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To China with love - Depot Marine answers calling to spread faith in Asia

By Lance Cpl. Jess Levens | | February 13, 2004

MARINE CORPS RECRUIT DEPOT SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- He sits at his desk tying up loose ends and doing the last of his Marine Corps duties, only stopping to sip from his Proverbs 20:7 coffee mug and reminisce over his long tenure. A sigh escapes his lips.

Deputy assistant chief of staff Lt. Col. Hugh A. Henry sighs with gratitude and relief. He sips, peering over his mug into a unique future with his family doing what he said is his calling in a service other than the Corps: spreading Christianity, which he plans to do in China in a couple months.

Raised Roman Catholic in a Marine Corps family, Henry became interested in God at an early age.

"I always had great respect for God and the Bible," said Henry. "When I was 7 years old, a question popped into my head. 'How do I know I'll go to Heaven? Do I have to be a priest to know?'"

This question stayed with Henry and was finally answered when he was 16, living in Cherry Point, N.C.

"My friends invited me to a Billy Graham crusade," said Henry. "I was reluctant because of my loyalty to the Catholic Church, but I still had a lot of questions."

Henry said Graham's sermon made sense to him and everything started coming together. Then came the alter call, when Graham invited audience members to come to the stage and accept Jesus Christ as their savior.

"I felt it inside me, but for some reason, I wouldn't go down there," said Henry. "I realized I was embarrassed to go in front of my friends, which was silly. So I swallowed my pride. I'd rather have an opportunity for a real relationship with God than look cool in front of my friends."

So Henry went to the alter where he met one of Graham's counselors. The counselor showed Henry a pamphlet that pictured two cliffs with a valley in the middle. One cliff was labeled "God," and the other "man." Written in the valley was the word "sin." A cross lay over the valley, forming a bridge between man and God.

"That was the first time I understood how to have a personal relationship with God," said Henry.

Henry stayed faithful, and about two years later, a new journey began in his life. He was accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Before enrolling there, he had to complete courses at the Naval Academy Preparatory School.

"I was lonely at NAPS," said Henry. "Every night, I stayed in my room and prayed and wrote in my journal. One evening I wrote, 'I want to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.' I studied the disciples closer and decided that's what I wanted. Following Him is a simple priority. All (disciples) did was follow Jesus and spread his word."

Henry kept that new priority hidden in his heart and finished NAPS. In his freshman year at the academy, some upperclassmen invited him and fellow Plebes -freshmen at the academy - to a Bible study.

"I enjoyed this Bible study because the leaders never tried to push Christianity on anyone," said Henry. "The answers to everyone's question were always right there in the Bible."

While going to a Christian conference with his study group, Henry came across a scripture that changed his life forever: Acts 20:24.

"However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me - the task of testifying to the gospel of God's grace."

"That verse has guided my life for the last 28 years," said Henry.

While serving at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., in 1984, four years after being commissioned an officer, Henry met a young sailor named Tom Frakes at the racquetball court. Their friendship eventually led Frakes to Christianity.

When Frakes left the Navy, he moved to China as a missionary and gave Henry an open-invitation to join him.

"That is what I feel I was called to do," said Henry. "I knew when I was done with the Corps I was going to be a missionary."

Henry saw Frakes periodically and Frakes again extended the invitation to join the missionary team in China.

Henry shared the idea with his wife of 14 years, Crickett, who enthusiastically agreed.

"I loved the idea," said Crickett. "I felt God put China in my heart several years ago, and it was just confirmation of God's plan for us when Hugh brought it up."

Henry and his wife thought and prayed hard on the subject before presenting the idea to their children, who are all under 14 years old, and home schooled.

"Megan, my oldest, said she loved the idea," said Henry. "She told me if we didn't go, she planned to go anyway when she was old enough."

The other kids, Matthew, Rebekah, Samuel and Caleb, concurred with the idea, according to Henry.

