Last Sunday, millions of Christians throughout the United States gathered together to celebrate Easter, the holiest of holy days.
At churches across America, they welcomed the dawn with sunrise services honoring the life, death and resurrection of Christ. They raised their voices in song and prayer, rejoicing that He is Risen.
In neighborhoods nationwide, children woke on Easter morning to candy and treats from a roving rabbit and, dressed in their finest attire, ran through parks and yards in search of brightly colored eggs. (Activities that admittedly bear little relation to the spiritual significance of the day, but remain a beloved ritual nonetheless.)
At homes in cities large and small, loved ones joined hands around dinner tables laden with holiday hams and other traditional dishes. They closed their eyes, bowed their heads and gave thanks for the blessings bestowed.
In America, where more than 80 percent of the population identifies as Christian, Easter is a day of widespread public celebration; a day when even the lapsed believers and wayward souls find themselves joining the flock once again.
And yet for us, half a world away in China, it was a day like any other. There were no sermons. No family dinners. No Easter egg hunts. And not a Peep in sight.
The cross, a visual representation of the crucifixion and the most revered symbol of Christianity, was conspicuously absent as we wandered the rainy streets of Shanghai, just as it had been in all of the other cities we visited during our 15 days of travel in this predominantly Atheist country.
Though the number of practicing Christians has grown rapidly in China, which is projected to become the largest Christian nation in the world by 2030, this is still a largely secular state, where the signs of religious activity by any of the five government-sanctioned denominations (including Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Taoism and Islam), are rarely on public display.
Despite the constitutional protections of “freedom of religious belief” and “normal religious activities,” religious persecution remains a legitimate concern here, where organized religion and foreign influence are considered growing threats to the authority of the Communist Party of China.
According to the Pew Research Center, among the world’s 25 most populous nations, China currently tops the list for government restrictions on religion. As a result, an estimated 50 million residents reportedly worship in illegal underground house churches, to escape the eyes, ears and influence of the government.
In Shanghai, home to the largest expat community in China, Easter Sunday came and went with little fanfare or acknowledgement. English-language newspapers advertised a few scattered holiday brunches and egg hunts, and a bit of online research uncovered a small assortment of churches offering public Easter services.
Though, notably, many were open to foreign passport holders only.
Truth be told, my on-again, off-again relationship with Christianity has been “on a break” for quite a while, and holidays like Easter and Christmas have become more about the honoring of family traditions than the religious foundation on which they’re based.
But if these months of travel have given us anything, it’s a deeper appreciation of the freedoms we enjoy as American citizens; freedoms we far too often take for granted.
So on this Easter, I give thanks.
That more than two hundred years ago, our founders believed our religious freedom to be so important, so inherent a right for the people of this new nation, that they named it first among all others.
That they understood a government with the power to protect any one practice of faith also has the power to destroy it.
That passionate public discourse about the scope of our religious liberties is not only permitted, it’s encouraged.
That, regardless of their individual beliefs, no American will ever have to hide their faith from public view.
That we live in a free nation. A democratic nation. A nation with the capacity and the compassion to embrace all religions, or the lack thereof, with the equal respect that they deserve.