Sojourners – Believers in Another Country

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.

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Why Here? Why Kaiwen?

“I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help.  This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know.  God may call any one of us to respond to some far away problem or support those who been so called.  but we are finite and he will not call us everywhere or to support every worthy cause.  And real needs are not far from us.”  – C.S. Lewis

Lewis’ comments resonate with me often; is it necessary that Luanne and I have unpacked our bags here?  Is it even important that we are here?  Certainly, we were surrounded by needs and necessary tasks while in our home community.  Here, however, Luanne and I were confronted by something different.  Here, we met people who can not address their needs by themselves.  Several years ago, we had taken a ride along a precarious cliff-side road to arrive in an extremely poor village.  The villagers had left their mountainside homes at two or three in the morning to come to the market.  They had walked or rode horses along treacherous trails to bring their goods to market.  What was striking about the market was that everyone brought the same thing – potatoes.  That is all they can grow as a cash crop and they had lugged 40 or 50 pounds of potatoes on their backs to get maybe a dollar for their labors.  As Luanne sat down on a step an old lady sat next to her, and through our interpreter explained her problem.  She was poor and her daughter and husband had passed away; she was responsible for her 8 year old granddaughter.  In her mid-eighties, she would soon pass and her concern was this – her relatives could not afford to raise another girl, so her granddaughter would likely be sold.  It’s difficult to find a meaningful response.

Last year in our area, the average farmer earned about 900 yuan by working.  The average family sells a pig for about 3,000 yuan and looks to find some work to earn the cash to cover life’s little necessities.  A subsistence farmer has about $400 USD to buy school supplies, a little medicine, and some shoes.  They usually have to become migrant workers during the winter to find a job that puts a little money in the pocket.  When the village constructs a building on  our site, the workers come from the surrounding villages.  They go home for lunch and dinner.  They do not leave their homes and family to find work.

“Christian hope frees us to act hopefully in the world.  It enables us to act humbly and patiently, tackling visible injustices in the world around us without needing to be assured that our skill and our effort will somehow rid the world of injustice altogether.  Christian hope, after all, does not need to see what it hopes for (Heb 11:1); and neither does it require us to comprehend the end of history.  Rather, it simply requires us to trust that even the most outwardly insignificant of faithful actions – the cup of cold water to the child, the widow’s mite offered at the temple, the act of hospitality shown to the stranger, none of which has any overall strategic socio-political significance so far as we now see – would nevertheless be made to contribute in some significant way to the construction of God’s Kingdom by the action of God’s creative and sovereign grace.”  Craig M. Gay.  Way of the (Modern) World

We do, at times, struggle and wonder.  Who wouldn’t?  This morning a man walked out of his field as I passed by to explain to me how his wife is ill; it seems that she is anemic and deficient in iron.  She was out in the field, hoeing a row of corn, bent over in exhaustion.  This is a woman who rises every morning at 4:30 to harvest vegetables and take them to a nearby university to feed several thousand students.  So, this afternoon, Luanne and I are walking to their house to give her some multivitamins.  Truly a small gesture.

 

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What Can One Person Do?

Living in a rural farming village, located in the Himalayas, helping villagers create jobs begs a question – why? Actually, friends and family ask that question in a variety of ways. Why there? Why now? Why them? Why us? Fair questions. Even when Lu and I respond in a thoughtful and transparent manner, the questions linger and demand some soul searching.  Often at two or three in the morning, I toss and turn, my mind wandering the long, dark corridors of my mind and memory.  Lu and I have often discussed our plans and intentions, recognizing that the paths leading to a small village, known as Kaiwen, course through amazing experiences and opportunities. We have personal reasons and a purpose decided upon as a couple.

My personal interest in social justice first emerged in 1964. I was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, sitting on top of a picnic table. I had polished off a baloney sandwich, a couple of cookies and had gnawed my apple down to its core. My parents and their friends were sitting around another table behind me and after I arced my brown sack into a trash can with a beautiful basketball shot, I glanced back at them. I was anxious. In front of me across Pennsylvania Avenue rose the magnificent structure of the United States Capitol building. The dark green canopy of park trees provided welcome shade in the August heat and soon we were going inside to see the Senate in session. Behind me, the adults were quietly talking and I was excited. To a seventh grade boy who remembered the Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of President Kennedy, and was hearing about a place called Vietnam, the marble clad building in front of me, with a dome that rose above the world, represented ideas that were important and intense. I had listened to the early morning radio calling out draft numbers by birthdate; I wondered what number my birthdate would draw when I turned 18. The day before we had visited Arlington and I was moved by the quiet hush of Kennedy’s burial site and the eternal flame. Shortly, I would be inside of the most powerful place on earth. The adults started moving to clean and pack up. I turned my eyes to view the countless marble steps leading up into the hall.