"Our family has done several military moves," said Crickett. "So the kids and I were used to packing up and leaving everything behind. But this time, we're selling almost everything we have. We don't really plan to come back this time."

Shortly after the decision to go to China, Crickett saw a newspaper advertisement for the Chinese Bible Church of San Diego.

"She showed it to me as a joke, and I said, 'Sounds great. Let's go,'" said Henry. "So we went as a family and were welcomed quite warmly. We still attend services every week."

Henry started to use the skills and experience of his fellow church members, who are all Chinese.

"We have been learning Chinese for about a year and a half," said Henry. "We bought cassette tapes and books, but the greatest help has been the congregation."

The church members were quickly excited when they heard the Henry family plan and wanted to help in every way, including cultural lessons, language lessons and Chinese dinners.

Henry has also used a workbook titled "The Call of God" and sought the counsel of several Christian mentors.

With the majority of training and lessons complete, the Henry family is scheduled to leave for China in April after Henry's time on active duty is over. They will minister in the city of Guangzhou, in Southeastern China, where the SARS virus erupted.

With SARS mostly subdued, the Henry family has other serious concerns.

"In a city of 10 million people, we will stick out like a sore thumb," said Henry. "It will definitely be a culture shock, especially for the kids. We will have to adjust to a whole new way of life."

People shop for groceries and clothing in outdoor markets and bargain for the best prices.

"We will try to hire someone to do our grocery shopping and cooking," said Henry. "Americans are usually given bad prices and don't know how to barter correctly."

Henry said it will also be tough moving from a normal, American house to a Chinese apartment building.

The biggest challenge lies in carrying out his God-given mission in a country that isn't exactly Christian friendly.

"Since the Communists took control of China in the 1940s, they've tried to drive out Christianity," said Henry. "It started by imprisoning Christians and church officials."

Today, China is somewhat more lenient toward Christians. The Chinese government established the Religious Affairs Bureau, which closely monitors all religious activity in the country.

"The bureau allows Christianity at official government churches," said Henry. "But those churches are limited in what they can teach. For example, the churches aren't allowed to teach about Christ's resurrection, which is one of the most important parts of the Bible."

The Chinese also hold secret church services out of their homes, but those services are often raided or broken up.

Until they are proficient in the Chinese language, the Henrys will start their evangelism by holding Bible studies on university campuses where people speak English.

Henry will be on terminal leave during his first days in Asia, and must get special U.S. government permission to enter China. He said the process is in the works and the outcome looks good.

Henry said the Marine Corps had a hand in grooming him for this mission in several ways.

"The Corps has given me discipline and perseverance to do what I need to do," said Henry. "It's also taught me to use compassion for those less fortunate. The core values, honor, courage and commitment, are also very important when it comes to evangelism."

"The leadership and discipline the military gave him had a good spiritual impact," added Crickett. "That, in turn, helped our family."

China felt the Corps' presence in the early 1900s during the Boxer Rebellion. A group of martial artists gained some power and tried to oust all Western influence by terrorizing businesses and people. The Marines were sent in to police the Boxers.

"My stint in China won't be anything like that," said Henry. "I want the Chinese people to see God's love and use it to make them better citizens. Once the officials understand we don't want to control them or overthrow the government, being a missionary will be much easier."

The officers who serve above Henry have also taken note of his brave, selfless mission.

"Service is the hallmark of a Marine - service to country, support and protection of the Constitution and service to our brother and sister Marines," said Col. Ana R. Smythe, commanding officer of Headquarters and Service Battalion. "It has been the credo of Lt. Col. Henry throughout his career. Now he is turning that service to his God in an endeavor strengthened with the support of his entire family as a missionary in China. I know that mission accomplishment and the welfare of his congregation will still be his goals in his calling to be an example of faith. We add our prayers for his success."

Henry's retirement ceremony is today, and he starts terminal leave Feb. 23. Until then, he'll do his duties and use his proverbial coffee mug as a testament to his faith.

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