Translated by China Aid Association
From Shouwang Church’s quarterly, Almond Flowers, Fall 2010 issue
By Sun Yi
Editor’s note: bracketed material was added by ChinaAid for a smoother translation
1. The Issue
During two negotiations this past March with the Beijing Religious Affairs Bureau, Shouwang Church submitted a proposal with regard to registering or recording a site for religious activities. After this plan was submitted to the Municipal Religious Affairs Bureau, however, the response given to Shouwang Church was still: Pursuant to the “Regulations on Religious Affairs,” [the application for] site registration must be submitted by an existing religious organization (i.e. the Beijing Municipal Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement Committee; hereafter, “Three-Self”). That is, the church still faces this requirement of the government’s religious affairs department: Only by joining the Three-Self, or at a minimum being a Three-Self church in name, can you apply for your own site for religious activities.
In our church and in other churches as well, this opinion is oft-heard: These days, being a Three-Self church in name is only a formality. And with this formality we can fully enjoy the “benefits” of meeting publicly and organizing various activities. The Three-Self is also part of the church, so let’s not deliberately make a distinction and cause disunity. We’ve turned a new page in history; we of this generation need not still carry this burden of the past.
For some people, such as returnees from overseas for example, the main reason for joining the Three-Self church is to be legal, which makes it possible for many ministries to be developed as they are developed overseas. In particular, from the point of view of the churches they are from, having the Three-Self name seems a vast improvement from the previous situation, when they might not be able to bring people into China or their meetings might be disrupted.
When the question is raised overseas of why not join the Three-Self and thereby resolve the problem of the legality of these existing churches, a natural rejoinder is to ask: “Do you think your church would be willing to be labeled a Three-Self church if, for instance, you discover one day that the pastor your church selected is no longer allowed to pastor and the Three-Self has arranged for someone whose theology is unacceptable to be your pastor, or the number of people your church baptizes each year has to await approval from above, or you have to wait for permission to evangelize in places outside the church grounds, etc., etc.?” The result is that most who raised the question are left speechless, because they simply did not know that the church could or would come under these restrictions.
Of course, if the matter were limited simply to these practical issues, there still might be some people who will say that they have never heard of these restrictions. That’s why we probably need to go back and look at one of the most basic issues, which is to once again review the history of the Three-Self and see its true nature. As the saying goes, you know a tree by its fruit.
2. The difference between us and the Three-Self
Actually, the situation we are in now is not so very different from that of the 1950s. Go back to that historical period and you’ll find that at that time, many people joined the Three-Self for the same kinds of reasons as those mentioned above, that is, because joining would be good for the church. Churches could continue to develop in a new historical period and enjoy various benefits. Only Wang Mingdao clearly refused to join; instead of just looking at which ministries could be pursued and which benefits the church might enjoy as a result [of joining], his reason [for refusing to join] was “different faiths,” [meaning he did not consider those in the Three-Self to be Christian believers.]
In June 1955, Wang Mingdao published the article “We are for the Faith” in his quarterly Spiritual Food in which he rejected the view that the nature of the conflict between accepting the Three-Self and joining the Three-Self was a conflict between fundamentalists and modernists. He said the “modernists” were essentially “non-believers” and he regarded those who held this view as “fake Christians.” This is what he said: “We not only refuse to have any alliance with this body of non-believers and refuse to join any of their organizations, but with regard to anyone who truly believes in the Lord and serves God loyally, there can be unity only in the Spirit, there should not be any kind of organizational alliance, because we do not find any truth or teaching of this kind in the Bible. Our attitude with regard to faith is this: We accept and adhere to all the truths in the Bible, whatever is not in the Bible, we reject. Out of loyalty to our God, we are willing to pay any price and make any sacrifice. Misrepresentations and entrapment don’t frighten us.”
History has proven that Mr. Wang Mingdao’s approach of seeing the essential nature of things rather than looking at the “benefits” is more in line with God’s will. That’s because all these so-called “benefits” the church can enjoy are only temporary. The result of the Three-Self movement has been unprecedented losses to China’s churches. For example, in the late 1950s, more than 140 churches in Shanghai were merged into eight; and out of 66 churches in Beijing, only four were left. Several dozens of theological seminaries nationwide were merged into four. The number of believers and seminary students saw a sharp decline and many loyal church pastors were placed under supervision or put into detention because they were unwilling to join the Three-Self system.
