Oh the Places You’ll Go: China

Reflections from Dr. Howell

I’ve gone quite a few places with sightseeing intentions, only to be unsettled and inspired by what God is doing, and has done, in foreign places that therefore aren’t so foreign any longer. Here’s another excerpt from my book, Struck From Behind: My Memories of God – followed by a subsequent reflection I’ve had on being in China:

In 1985 I signed on to go to Fuzhou, a mid-sized city by China’s standards, with my ethics professor at Duke, Creighton Lacy. He had lived there as a boy until his family was exiled by Mao’s regime in 1948 – all except his father, who had been the Methodist bishop of Fuzhou. Last the family had heard, Bishop Lacy was in prison; for 37 years they had received no news of his fate.

One night while we were there, a man, someone Dr. Lacy recalled from childhood, came by the hotel and told us his story. He had been imprisoned with Bishop Lacy, who was treated cruelly and became deathly ill; no doctor was called to the jail.  Finally, he died there, in his friend’s arms. The night after we learned the awful truth, we worshipped together. I watched Dr. Lacy, with his friend, in front of a mixed body of American and Chinese Christians, reading words from another prisoner, Paul, which will always ring differently for me:

“If God is for us, who is against us?… Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39).

That’s the excerpt. Some funny things happened on that trip. I discovered that Chinese food – that is, the food the Chinese actually eat day by day, the food served in their restaurants – is entirely different from the fare you find in America’s Chinese restaurants. We were treated to hundred year eggs, octopus, and some simply unidentifiable dishes – and chopsticks weren’t optional. In one rural home, the mom served us a lunch of shelled peanuts and rice. She kindly refrained from laughing as I poked at and chased the slippery peanuts and flaky rice around my plate.

One woman in our group had blonde hair. In less urban places, bystanders would gawk, ask for photos, and even reach out to touch this novelty they’d not seen, as China had only recently opened up to travelers from places like America. And those tall, pointy mountains in Guilin! Unforgettable.

A visit to a school and then a church next door revealed more about our unconsidered biases than their customs. The first classroom had a map of the world on the wall. My friend pointed at it and in a harrumph said (and I’m not making this up) “Look! How terrible that they have China in the middle of this map! Everybody knows America is in the center.” I couldn’t, and still can’t muster any rational response to this…

And then we entered the church. In China, churches were abolished for decades – but by 1985 they were popping up here and there. The one we visited had been a church back in the day. The Communists morphed it into a factory. Now it had been reclaimed as a church. Oddly, during the years China welcomed American missionaries into their country, Christianity grew a little bit, not a lot. Once the missionaries were thrown out, and Christianity was suppressed, the church – with no buildings, and only in secret – grew far more rapidly than when it had been legal. When you stand in a church in China and hear this narrative of clandestine gatherings and smuggled Bibles, you shudder when you think how lackadaisical American Christians can be, picky about preachers or music, missing worship to go fishing or to sleep in, Bibles gathering dust on the coffee table.

And then there was the flag. The church sanctuary was modestly appointed, with folding chairs, a simple wooden cross behind a rostrum. Just outside the window to the left was a pole flying the national flag of China. Several in our group were mortified by this, declaring things like “I can’t believe they have such a flag so close to the church – and visible from inside!” I could only counter (and I hope I was gentle) that many churches in America have the stars and stripes, not just near the building, but up front, at the very altar. One man told me “That’s different.”

Oh the places you’ll go, the things you’ll see and hear.