Heidi Olson '91 Spiritual Takeout

Heidi Olson '91 Spiritual Takeout
Amy Barnard

It's January 23rd, a Thursday night. Heidi Olson and a few friends are in her 16th floor apartment in eastern China where they should be preparing for their annual Lunar New Year's party. Crimson lanterns and festive gold-lettered banners declaring well wishes for 2020 deck the streets and shops below. Grocery stores and open air markets alike overflow with oranges, fish, seasonal candies, and other holiday treats.

This is the start of the largest annual human migration on the planet: Chun Jie, also known as the Spring Festival. Traditionally, in the days leading up to this two week festival, Chinese around the world make the trek home to celebrate family, friends, and the coming of a new year.

Hundreds of small lanterns hang from trees in a city park surrounded by large buildings.

During the Lunar New Year cities across China decorate with red lanterns.

For those who can't head home for the holidays, Olson's group of Chinese and international friends puts on their own New Year's Gala right there in Jicheng: traditional family foods, dumpling making, and a talent show. 

The planning committee settles into Olson's cozy living room. She pulls out her phone. "I received some strange text messages this week," she says. "Here's the first one:

'Heidi, I'm so sorry, my family won't be coming to the party this year. We are concerned about the virus in Wuhan.'

Wuhan? The friends exchange glances. That's nearly a day's drive from here.

"Here's the second one," Olson says. "'So sorry, Heidi, I won't be able to make it to the party this year. There's the virus to consider.'"

Both messages come from respected, wise members of their community.

"What do you think?" she asks. "Should we postpone the party?"

After a brief discussion they agree to push the celebration back to the end of the holiday season. Then they move on to a bigger conversation: If this virus is such a big deal, should they cancel their upcoming trip to Inner Mongolia?

Shelter in Place

A scene of the evening city scape from a balcony sixteen floors up.

The view from Olson's window.

Just three days later, on January 26, 2020, that discussion seems almost laughable. On this day, as Olson looks out from her skyrise in the heart of Jicheng's High-Tech zone, the streets are empty. 

This is a metropolis that rivals New York City in population, but today the only movement is a handful of motorbikes zigzagging the streets to drop off food for those who can afford meal delivery services. 

Covid-19 is on the move, and Olson is among the millions of residents in this city who have been asked to stay home.


Olson arrived in China nearly twelve years before this January day. She works as the director of a Chinese NGO whose goal is to launch kindergartens in orphanages and offer on-going teacher training. For more than a decade, Olson has worked alongside local staff to ensure that children in these oft-forgotten spaces enter the public schools with a base level of knowledge comparable to their peers. Eventually, the NGO hired a special education (SPED) director and developed SPED training programs for orphanage staff as well.

Along the way, Olson and her Chinese roommate started a Bible study in their home. 

That Bible study grew, connecting them with dozens of young professionals in the high-tech zone. This group of Jesus-following friends eventually became a thriving home fellowship.

It is members of this fellowship that Olson expected to host for the 2020 Lunar New Year celebration. It is also members of this fellowship that will come together–virtually–to connect people all across China during the difficult years of lockdowns and a "Zero Covid" policy.

The First Lockdown: January 26, 2020

A Chinese man on a motorbike with a food chest checks his phone for directions.

A food delivery person on motorbike during the pandemic. 

Olson looks out over the streets of Jicheng from her high rise. The city is nearly silent. The only sound drifting up to the 16th floor is the rising and falling buzz of delivery bikes.

This is so bizarre, she thinks.

Later, Olson receives a text from her close friends Li Weichao* and Yang Jing*.

"We're stuck!" Yang Jing texts Olson "We can't get home!"

Only prepared for a brief, 24-hour visit to Jicheng, the couple and their infant now face a city in lockdown. No buses. No trains. Closed roads. No place to stay. 

Olson immediately invites the young family to stay in her spare room, having no clue that they are entering a four week quarantine.

"At the start of the year I asked God what he wanted me to focus on for 2020, and I kept hearing: 'feed my sheep,'" says Olson. "So when the city shut down, I started writing daily messages of encouragement." Together, Yang Jing and Olson create bilingual recordings of the messages, sending them out to their fellowship members. 

A woman sits reading a bible out loud.

Olson reading scripture for the podcast she is taping.

Isolated from friends, Christian community, and in some cases advanced medical care, these individuals receive the words of encouragement like water in a desert. The ensuing chats become their community and a place to remind themselves of the larger hope they have in Christ, no matter what comes.

Prepared in Advance

Pre-Covid, a publisher Olson knew recommended she start a WeChat channel. (WeChat is a social media platform similar to Facebook but with blogging and podcasting capabilities as well).

"I had gotten together with some friends and talked about the idea, but we hadn't really moved on it," says Olson. 

Now, in those first weeks of lockdown, she messages that publisher: "I'm home writing all of these messages to my friends. I feel like I'm delivering daily spiritual takeout meals."

The publisher responds immediately: Start your WeChat channel.

Normally, applying for and setting up a WeChat channel requires weeks of official approvals and technical work.

"I prayed, 'Lord, we know it's hard to start a WeChat channel. It takes time. But we need to do it fast. Can we do it in five days?'"

A Community Effort

Two women sit in front of a computer set up with a microphone.

Heidi and a local friend work on translating the podcast.

It's worth taking a pause here to explain that Olson's friends are not your average computer programmers and designers. These individuals work for some of the top tech companies in the nation, equivalents to the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Google.

