Fujian, China. Thirty minutes past midnight on December 25th, 2014:
I was sitting in my bedroom in the orphanage I was volunteering at, reflecting on the day with some fellow volunteers, when deafening gunshot sounds burst out through the air. We had just returned from a Christmas Vigil at the Catholic Church next door, and we knew that people were still hanging about there, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ and wishing each other peace. The sounds of gunshots continued ringing out, and we rushed to the window and strained our heads out to peer at what was going on. The sound of a crying baby, abruptly woken up, wafted our way from the neighboring block. We feared that we were experiencing what we had only hitherto read about on the news – churches being attacked during mass on special days, or governmental persecution to shut down the elaborate celebrations of Jesus’ birth – after all, we were in communist China.
What we saw, however, immediately quelled our fears and brought smiles to our faces. There are few regulations on setting off fireworks in the rural city in China we were in, and people celebrated everything with fireworks – from weddings to purchases of new houses and cars. Apparently, the birth of Jesus Christ was deemed no less worthy of celebration, and the churchgoers were setting off enormous amounts of fireworks just fifty feet from where we were. It sounded terrifying, but as I saw bright colors light up the sky and sparks light up joyous faces as they quietly drifted to the ground, I marveled. I marveled at the audacity that these people had to celebrate Christmas day with such pomp and splendor, in a country that did not treat Christianity kindly. I wondered at the joy and faith that these Christians had, in a country whose government periodically rounded up and arrested priests and pastors of large congregations for interrogation.
Just as I had thought the sound of the fireworks was the sound of persecution, but was instead the sound of audacious celebration, I came into China expecting to find Christians who were hushed about their faiths and measured in their expressions of it, but instead found a group of followers of Jesus filled with more joy and hope than I had seen almost anywhere else.
Over the break, I volunteered (through Harvard China Care) at an orphanage in a rural city in Fujian, China, whose name can be translated Home of Love or Home of Compassion. It was founded and is run by a group of very committed Catholics, who recognized that because the government was not yet taking in orphans, these orphans did not have homes. As such, the founder began this home to provide one for them – in their speech and publications, they really emphasize the fact that this is a Home, not an orphanage, and it really feels like one. To begin with, the staff all live on-site. The “director”/founder is 妈妈 (mom); the nannies who look after the kids (many of whom are developmentally disabled in various capacities) are 姑姑s or 阿姨s (aunts); the resident priest is 伯伯 (uncle); the younger staff are 姐姐s or 哥哥s (brothers or sisters), etc. The kids all also took on the last name of the director, since they don’t know their real family names. When I was with them, I really felt like I was part of a family – the younger staff check on the kids and chat with them about school like older siblings, the director worries about the kids’ grades in school like an (Asian) mom, and the nannies play with and look after the children like real aunts; similarly, when I fell a little sick, these new “family members” of mine looked after me like family, even though I had only been there for a couple of days at that point. The way in which they care for these abandoned and disabled kids, and have committed their lives to providing a loving home for them, was an inspiration to me in Christian living unlike anything I had seen before. Especially given that many of these kids are disabled and may be unable to speak or walk or feed themselves or control their saliva, providing a home for them quite literally entails the staff giving up their entire lives outside, committing everything they are to serving there.
Before I had come to China, I always told people that I never met a community that exemplified Christ’s call to Christian living in a more radical way than I see in my Christian community at Harvard. In Fujian, China, I did.
What inspired me most about the radical commitment and obedience in service of the people there was that most of them have decided not to get married. This is not really because they took vows of celibacy or nun-hood or anything like that, but just that they saw Christ’s call to serve there as demanding their life, their all, such that getting married would detract from their ability to commit as wholeheartedly to the place and its mission. With husbands and wives, with biological kids of their own, they might have much less energy and time to be parents and older siblings to the kids in the orphanage – it would become more a job than a life. And more importantly, as they told me, this is family to them. The three women whom I hung out most with are around our age, in their mid twenties, with similar ambitions and dreams and concerns as students at Harvard do (we talked a lot about them). They’ve already been living there for eight to eleven years, however, and they’ve committed to living there and being part of the family there for life – practically speaking, meaning committing also to celibacy. We discussed about how following and obeying Christ is often not easy, and they wholeheartedly agreed, but they said what makes it possible for them is that they already have a spiritual and physical family in the Home, and in the church.
… the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Mt 13:45-46)
Often, at Harvard, we find ourselves caught up with our ambitions and hopes and dreams, centering on “making it” and succeeding in what society has told us eudaimonia entails. However, in China, what I thought was about as unlikely a place as ever, I found a community of people who were different. I found a (non-monastic, non-convent) community where people voluntarily lead single lives, lives of sacrifice and selflessness, giving up everything that the world has to offer them – not out of compulsion, or painful acceptance, but because they’ve found something better, something worth committing to.