WASHINGTON — When Bob Fu's cellphone rang halfway through a congressional hearing concerning detained Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, all the West Texas pastor had to do was gesture for the congressman in charge, Rep. Christopher H. Smith, to disappear with him into a nearby room.
Soon after, Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, returned with a stunning announcement: "Bob Fu has made contact with Chen Guangcheng in his hospital room."
Smith invited Fu to the dais, where Fu knelt next to the congressman, put Chen on speakerphone from Beijing and translated.
"I want to make the request to have my freedom of travel guaranteed," Fu translated for Chen.
Fu then explained: "He said he wants to come to the U.S. for some time of rest. He has not had any rest in the past 10 years."
Fu's role at Thursday's hearing was the most striking example of how the founder of a once obscure evangelical group has emerged as a key contact for some U.S. officials in the controversy surrounding Chen, the blind activist whose status has strained U.S.-China relations.
Fu spoke with Chen before and after his dramatic escape from house arrest to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on April 22, and his efforts helped prompt the congressional hearing on Chen's case.
Fu, 44, a father of three, knows from experience the pressure Chen faces.
During the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, Fu led a group of fellow students from Liaocheng University in Shandong. That same year, he became a Christian and held worship services at a secret "house church" with help from his wife, Heidi.
Meanwhile, Fu taught English at a Communist Party school in Beijing. He called himself "God's double-agent."
In 1996, the couple were jailed for two months, then placed under house arrest, Fu said. His wife was pregnant with their first child — without the necessary government permission under China's one-child policy.
Fearing she might be forced to have an abortion, they fled to Hong Kong, where their son was born. Fu chose two names for his son: Daniel in English, after the Biblical warrior, and Boen, or "abundant grace," in Chinese.
A year later they moved to Philadelphia, where Fu graduated from Westminster Theological Seminary. In 2002, the couple started the nonprofit ChinaAid Assn. in their garage. Two years later they became U.S. citizens and moved to Midland, Texas.
Midland — an oil town best known as the childhood home of George W. Bush and his wife, Laura — was a hotbed of evangelical social action, with Midlanders capitalizing on their association with the Bushes to bring attention to the struggle of Christians worldwide, from Southern Sudan to North Korea.
Jon Stasney, a retired rector at Christ Church Midland, worked with Fu as a member of the Ministerial Alliance and attended his fundraisers, including a recent dinner that raised more than $380,000. The keynote speaker?
"It was just Bob Fu," Stasney said. "I didn't know he had been imprisoned himself, that he was a house church pastor. He's not just read about these things in a book — he's actually experienced it."
Last November, Fu joined a group of exiled Chinese Christians in Dallas to present the Bushes with a gift for the George W. Bush Presidential Library: a notebook prisoners had used to secretly copy the Book of Revelation in Chinese.
Fu says the ChinaAid Assn. now has more than half a dozen staffers; offices in Midland, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles; and a budget of $1.5 million, much of it raised from donors in the Bushes' Bible Belt hometown.
Fu also says there's a staff of several dozen in China, an underground network that supports the families of political prisoners and provides legal training and assistance.
On rare occasions, Fu said, this network has helped persecuted citizens escape the country.
"Of course, I couldn't reveal who they are," Fu said.
He also has emerged as a conduit of information.
"As long as I have known Bob, he has had a network in China that is very surprising," said Deborah Fikes, Dallas-based executive advisor to the World Evangelical Alliance.
"I've spent a lot of time with him and he is constantly getting calls from people saying, 'We've heard about you and what you're doing,' and they tell him their stories," she added.
Some of his information has an impact.
After it appeared Wednesday that U.S. and Chinese officials had reached an agreement to allow Chen to stay in China and attend law school, Fu said he had "credible information" that U.S. Embassy officials had relayed a threat to Chen on behalf of their Chinese counterparts.
State Department officials denied conveying a threat, but said they relayed a message that if Chen stayed at the Embassy, his family would be returned to their village. Fu said that was tantamount to a threat to his family's safety.
Rep. Smith said he trusted Fu's interpretation of the situation, and invited him to Thursday's emergency hearing to learn more.
"We have relied on the accuracy of his information time and time again," Smith said, noting that when he and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) traveled to China in 2008, Fu arranged a meeting with the leader of an unauthorized "house church."
As U.S. and Chinese officials continued haggling over Chen's fate, Fu remained in Washington. He continued to work the phones, updating his supporters on the latest tips from his contacts in China before heading back to Texas.
Hennessy-Fiske reported from Houston, and Simon from Washington.