Faith Chao knew that her work for God would bring her far, but little did the Shanghai native realize it would bring her 6,600 miles--to Los Angeles. And wherever the evangelist goes, success seems to follow.
Chao was just honored as Woman of the Year by the Los Angeles chapter of the Organization of Chinese American Women for her scholastic achievements and service to the community.
"We feel she's very deserving," said Louise Lee, president of the chapter. "She's an inspiration to us."
At 76, Chao received a master's degree in theology, and last year, at age 82, she received her doctorate in theology from the California Graduate School of Theology in Anaheim.
Chao's lifelong work began in Shanghai, where she was born in 1905 to poverty-stricken parents.
"We were poor but people around us were poorer," she said. "I had a happy childhood . . . with lots of love."
Her father, a Southern Baptist preacher, taught his four children the importance of education.
At 19, she went to the University of Shanghai for about a year, but dropped out to help pay for the educations of her two brothers and a sister. Five years later, she said, "God said, 'I want you to go to a seminary to be trained. I want you to tell my story to the world.' At first I fought it, but I couldn't get away from it."
Chao entered the China Bible Seminary in Shanghai and signed up for a two-year course. It took her five years to complete the course because in addition to her schoolwork, she continued to help her family, preach and teach English.
She was married at 28 and continued her evangelism.
But one year later, Chao suffered a nervous breakdown that lasted a year. "I was working too hard," she said. "That's something I tell young people now. Don't work too hard. It's not worth it."
Chao was nursed back to health by Ella Allison, a friend she calls her "spiritual mother."
Allison "loved me to health," Chao said, and when she was well, Allison reminded her, "Go, do unto others as I have done unto you," and sent her back to work.
"This has become my motto for the last 54 years," Chao said.
Fully revived after her breakdown, Chao began to work--in spite of her current admonitions--harder than ever.
In 1942 she and her husband, Calvin Chao, began a group called Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship for students at the University of Chungking.
By the time she and her husband left for Hong Kong 6 years later, Chao said, the fellowship had 40 member colleges within a radius of 200 miles.
After World War II, Chao worked with refugees who fled to Hong Kong during the war and established a welfare center. Chao and her husband then spent four years in Singapore where Calvin Chao began Singapore Bible College and Faith Chao began another welfare center.
The Chaos believed their work in Asia was particularly dangerous after WWII because of Communist persecution of Christians under Mao Tse Tung.
Calvin Chao was warned by a Communist friend that he was third or fourth on a "blacklist," and that if caught he could go to a concentration camp, Faith Chao said.
Despite the danger, Chao and her husband began a battle with the Communists to win over youth.
When Communists tried to win over the Chaos' children, Calvin Chao decided to move to the United States.
In 1956, the Chaos and their eight children came to America and began Chinese for Christ Inc., a network of six churches in New York, Chicago, Berkeley, San Jose, Hayward and Los Angeles.
Faith Chao helped to support the churches, four of which began as free boarding centers for poor Chinese immigrant students, by cooking all-you-can-eat Chinese meals and preaching.
"I cooked my way into about 200 churches," Chao said, but she was compensated for her labor when a homesick Chinese student laid his teary-eyed head on her shoulder and asked, "Would you be my mommy for awhile?"
As the years passed, entering Chinese students no longer needed the centers, which were transformed into churches.
Finally, in 1984, Calvin and Faith Chao started the Chinese for Christ Theological Seminary in Rosemead, a state accredited, nondenominational seminary.
The seminary has about 40 students from the United States, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia. Some will return to their countries to teach the gospel, said Chao.
Zuyang Huang, 35, who is from Taiwan, said he began studying at the seminary last year and appreciates Faith Chao's presence.
"I feel she is very kind to students here. She always can help," Huang said.
Chao believes she still has much to accomplish. She is planning to teach next year in China and wants to open a counseling center in addition to continuing her preaching.
Her children have tried to persuade her to retire and even bought the couple their house in Montebello.
But she said: "I'm planning my service to go farther. My days are numbered. . . . I want to serve humanity."