Dali is the ancient capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom and today in the middle of the old town is a bell tower. One day I was passing through the tower on my way to a bus station. In the tower sat a young man, ten or twelve years old, who sat by his basket and begged. He was evidently blind as his eyes were white from cataracts. As I passed by with many other Chinese tourists, my hands in my pocket touched upon about 30 yuan, a couple of bucks. Why not. Placing one hand on his back and bending over him, I buried the money in the bottom of his basket; I didn’t want someone else to drop in a yuan and scoop up the larger bills. As I did so, the young boy looked up and in perfect English said, “Sir, Thank you very much. I really appreciate it.” I paused and looked into his eyes. His bottom eyelids drooped, revealing tender red muscles. In the very center of his eyes were small dots; he could see a little – very little. As I straightened myself, I found the crowd had stopped surging. Dozens of Chinese simply stood there staring at me and the boy. A little unnerving, but I departed through the crowd. I had a bus to catch.
On the bus, a few miles down the road, it hit me like a ton of bricks. In China, if you have a disability, you are not educated. But here was a young blind boy who had learned perfect English in school. Or had he? Dali is the center of China’s marble trade and those dark red eye muscles troubled me. Hmm. Had someone been dropping lime water (made by burning marble) into his eyes so as to irritate them and create the cataracts? The only thing that added up was that he had likely been kidnapped, maimed and placed in the tower to beg for someone else’s profit.
When I returned to Dali, the police had actually set up their headquarters in the bell tower. It seems that the Chinese who stopped to watch, also understood the score. The local authorities in the ensuing weeks after my visit had uncovered a child-kidnapping ring. I do not know what happened to that boy but the Chinese have excellent eye doctors who can spin off cataracts. Whether they could connect the boy with his family? I don’t know. I have encountered other heart-rending situations with children who have been enslaved by kidnapping and made pitiful for begging by maiming. Generally, the Chinese are compassionate and will intervene when they know what to do.
There is another type of slavery in China; one that is common where we live. At the moment, Yunnan is in a severe drought. About 600,000 are profoundly affected. The lakes and ponds are dry, cracked and parched. The government comes by once a week to fill about six buckets full of water. Farmers portion out what is needed to drink, and then try to grow something to eat. They try but it is obviously hopeless. The most heart-rending issue is not the lack of water. It is watching children wither away. If you had two children and very little food; if you could feed one child but not two; if you MUST choose – how would you? I have read countless testimonials of families that chose. Would I, in order to keep my second child alive, arrange for that child to enter into bonded labor so that by working, he or she could remain alive, knowing the child would not live if he stayed at home? How do you respond if I change the above sentence to: “sell that child into slavery”? Bonded labor is the major form of slavery today. Today, more people live in slavery than at any time in recorded history. Each and every situation has a face, a name, a story. By providing work that pays money, Luanne and I can intervene in very poor families so that a crisis will not push a parent into making such a heart-rending decision. In our area, most families live on about a dollar a day. A crisis can tip them into unpleasant situations.
So far I know that you’re with me. Americans have a very soft place in their hearts for children, for children placed in slavery. ‘Slavery’ and ‘Freedom’ are closely related terms that are weighted and fraught with meaning. But now I’m going to challenge your thinking.
In the second and fourth chapters of Acts, we know that many in the early church sold buildings and tracts of land to help the church feed the hungry. Successfully enough that scripture tells us the church effectively addressed the issue of poverty among the believers. What I did not know was that some early believers, who did not own extra buildings or land, sold themselves into slavery and used the proceeds to help the hungry and poor. They sold themselves; they contracted their services for a fixed period of time for a specified amount of money – to help others. Many colonists from England arrived in New England as bonded laborers. They worked for seven to eight years and at the end of their contract, headed into the western lands with their hard-earned money to begin a new life of freedom. They referred to themselves as bonded servants – rather than slaves. They exercised freedom of choice. An interesting idea from history.
On a PBS series, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard professor, decided to travel through Mali to discover his own heritage. While in Timbuktu, he paused with his interpreter to survey a bustling scene with men trundling huge amounts of goods for transport across the Sahara desert. He commented that he deeply admired the work ethic of these freemen. His interpreter stopped to turn around and stare at him. He commented, “Almost every man you see here is a slave. In order to have work, they have entered into bonded labor.” As Dr. Gates and his camera man scanned the scene, dozens of men passed by carrying huge loads with broad smiles on their faces. Gates and his viewers were stunned by the incongruity of the scene and their beliefs. Would men sell themselves into bondage and still smile? Slavery is a complicated issue. The New Testament repeatedly encourages slaves to remain as slaves and be happy. Would that still be true today?
Are you still with me? I have encountered an unexpected reality here in China. Thousands of young, middle-aged and older people sign contracts to teach at Chinese universities. They contract their services, for a specified period of time, agree to live at their work, and not leave China. These individuals are Christians, and they do this so that they can afford to live and share with their students. Some only sign such contracts once or twice, while others are bonded for a long period of time. This is their life work. Quietly, peacefully, gratefully – they labor with great earnestness and effect. They are modeling the sacrifices of the first century church. Now mind you, no one refers to himself as a ‘slave’. In fact, the better scriptural term would be ‘sojourner’. A person who lives and works in a foreign land. We are admonished to take care of the widows and orphans and sojourners as an act of pure religion. I just did not know that so many Christians today willingly place themselves into bonded labor so as to create opportunities for service. Many of them are quite frugal and eventually redefine themselves as expats working as professionals. They remain, however, as sojourners.
Luanne and I find ourselves in a wonderful place to extend care and nurture the good works of such sojourners. They cannot leave China, but during university holidays they can travel inside of China. We can offer them respite; care for them, let them rest, and let them gather strength to continue their hard work. We recently hosted two young ladies on holiday. The youth hostel had doubled their rent upon arrival, effectively tossing the two of them into the streets. They could not afford to pay an extra five dollars per night. They found themselves at our little place with soft beds and a warm meal. The next morning, they set off to the train station with a nice breakfast (fresh muffins, fruit and a packet of hot chocolate) in a bag. They also left with our prayers for blessings upon them.