Of course, 60 years on, times have certainly changed, and even the churches in the Three-Self system are changing. Since the reform and opening-up of the 1980s, God also used the restoration of the churches in the Three-Self system around the country to do His work and caused some degree of revival in these very limited numbers of churches. In 1998, when the Three-Self tried to promote the “Theological Construction”i movement nationwide, many local (grass-roots) churches opposed the liberal theological thinking that this movement was trying to promote, showing that some churches under Three-Self control were still trying to take the stand of the universal [Christian] church. We should regard these churches that are under Three-Self control but are trying to return to the position of the universal [Christian] church as the churches of God, and we should regard the believers in these churches as God’s abducted subjects and make a distinction between them and the Three-Self organization.
Today, we see even more clearly that when house churches are asked to be under a certain church in name, what they really want is to incorporate the church into the Three-Self system. Today, when we are once again asked to join the Three-Self system, we should be like God’s disciples from the older generation and we should also state clearly the reasons why we cannot join the Three-Self. We should not just see some of the “benefits,” but rather we should look even more at the fundamental essence of the issue. In fact, in the proposal that Shouwang Church submitted to the State Administration for Religious Affairs, it already made quite a clear statement on this issue. A brief review those statements can be summed up as follows:
First, the Three-Self is a product of a particular historical period, born of the political movements of the time. The very birth of the Three-Self was itself a violation of the principle of separation of church and state, hence, because of its status, it can in no way represent the majority of churches, nor can it represent the position of the majority of churches and become an organization with a leadership role that acts as a liaison among the various churches. Naturally, it also is not qualified to judge the qualifications of house church clergy.
Second, looking at the history of the Three-Self movement, the Three-Self movement has not brought about growth in the churches. On the contrary, many churches had to shut its doors and the pastors and believers of some churches were thrown into prison because of their refusal to join the Three-Self. Though this to some degree had to do with the macro-environment of the time, but the Three-Self, as the perpetrator, to this day has not shown any remorse for this period of history.
Third, from the very beginning there have been obvious differences between the faith and theology upheld by the Three-Self and that of the house churches. The faith that the Three-Self adheres to is what church history calls “liberal” theology, while the faith of the house churches is evangelical theology. This is also one of the reasons why some church leaders did not join the Three-Self in the early days of the Three-Self movement. Today, in the Three-Self’s theological construction, we can still see their doubts about the authority of the inerrant Bible and their efforts to discount justification by faith and other basic doctrines of Christianity. These efforts have already veered away from the basic beliefs of Christianity and are not acceptable to the evangelical house churches.
Fourth, just because a church is committed to the Three-Selfii principles does not necessarily mean it must join the Three-Self system. But the Three-Self actually confuses these two concepts, and during the Three-Self movement it erroneously equated (agreeing with) the Three-Self principles with joining the Three-Self. Agreeing with the Three-Self principles of church management does not necessarily mean the church must join the Three-Self organization. Besides, the Three-Self Patriotic Association itself was not established in accordance with the principles of self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation. It acquired its church properties by taking advantage of the political movement that drove the mission societies and missionaries out of China (in most cases without appropriate or formal procedures) and was established with substantial government support under the current political system. Having enjoyed the benefits in these two respects, the Three-Self at the same time flaunts itself as [a model of] self-governance, self-support, self-propagation. To those Christian churches that really do uphold the Three-Self principles, this is untenable.
Fifth, whether one joins the Three-Self cannot be the criterion for determining whether one is patriotic. Since 1954, when the “Three-Self Reform Movement” was renamed the “Three-Self Patriotic Movement,” the question of “patriotism” has been used as a political weapon by this religious group to eliminate dissenters. Under the social environment of the time, a [specious] logic was formed that not joining the Three-Self was to be anti-Three-Self and being anti-Three-Self was unpatriotic and being unpatriotic was to be counter-revolutionary. Today, as we are trying to build a harmonious society, this logic is already regarded as a product of ultra-leftism. If this “logic” continues to be used by some relevant agencies as an unwritten rule, the result is bound to be that a large number of Christians who refuse to join the Three-Self organization but who fervently love their country are forced into a position of being in opposition to the Three-Self, which can only cause great injury to patriotic citizens, and that is of no benefit to social harmony and stability and the prosperity and development of our country.