Months earlier, unbeknownst to Olson, one of those friends set up a WeChat channel for her, "just in case." The first hurdle has been cleared.

Various fellowship members take over roles ranging from web design and photography to translation, editing, and managing the technical aspects of running the channel. 

This is no duct tape endeavor. 

Each person works from their homes, a steady flow of chats keeping them on target.

"Within five days it was done," Olson says. 

They decide to call the channel Spiritual Takeout; it's a daily bilingual serving of nourishment to feed the soul.

This was kind of a crazy moment. We still didn't know what was going on with the virus, everybody was home and scared...but our fellowship had something to do together.

On February 6, 2020, the following words launch the first article/podcast combo:

"China is determined to fight the coronavirus. The city of Wuhan has just completed the construction of a 1,000 bed hospital in an astonishing 10 days. Cities are closing transportation and families are staying home. The whole nation is making a huge effort to stop the spread of the virus and heal the sick. Now is the time for the family of God to also rise up and make a massive effort to bring China before the great healer: Jesus Christ."

The article goes on to encourage believers to see themselves like the four friends who were so determined to see their loved one healed that they lowered him through a roof in Jesus' midst; in the same way, they implore, let us bring our nation and our people before God, asking for healing.

The article also encourages the curious, the questioners, and those who doubt with this reminder:

There is no crowded room you must fight through to approach Jesus today. He offers spiritual healing to all who will come. 

Ultimately more than 3,000 individuals read the article.

Popular pieces that come out over the next years include titles like "When You Just Can't Go On," and "The 9 Friends Everyone Needs."

A Bigger Vision

"It felt like a key moment. I had this strong sense of urgency about it; for years this group of friends had been serving together and praying for our city. One of my prayers was that somehow God would use us to touch thousands. But I'm not a pastor. I'm just one of the friends in the group, you know? Just doing this fellowship with my friends."

The channel grows. Others in the group contribute devotionals, articles, and words of encouragement. Readers engage in chat messages with the authors.

As various cities and even at times the whole nation cycles in and out of shelter in place orders readers post the channel to their personal feeds, spreading the content across the nation.

To this day I get messages from people I don't know who say, You kept me going all those months

Throughout the pandemic, Olson's voice remains an anchoring feature of the channel, offering daily encouragement.

When travel restrictions loosen and Olson again ventures out to the trains and buses of China, there are almost surreal moments when complete strangers hear her voice and ask, "Hey, are you Spiritual Takeout?"

"It was such a cool way to meet the family of God around China and even in different parts of the world," she says.

A woman wearing a mask takes a selfie in a taxi that has plastic separating her from the driver.

As travel restrictions loosened a bit, Olson began moving around the city more. This is what many taxi rides looked like during that season!

An Indonesian Christian translates and publishes the content in Indonesia. 

People in the US respond to the English content.

A Chinese man in the UK makes a confession of faith after engaging with the content.

Olson shares her content with people from more than 167 countries on the pandemic-era social group "What Do You See From Your Window."

At one point a journalist in Russia even sees the posts and invites Olson to film a short, made-for-social-media documentary with Russia Today. 

Even as she and her friends put countless hours into Spiritual Takeout, she continues to provide educational services to orphanages and works with the NGO team to provide ongoing virtual training for teachers.

The Decision to Stay

A woman has her temperature scanned before entering her apartment complex.

Temperature checks before entering the neighborhood became the norm.

Olson is quick to express that Spiritual Takeout was a family effort, an organic outgrowth rooted in years of a handful of friends serving and growing together. Had Olson not made that early decision to ride out the pandemic in China, however, and had Yang Jing's family not found themselves quarantined in Olson's apartment, the channel may never have come to be.

Thinking back to that last day where she could have left the country, she says: "I never thought to leave. China was my home. I went to bed on the 27th of March and woke up the next morning to closed borders. I knew that there were many people who wanted to be here but couldn't be. I felt like, this is such an honor, Lord, that I can be here right now. I was so grateful."

I felt like, this is such an honor, Lord, that I can be here right now. I was so grateful.

Navigating the Censors

Those familiar with China know that religious content must pass certain censors or get shut down. This is a constant struggle for people of all faiths in China. Even so, Spiritual Takeout flourished unhindered for two-and-a-half years.

Last year things changed. Censors consistently blocked new content, although the channel itself remains live. Olson believes God put an urgency in the group to publish when they did because He knew that things would take a turn, and they had a limited window of time to share fresh content.

None of these friends were pastors. None had significant theological training. They just had tech skills and the desire to encourage their brothers and sisters during turbulent times.

"It wasn't like, hey, let's do something and go viral," says Olson. "It was years of being together, serving each other and others, and pursuing whatever the Lord put in our hands to do. It all happened in a very organic way."

A group of men and women line up at the blocked gate for a neighborhood in China.

Two years into the pandemic Olson's entire neighborhood (the population of a small US town) was quarantined. You can read more about that in the Spring 2024 MA Magazine.

This year Olson returned to the US where she is working on a Master of Theological Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She's not sure what comes next, but she is excited to continue to dive more deeply into scripture and look for opportunities make the most of that new knowledge.

A Word of Advice from Heidi: Embrace the Limits 

Sometimes when we face uncertainty or unexpected limits that is the place where God will work in ways we ourselves couldn't have dreamed up. Don't give in to fear. We can be the people who aren't afraid of the bad news because we believe He is going to hold all things together, He has a purpose, He is trustworthy.

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