ron and Ina Winstead to help volunteers get to China. The Winstead-Wilson Volunteers for China Endowment Fund’s intention is to provide funds for individuals or groups who wanted to go and serve there. It spent three years growing its bottom line healthy enough to begin rallying people, and then the pandemic settled in, and China closed its doors. No traveling to China, no meeting people there, no English classes. Now, the fund sits, six years old, itching for a little creativity.

“What we hope is that people will hear about this fund, and want to use it in ways we haven’t thought of,” said Ann, who throws out one idea of a college campus starting a ministry for Chinese students. “We can’t go to China right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t show Christ’s love to Chinese people that are here.”

Today, the Wilsons’ biggest hope is that the fund can be rethought of as something to serve the Chinese diaspora until the doors to China reopen. To keep making friends, and getting to know people, but maybe in different ways.

“Truly, you can go anywhere in the world and meet people from China,” David said. “Everywhere there are people from China with whom you can talk, serve and be a friend.”

“Those students can learn about Jesus here, and learn what it’s like to belong to a Christian community, and then take that back home with them,” Ann added. “Who knows how many people we could touch in China, by making just one friend here in the U.S.?”

The Wilsons have had the freedom, experience and resources to respond to the Lord’s leadership in this unique ministry. It will always be about helping others to go to China and experience what God is doing there—the ultimate goals that David and Ann have for Volunteers for China. As they wait for tensions to recede, they lean on the innovation and creativity of others who feel called to minister to the Chinese people to do the work of God that seems impossible.

“Can you just imagine how big of an impact on the world it could be if Chinese visitors and students in the U.S. were welcomed with kind and caring words of friendship?” David said. “By showing God’s love to those people right here in our community, we have no idea the impact that makes on their lives. That’s how we hope this fund can be perceived and that people will use it to spread God’s love no matter where they are in the world.”

So maybe it’s not just about who you know, but how well you know them—how well you love them while you know them. Succeeding in the latter right here at home may just be the change China needs.

To donate to the Winstead-Wilson Volunteers for China Endowment Fund, contact CBF Foundation President Shauw Chin Capps at scapps@cbf.net or 770-2201622

This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of fellowship! magazine. Check out the issue and subscribe for free at www.cbf.net/fellowship.

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