To sum up, we can see today that the differences are pretty much in two main areas, that is, apart from adhering to the fundamental principle of separation of church and state in the church-state relationship, we also recognize that the even more fundamental reason is precisely what Mr. Wang Mingdao said: Because of our faith, we cannot be aligned and in union with a non-church government organization.
3. The non-church nature of the Three-Self
In essence, the Three-Self is not a church, cannot represent the churches and has no right to regulate the churches or require house churches to join it. We can explain how the Three-Self is not a church in three ways: First, the Three-Self was born out of the Cold War and was [the result of] the government using a political movement to achieve political goals. Second, its current goals and functions show that the Three-Self is still there for the ruling party’s purpose of forming a United Front and regards patriotism as its highest goal. Third, its systems and operations show it is still a quasi-government institution, neither self-governing nor self-supporting, and its very existence seriously conflicts with the Three-Self principles. We will discuss this in greater detail below.
First of all, looking at the history of how the Three-Self was born, it is obvious that it was a product of a political movement during the Cold War. Furthermore, when it was established, its fundamental purpose was to “completely sever the relationship with imperialism.” We can clearly see the two basic goals or guiding principles of this Three-Self movement in its main manifesto, “The Path of Chinese Christianity in the Construction of a New China.” [See the manifesto in Chinese at http://www.gospeltimes.cn/news/2010_10_12/15137.htm.]
The first basic guiding principle of this movement unequivocally expressed in this declaration is “China’s Christian churches and organizations should make utmost efforts and use the most effective means possible in making church congregants clearly realize the evils left in China by the imperialists and realize the reality of the imperialists exploitation of Christianity in the past. They should eliminate imperialist influences on Christianity and be on the alert against imperialism, especially the conspiracies of the U.S. imperialists using religion to foster reactionary forces. At the same time, [churches and organizations] should call on their congregants to join the movements against war and for peace and educate them until they thoroughly understand and support the government’s policies in land reform.” The second basic guiding principle was “China’s Christian churches and organizations should adopt effective methods to foster in ordinary believers a patriotic democratic spirit, as well as self-respect and self-confidence. The self-governance, self-support and self-propagation movement advocated by Chinese Christianity in the past has already achieved considerable results. From now on, they should accomplish this task in as short a period of time as possible. At the same time, they should advocate self-criticism, and practice review and straightening up in all types of work and thrift and conciseness so as to achieve the goal of Christian reform.” To sum up, completely severing all ties with imperialism and fostering a patriotic spirit in believers became the main purpose and goal of this movement.
On September 23, 1950, The People’s Daily published on the front page the entire text of the manifesto and the names of the first group of signers. At the same time, it published an editorial entitled “Patriotic Movement by Christians.” The next day, major newspapers across the nation also carried the manifesto. In this way, the signature movement of the declaration turned into a government-supported patriotic movement. The disagreements within the churches on this matter became regarded as a political choice between being patriotic or not being patriotic.
Due to the outbreak of the Korean War, the relationship between China and the West entered a period of tension and China went to a war against the United States. It was during this period that the “Preparatory Committee of the Oppose America and Aid Korea Three-Self Reform Movement of the Christian Church” was founded, and Wu Yaozong (Y.T. Wu) was chosen as the preparatory committee chairman. Since then, this new national institution has replaced the National Council of Churches and became the institution that could undertake and “accomplish the tasks of Three-Self Reform of the Chinese Christians” in the “new period [i.e. New China]. According to Chairman Wu Yaozong’s summation, the “Preparatory Committee of the Reform Movement” defined its mission as the following:
1. To promote patriotic actions and patriotic education in Christian organizations and Christian congregants.
2. To thoroughly eliminate the influence of imperialism on Christianity.
3. To complete the task of Three-Self reform of Chinese Christianity, in a planned and measured way.
During that period, the first two tasks clearly became the paramount tasks of this organization. To carry out these two tasks, an important method was adopted, which was to initiate “denunciation movements” in the churches.
