The Rev. Paul Tong sees himself as a Christian ambassador to Chinese immigrants who settle in Howard County and are seeking Christianity.
"I think there is a [spiritual] vacuum for them," said Mr. Tong, 48, pastor of the 14-year-old Columbia Chinese Baptist Church. "Those born in the United States, they have a lot of choices because [they speak] the language."
Since 1981, Chinese immigrants and their families have worshiped together at Columbia Chinese Baptist -- the county's only Chinese Baptist congregation. Members find the comfort of their culture and language in the congregation.
One of 23 Chinese Christian churches in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area, it has grown steadily from its original 12 members to 100 members today, Mr. Tong said. It offers services in Chinese and translated into English.
But the congregation remains unknown to many Howard County residents, despite more than a decade of services, Mr. Tong said. Not having their own church building, the congregants worship Sunday mornings at the Owen Brown Community Center and hold meetings in Mr. Tong's home or members' homes.
"We do not have a building and a sign. Nobody can really see us," he said.
That could change, however. To accommodate its growing congregation, the church is trying to rent space at Bethel Baptist Church in Ellicott City or get its own land to build a church.
The growth of the church mirrors the county's rapidly increasing Asian population. According to the 1990 U.S. Census, it numbered 8,098, including 1,823 Chinese.
Mr. Tong attributes the church's growth in part to a religious revival among Chinese in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989, when hundreds of anti-government activists were gunned down when the People's Liberation Army took control of Beijing.
"We have tremendous growth because of the Tiananmen Square massacre," he said. "There is a need to accommodate the growth."
Many immigrant Chinese "go to church because of the religious need. They've lost their faith in the Chinese culture and lost faith in themselves. So when they come here . . . the church gives them hope. They find Jesus is trustworthy."
The local church was established by the Rev. Stephen Chow as a convenience for Columbia residents who attended a Bible study group he led in College Park, sponsored by the Maryland Chinese Baptist Church -- then the state's only Chinese Baptist group.
Mr. Chow, his family and eight other individuals were the first members of the Columbia congregation. They met in homes and later in two of Columbia's interfaith centers.
In 1982, the Rev. James Swong, a retired minister who was
visiting from China, was invited to attend one of the services. He became the pastor. Two years later, members began meeting in the community center.
Overwhelmed by the congregation's growth, Mr. Swong invited his younger friend, Mr. Tong, to take over in September 1992.
The church lists 250 people in its directory, but draws about 100 members Sundays, Mr. Tong said. Two-thirds of the members live in Ellicott City, and the rest in Columbia or outside the county.
"He is a good pastor," Ruth Hong, 45, a former Buddhist, said of Mr. Tong. She said after she attended the church 10 years ago, "it made me want to go more and more."
Though he lives in Ellicott City, Mr. Tong keeps close ties to China, where interest in Christianity also is growing, often through underground churches that are not sanctioned by the government. "It's growing so fast," Mr. Tong said. "It surprised everybody."
With 1.2 billion people, China has about 3 million believers registered in its state-controlled Roman Catholic churches and 5 million Protestants in other state churches. But the actual number of Christians in China is estimated to be far higher -- up to 12 million Catholics and 63 million Protestants.
Most of them are believed to be attending illegal "house," or underground, churches, which the government tries to suppress.
China's 1982 Constitution officially guarantees religious freedom. But the only legal way to worship is through the state churches, which serve as instruments of religious and political control. Ministers must register with the government and provide information about their churches' membership or face forced closure.
"In China . . . there is very limited [religious] freedom," Mr. Tong said. "If you violate the regulations, you are still put in jail." And once churches are registered, "sometimes people are afraid to go to your church," he said.
Serving Christ wasn't something Mr. Tong always did.
Born in Nanjing, a city in eastern China about 200 miles from Shanghai, he later moved to Taiwan and was raised a Buddhist. He said he does not have many Taiwanese friends because he was treated like "an outsider. We were refugees from China to Taiwan."
The oldest of three children, he is the first Christian in his family. He became a Christian after hearing a British missionary's call at a retreat. After studying law at a university in Taiwan, he served one year in the military, then he taught Chinese literature for a year at a high school in Taiwan.
Mr. Tong entered a seminary in Taiwan in 1972 and in 1978 went to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, where he got his master's degree in divinity and a doctorate in ministry.
His wife, Catherine, teaches piano lessons to 25 students in the couple's home. They have a son, 21, and a daughter, who turns 18 this month.
Mr. Tong said he returns to China regularly, although it is difficult for ministers to get visas because the government fears they will evangelize.
He has seen the impact of the Chinese religious revival firsthand. On his trip to China last year, for example, he heard that underground churches cannot "get enough Bibles for the new congregants."