Heroes of My Life I – Toni Milkon

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of CCAI and over 10,000 orphans’ lives changed in two decades, I can’t but feel deeply grateful to the many incredible people who have permanently impacted my life and journey.  This blog series will allow me to share with you a few heroes of my life as a special tribute to CCAI’s 20 glorious years… and counting!

The Chinese economy in the early 80’s was gloomy and lifeless.  Common people were still suffering from the economic hardship brought upon by the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949), the Korean War (1950-1953), the irrational economic movement of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), the subsequent three-year Great Famine (1960-1963) which killed millions, and the murderous political campaign of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

In 1978, a five-foot-tall giant of a man named Deng Xiaoping took the reins of the most populous nation on earth and put a fortune-changing brake on an economic wagon heading off the cliff.  China reopened its long and tightly-closed doors to the outside world and foreigners started to rush in to see what had happened to this mysterious kingdom of 5,000 years.

To save face, which is tremendously important in Chinese culture, and to lessen the potential negativity toward the Communists’ nation-building ability, the Chinese government became “shop owners” by opening specially designed Friendship Stores in some major cities that showcased their “socialist prosperity” to foreign tourists.  To enter and shop at these stores, where you could get peanut butter, Hershey’s chocolate, cheese, and sometimes even the New York Times, things that most Chinese had never seen in their whole lives, you had to be a foreign visitor, a diplomat, or a very high level government official.

As a result of the ten-year closure of all universities in China during the Cultural Revolution, professional English-speaking tour guides became a rarity.  In late 1982, as a sophomore college student in English, I and all 62 of my classmates were drafted to serve as tour guides, a job few of us were qualified or prepared for.  But we were all very nervous and excited for the opportunity to find out exactly how bad or good our English was, and besides, we would be paid 50 cents a day, plus a free good meal.

One day in September 1982, as I was waiting by the stairway, fascinated by the fabulously-dressed tourists scooping up things they liked with little hesitation, a classy lady in her mid-sixties walked toward me.  Before I could even greet her, she quickly flashed a 3×5 index card just a few inches in front of my eyes.  Six neatly written Chinese characters jumped out at me:  “Ni ren shi ji du ma?”  Do you know Jesus Christ?

Then, as quickly as she approached me, she very quickly walked away.  I had seen the nervousness in her beautiful blue eyes.


A few months earlier, I had gotten hold of a bible in our school library, buried under a mountain of forbidden books locked up during the Cultural Revolution.  As someone who grew up brainwashed by the communist ideology and told that the bible was the evil foundation of “corrupt western civilization and religion,” the curiosity and rebellious spirit inside urged me to seek out the dirty stuff in this famously “bad” book.

I was soon disappointed.  I couldn’t find anything I was looking for .  Instead, I was surprised by how similar many of its moral teaching are to some Confucian teachings, as well as to a few teachings of Communism.  For the first time, I started to question the Communist government’s total denial and defamation of Christianity.

I quickly caught up with the lady.  “I want to know more about Jesus!”  You can imagine her shock when she heard me.  She turned and looked at me with utter disbelief and heavy suspicion.  Before she gathered herself, I dragged her to a quiet corner and told her in my broken English my miraculous encounter with a bible.  Before I finished, tears streamed from her eyes and she reached out and gave me a big hug.  She was shaking, and so was I.

She murmured quietly in my ear: “Jesus loves you!  Jesus loves you!”

“Tell me more about Jesus!”  I murmured back to her, not 100% sure what I was asking, but feeling a deep urge.

She put her soft, slightly wrinkled hand on my shoulder and said a quick prayer.  At that moment I sensed something completely new taking root inside me.

At the end of the tour, before we said goodbye at the port, she ordered her 6’6”, 250-pound husband to keep talking to me while she hurried back to the Norwegian Cruise ship they arrived on.  A few minutes later, she returned and, shielded by her husband’s body, she handed me a small package wrapped in newspaper.  I quickly hid it under my shirt, so nervous that someone might be watching us.

Toni and Harvey Milkon

I waved goodbye to Toni and Harvey Milkon, not able to say much because my heart was pounding like crazy and I was sweating all over…

Back to my dorm and making sure all my five other roommates had fell into sleep, I unwrapped the packet under the moonlight.  It was a Bible Dictionary.

Four years later, I got a letter from Toni inviting me to study in the USA.  I was ecstatic.  Two months after that I got another letter from her, opened already by the time the mailman delivered it to me.  It was an invitation letter from the Graduate School of Columbia Bible College.  Bible college?  No way!  I could never get the government’s permission to travel!

When she didn’t hear anything from me for a few weeks, Toni sent me another letter.  Inside was a short bible verse typed on a small card: “Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”  No doubt this lady wanted to send me to a prison!  I complained in my heart.

But, I decided to give it a try because I so much wanted to go to the USA, the “beautiful capitalist country.”  The public security official in charge of issuing passports gave me a puzzled look and did not say a word.  During the next four weeks I was ordered back to the security office almost every other day, and sometimes to a totally different location, to be interrogated by four or five officials at a time.

“Who is this lady and how do you know her?”

“How often do you communicate and where are all your letters?”

“What is her political affiliation and is she friendly to China?

“Why does she want to help you?  Why the bible?”

“How do we know you will come back?”

And so on…

It was the toughest four weeks of my life.  I was in a constant mind game trying to figure out the most appropriate and the safest answers, besides telling them “I don’t really know.”  Each meeting made me feel my chances were shrinking and many times I left their office totally exhausted and despairing.

Then a miracle happened.  One day the public security office called the school at which I was teaching and informed me that my passport was ready for pick up!  I couldn’t believe my ears and I rode my bike as fast as I could, not knowing what was really waiting for me.

Before I could catch my breath and sit down, a uniformed official walked toward me and handed me my passport without saying a word, and then he quietly walked away.  Smelling the fresh print of the passport and seeing my name and engraved picture inside the passport,  I was speechless.  I hit my face with the passport.  It hurt!  “Praise God, I am not dreaming!”

Before anyone could change their mind, I got on the earliest train to Shenyang, the capital city of Liaoning Province, where the closest U.S.  Consulate was located.  I turned in my visa application and 30 minutes later my name was called.  A big guy with a full beard in his forties stood behind a small interview window and looked at me with a huge and unforgettable smile.  My fear was suddenly gone.

“You are the first Chinese student I know to go to the USA for bible study.”  Then he handed my passport back to me, pointing to the visa seal he had just glued on.

On November 31, 1986, with $15 hiding in a pocket my mom sewed into my underwear, I kneeled for the last time in front of my parents and waved a tearful goodbye to my brothers and sister and my newly-engaged fiancée Lily.  Twelve hours later, I stepped off the huge, suffocating Air China jumbo jet and into the land of freedom and opportunity.

Now looking back, I can’t but feel forever grateful to the courageous and somewhat crazy Toni and her very kind husband Harvey.  Without them I might never have had the incredible blessing to start an adoption ministry in the USA and the privilege to be a small part of the lives of more than 10,000 adopted children from China.

Heroes of My Life II – Dr. Jack and Liz Layman
Heroes of My Life III – Dr. Ralph Covell