Wu Yaozong once used the metaphor of “pulling out the very roots” to describe the denunciation of imperialism: “The reform movement in the past eight months, with its knives and saws, has delivered a heavy blow to the old trunk of this tree. This conference is like a huge ax hitting right at the trunk, shaking its very foundations. Though the tree has not fallen, it is doomed. However, even if the old tree falls, we still have not completely solved the issue, because the tentacles of the tree’s roots are still there. We must engage in the hard work of digging up these roots for quite a long time until the tree’s roots that are hidden in the soil are completely dug up.”1
From July 2 to August 6, 1954, the “Christian Three-Self Patriotic Movement Association” was formally established in Beijing. At the meeting, Wu Yaozong delivered “The Working Report on the Four Years of the Three-Self Reform Movement of Chinese Christianity.” In summing up the achievements of the past few years, he listed the future tasks of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement, including:
1. Call on believers throughout China to support the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China and strive for the construction of a socialist society.
2. Call on believers throughout China to oppose imperialist aggression and to fight for lasting world peace.
3. Continue to conduct patriotic study among fellow believers and pastors in order to thoroughly eliminate the influences of imperialism.
4. Carry out the spirit of self-rule and promote unity among the churches.
5. Conduct research on the self-support issues of the churches and help churches become self-supporting.
6. On the basis of mutual respect, conduct research on self-propagation and preach the pure and authentic Gospel.
7. Implement the spirit of patriotism and love for the religion, and advocate patriotic, law-abiding and pure churches.
In these seven tasks, the emphasis was on opposing imperialism and practicing patriotic education.
From this we can see the main goals and functions of this organization. Broadly speaking, this kind of religious organization not only has to accept the leadership of the Party and the government, it also has to assist the Party and the government in carrying out government policies. This is the basic task of patriotic religious organizations. This was already clearly stated in the Document No. 19 of the Central Party Committee that was transmitted in 1982, that is, the basic duties of patriotic religious organizations were: “Assisting the Party and the government in carrying out and implementing the policy of freedom of religious beliefs, and helping the vast number of ordinary believers and people in the religious circle to unceasingly raise their patriotic and social consciousness.”2 Patriotic religious organizations should also in practice function as “assistants” of the Party and the government. In fact, under the existing state system and legal system, the various national religious patriotic organizations actually regulate and control the administrative function of religion and have became “monopoly interest groups.”3 They achieved “oligarchy” status in China’s religious circles.
Furthermore, looking at this organization’s operational mechanisms, especially its personnel administration, the selection of leaders in these religious organizations on the one hand appears to be through an election within the organization, but on the other hand, these prospective leaders are required to be on file with or approved by the governing body to which it is subordinate, i.e. United Front Work Department and the religious affairs administration. As far as Christianity is concerned, national regulations governing the Three-Self throughout the country all state: the chairman, vice-chairman, general secretary and members of the standing committee of local Three-Self Associations shall be elected by the highest authority of the respective association, i.e. the Committee of the Christian Congress. But what actually happens is this: the Religious Affairs Bureau nominates candidates → the candidates are approved by the higher level Party committee and the Religious Affairs Bureau → the employees of the Religious Affairs Bureau make arrangements for the election → the Three-Self Patriotic Association holds an election in name only → the Three-Self Patriotic Association reports the results to the Religious Affairs Bureau for its records. This shows that the election is for appearances only, to implement the Religious Affairs Bureau’s personnel arrangements. The existence and development of clergy is supposed to be based on their loyalty and dedication to their religion and their belief in and familiarity with the teachings of their religion. But because of the lack of separation between church and state, these requirements have been weakened or simply replaced, resulting in a situation where the selection and appointment of clergy are decided more by the agencies in charge of religious administration (than by the religious groups themselves).4
The Religious Affairs Bureau’s control of the personnel arrangements of religious groups manifests itself as a tacit staffing system through which religious groups are incorporated into the government’s administrative structure. The national and local offices of these religious groups and their national religious schools have all been incorporated into the state system, and their administrative expenses and personnel quota are all part of the total [expenses and quotas] for the Party and government organs. Their salaries and administrative expenses are mainly paid by the government.5 In one respect, this especially demonstrates that this type of religious group is a sort of “extension” of the relevant government agency and can be regarded as some sort of semi-government organ.
