The western part of China, including Henan Province, where I stayed for a week, is poor. Poor in America is one thing—back-road little towns in the Appalachians, or industry-gutted cities like Detroit. Poor in China is another thing entirely. My group stayed in the international guesthouse of a martial arts school near the Shaolin Temple. The conditions in the guesthouse were uncomfortable, to say the least—there were mouse droppings all over the bathroom, the electricity was unreliable, and the sheets had ugly stains. However, our rooms were luxurious compared to the rooms of the regular students, who had no running water and no electricity to speak of. Half of the buildings on campus were partly piles of rubble (I never did find out whether they were in the process of being torn down or rebuilt), and the courtyards were just mud and clayey puddles. Even given these conditions, however, the school’s students are lucky—they will get good jobs, most as security guards, a few fortunate ones as performers or professional competitors.
The poorest people that I met were the men who repair the trail that leads up Song Mountain. It took us strong college students, well-fed and well-rested, the whole day to hike that trail; these men make as many as three trips a day, each time carrying stacks of bricks on a yoke over their shoulders that even the strongest of us could barely lift. And yet, for each brick they carry, they earn one RMB; each trip is perhaps worth the equivalent of three US dollars, or the price of a not-too-fancy meal in a restaurant in China.
This situation isn’t fair. When I think of all the material goods I have that I hardly even notice, I am staggered by the depths of the injustice that I help perpetrate. In the division of the world into the oppressors and the oppressed, I am undoubtedly one of the rich and the powerful. I am uncomfortably similar to those to whom, at the last day, God will say, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fires prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me…. Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
These are strong words, and when I read them I am convinced (at least momentarily) that my life has to change. But, having come to this realization, I stop. I don’t know what to do. I have neither the courage to turn my life into a service to the poor, nor the wisdom to know how to do so.
The problem is that I am thinking of how to Solve the Injustices of the World, rather than thinking of how to serve Amy-who-lives-next-door, or Bill-who-I-walk-past-every-day. I don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to find injustice; Boston has plenty of poverty and oppression of its own. There is plenty that I can do for my own neighborhood. This should be both a comforting and an unsettling thought. Comforting, because it means changing my goal from an impossible thing (what is the World, anyway, and how does one fix it?) to a possible thing (low-income children often don’t have a home environment that encourages education; well, I can go to a preschool and read to them). Unsettling, because if a thing is possible we ought to do it. In Henan Province, I had the excuse that I don’t know what structures prevent the poorest of the poor from improving their lives, I don’t know the culture, I don’t know how to help. But I do know Boston. I may not be able to make a thorough plan of how to make Boston an ideal city, but I know at least two or three things that I could do to get it closer to that ideal, and there is nothing to stop me from doing them. If we are not helping the poor and oppressed because of fearfulness and an attachment to material things, then all we can do is pray to God for courage; but if we are not helping because the problems of this world seem too big for us, then we must remember that it is our neighbors we are called to serve, not Humanity in the abstract.