Thus, by looking at the historical background and goals and functions of this organization, as well as its organizational structure and operations, the non-church “official” nature of this patriotic religious organization is clearly evident. Rev. Wang Aiming, vice president of the Nanjing (Jinling) Union Theological Seminary pointedly said: The basis for the existence and development of the “National Committee of Three-Self Patriotic Movement of the Protestant Churches in China” is to accomplish the ruling party’s missions and safeguard its prestige and endeavors. This organization and the China Christian Council (jointly referred to as “the two committees”) are basically social organizations within the China’s state administrative structure that execute Christian affairs; they are not church organizations.6 Indeed, if an organization does not regard [carrying out] the Great Commission as its primary aim goal and instead regards implementing the religious policies of a certain ruling party or some government agencies as its goal, such an organization certainly cannot be called a church in the true sense of the word.
If the Three-Self in nature is not a church but governs the churches within the Three-Self system, isn’t this relationship worth our reflecting on? On this subject, Bishop Ting Kuang-hsun once reflected on the historical causes of this situation: “When the Korean War broke out, China’s overseas funds were frozen and the subsidies for the mission societies suddenly stopped, causing many problems in the operations of many denominations’ governing and administrative systems, such that some simply collapsed. Three-Self organizations at various levels had no choice but to start taking over some of the functions of these denominational governing and administrative offices. With one political movement following another, there was an increasing emphasis across the country on highly centralized leadership, and this also affected the churches. Inevitably, in quite a few places, the actual leadership power in church work was centralized to the Three-Self organizations. This was not the original intention of the Three-Self organization. In this way, however, the Three-Self in many places went from being a mass movement among believers and a mass organization that raised high the flag of patriotism and advocated self-governance, self-support and self-propagation to being a church governing agency that stands beside or above the churches – one that looks like a church but is not a church and looks like a government agency but is not a government agency.”7 If this kind of church governing and administrative agency that looks like a church but is not a church and that looks like a government agency but is not a government agency came into being during the Cold War because there was no alternative, is there any reason for such an agency to still exist today? Should we still maintain such a strange relationship today?
4. The basic reason for not joining the Three-Self
Now that we are clear about the non-church nature of this official organ, the Three-Self, we can now approach Mr. Wang Mingdao’s statement with a new understanding when he said that believers and non-believers cannot be yoked and used one sentence to summarize the basic reason why the house churches cannot join the Three-Self: churches and the non-church Three-Self cannot be yoked. What concord can there be between China’s churches and an organization where the employees are paid by the state and whose primary mission is to execute orders from the Party and the government?
If a church joins an organization whose goal is to accomplish the tasks stipulated by the ruling party or secular state agencies, then the very foundation for the meaningful existence of the church will be shaken. The church’s very foundations might very well become dislocated; that is to say, its position as a universal [Christian] church founded upon Jesus Christ would be turned into that of a nation-state. For example, when the Three-Self movement regarded as its primary task the eradication of ties between Chinese Christianity and imperialism, its position obviously was that of a nation-state, not that of the universal [Christian] church. From the perspective of a universal [Christian] church, even though there was definitely a need for Chinese churches to become self-reliant local churches, they obviously should not exist separated from churches in other countries. Their relationship with all orthodox churches in other countries, whether they are churches in so-called “imperialist” or “socialist” countries, is a relationship of brothers in Christ. Faith in Christ takes primacy over the state, and the universality of the church takes primacy over its nationality. This is also the reason many believers in Chinese churches even in the 1950s didn’t necessarily regard Christianity as a tool for the imperialists’ cultural invasion and the missionaries as the heralds of this kind of invasion, because such a conclusion clearly resulted from a nation-state perspective and was not a conclusion that was reached from the perspective of the universal [Christian] church.
The difference between these basic positions can be used to test whether a church adheres to the first of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me.” A church that joins this kind of non-church government organization and accepts its leadership and guidance will without doubt face a great test: Should the church love the Lord with all its heart and all its might and regard the one and only God as above all else or should the church worship as god the “patriotism” that the organization to which the church is subordinate and that governs the church regards as its primary objective? As long as a church regards “eradicating the influences and infiltration of imperialism” as of prime importance as required by the organization that is governing the church, then it is inevitable that the church will lose its foundation, that is, its position as a universal [Christian] church, and will take up the state’s position.
Indeed, a non-church government organization can have such a requirement “loving the country [that is, patriotism] and loving the religion,” that is, placing “love the country [patriotism]” before “love the religion.” But for a church, loving the Lord is always first. Loving one’s country [that is, patriotism] is not the church’s primary mission for being in this world, even less is it the basis for its existence. If “loving one’s country” [that is, patriotism] is a prerequisite for the church being in this world or in this country, then the basis for the church’s foundation is misplaced.
Actually, a church has no need to take the state’s position and say those things that only the ruling party or state agencies should be saying, as if doing so is the only way the church can be regarded as “patriotic.” If a church demonstrates its patriotism by sacrificing its very basis for being, then this patriotism would be worthless because the church’s very existence is already worthless. It is just like what Christ said about the salt that has lost its saltiness: “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.” (Matthew 5:13). Only by trusting in Christ to stand firm on its foundation as [part of] the universal [Christian] church can a church, out of its faith, demonstrate of its own accord its respect for the secular authorities God has put in place. This kind of respect for the authorities put in place by God, along with love for one’s neighbor, are what should be the real starting points for patriotism and love of the people.
Today, if the Self-Three principles are to continue to have any meaning for Chinese churches, then the appropriate manifestation of the Three-Self principles for this [historical] period is: Churches should have self-government vis-a-vis the government; that is to say, the relevant government departments have a kind of administrative power over churches as social organizations, but the churches, as the churches of Christ, have self-determination in religious matters. The churches should be self-supporting and have no need to depend on government support using tax-payers’ money; the churches should be self-propagating; that is, the church has the right to freely preach the Gospel of Christ according to its tradition and its understanding of the Christian faith rather than being restricted from certain subjects. In fact, this is the precise embodiment of the basic principle of separation of church and state. In reality, however, what we see is that, precisely because of this non-separation of church and state, a very ironic phenomenon has resulted: a Three-Self organization in name that claims to promote self-governance, self-support and self-propagation of churches but cannot achieve the same self-governance, self-support and self-propagation of itself. The inconsistency this phenomenon reveals in the non-church nature of this organization and the principles it extols is really worth our deep reflection.
[i] (ChinaAid note) See Appendix C of David Aikman’s Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (paperback edition, 2006) for excerpts in English of an essay written by an anonymous Christian in the Three-Self church called “Contending for the Faith: Dissecting the Real Facts of ‘Theological Construction.’” (Partially available online at http://books.google.com/books?id=RNjT63iGdy8C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false; starting on p. 327.)
[ii] (ChinaAid note) The Three-Self principles are that Chinese churches should be self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating.
1. Wu Yaozong, The New Birth of Chinese Christianity, p. 4.
2. “On the Basic Views and Policies of Socialist Religious Issues of Our Country.” See the Yearbook of Policies and Codes Compiled by the Research Group of the Party Literature Research Center of the CPC Central Committee and the Bureau for Religious Affairs of the State Council. “Selected Articles on Religious Work in the New Period” by China Religious Culture Publisher, 1995, p. 65.
3. Please see Xie Yue, Political Communication in Contemporary China, Shanghai People’s Publishing House, 2006, pp. 32-38.
4. Please see “Analysis on the Information Filing System for Religious Clergymen in China,” a thesis presented at the 7th Annual Meeting on Religious and Social Sciences.
5. Xing Fuzeng, The Church-State Relationship in Contemporary China, p. 72. Please also see “Characteristics and Development of Church-State Relationship in China.” Ding, Issue 88 (August 1995), p. 4.
6. Wang Aiming, “On the Beliefs of Churches: Reflections on the Basic Issues in Church’s Theology in Chinese Protestantism,” in Jinling Theological Notes (Issue 4, 2008).
7. Ting Kuang-hsun, “Straightening Out the Relationship between the TSPM Organization and the Churches: Speech at the Joint Conference of Members of Standing Committee of National CCC/TSPM,” in Jinling Theological Notes, (June 1989), p. 2.
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