From my left, a man entered my view. He reached into the trash can and pulled out my crumpled lunch bag. My sandwich and cookie wrappers provided no crumbs but he kept my apple core. As he gnawed the core, he walked slowly past me, keenly looking me over. My eyes tracked his movement. In this unfolding scene, everything was new. He was a full-grown man. He was black. He was hungry. He was eating my lunch. No, he was eating my trash. Somehow, deep down, as our eyes met, he brought a sharp contrast to what what loomed behind him. Power. Wealth. Privilege. Hunger. Man. Child. Black. White. I was a pretty simple kid, but deep down I knew something was wrong. I couldn’t give you a definition of what a moral was, but I recognized a moral wrong when I saw one. (Suffer the little children…)

Several years later, in high school, I figured out something else about that day. I had followed my parents up the steps and into the rotunda; followed them up some more steps where in hushed voices we were directed to some seats on a balcony; below, men in white shirts and ties were talking and milling around. This was the first time I had ever seen adults working by simply talking, and they were quite energetic and seemingly worked up. The men struck me as important and what they were doing was important. That day bestowed upon me a set of varied impressions. When we went back to my parent’s friend’s house, their son, David, and I went out and played in the backyard; we dug around some low mounds that ran through the forest. We found some rusted pieces of metal and a couple of lead slugs. The mounds were relics, old trenches, of the Civil War. In 1968 while in high school my mind returned to that day; I figured out what the men were arguing about – the Civil Rights Act. The precipitating event that created my focus was on the horizon. I lived in Oceanside, California and to the north I could see columns of black smoke. Los Angeles was on fire, from riots. My U.S. history teacher, a retired Marine Corp Colonel had a lot to say, as did all of the adults around me, and I listened. And thought. The black and white evening news showed tanks and soldiers carefully moving through streets of an American city. Some soldiers ducked behind armor and others raised their rifles. I could see small puffs of white.

Some years later, in college, a professor arranged for me and two other students a unique cultural experience. He locked us into a classroom, telling us to not leave, to wait, and to learn to listen. He then smiled, exited while locking the door, and walked across the quad back to class. Somehow, I was under the impression that he believed I needed some type of tutoring, or some kind of an educational experience – probably due to my hard headedness. As I sat watching him go back to class, another door opened and in walked three men in uniform. Black boots, black pants, black shirts, black berets and black skin – Black Panthers. For the next hour and a half, us three white kids got an education – about being black in America. Let me say, they were intense, and I had no choice but to listen. As I thought back to 1964, and as I was at a Christian college, I decided that perhaps I should listen with my ears, my mind and my heart.

Let’s move the calendar ahead a bit, past working in an inner-city junior high school where my first assigned task was to collect the students’ hand-guns and lock them in the teacher’s closet. Past the time, when the students poured out of a cafeteria on a Monday, minutes after lunch had begun. I commented to the teacher that the students must really want to play basketball and he simply stopped, turned around to look at me and comment, “Son, that was their first meal since lunch on Friday.” Oh. Past my decision to be a social science major in college, graduate and attend CSUF to get a teaching credential. To the day, when after lunch a boy sat quietly in the back of my classroom, tears running down his cheeks. The other kids seemed okay with his emotional display, so I quietly handed him some tissues and in a hushed voice asked him to stay after class. After the passing bell I sat down to listen. Nguyen apologized, saying that grief had suddenly overcome him. He had arrived in the US after a stint in a refugee camp in the Philippines; he related how his parents had been executed by the Viet Cong.  His dad, the village chief, and mom had been tied to a post and gutted. The dogs finished them off. Children found clutching American toys were summarily executed. On a moonless night, he had crawled through mine fields, climbed on a boat, hid from pirates, and somehow had ended up in my classroom. In 1966 I helped my dad, who worked at a Marine Corp base, collect toys for kids in Vietnam. We collected enough toys to fill two planes. I have, at times, wandered in my mind back to those villages. At that time, this young man needed encouragement – he was indeed fortunate. He was in America. And I felt privileged to be his government teacher.

So, you now have some insight into me, but the question remains – what can one person do? I remember Gandhi once said “What we can do, we will try to do.” I liked that, but then again, he used plural pronouns. The question really deserves a little tweaking – What can I do? Well, that is not a question to be answered without some real soul-searching. Because that is what is required. It is a moral question rooted in an empathetic understanding of the human condition. The question can be understood as an inquiry about how one individual might respond to problems of social justice. It also can be understood as a personal question about what I might decide; how might I prepare myself to see, understand, and purposefully act. Hence, the need to understand myself as one person.

I remember a fellow student at UCSD, Jon; he was a medical student with a caustic attitude. We were enrolled in a poetry class and he ripped everyone’s effort. We were required to compose and read a personal poem and when his opportunity arrived, everyone with a grievance waited with a fine-honed attentiveness. Jon’s poem was about being a medic in an Army helicopter on a mercy mission in North Vietnam. As the copter hovered over an open field, the villagers blasted away causing the copter to crash and burn; he and another survivor backed away towards the cover of jungle; when Jon looked at the other medic, his face blew away – so, Jon whirled around and fired off a burst of bullets into a tree. Hearing a thump, he backed away from the villagers towards the tree’s trunk; when he arrived he found a young boy dying of his wounds. As Jon finished the poem, the room was silent, everyone disarmed. Then a girl asked, “Why are you here?” Jon replied that upon graduation from medical school, he was returning to Vietnam. I don’t know if he did, I do remember that he was the power of one.

Life prepares us, one at a time. It seems that every task we need to do in China, we have done before. Personally, I was not ever aware of preparing. I do possess, in perspective, a sense of being prepared. It’s cumulative. Life, for me, has been traveling along paths which constantly branch off. Seldom did I overlook a cliff to see where a diverging path might go; usually, I can’t see around the next bend. Nor does choosing one path over another seem to be important. Choosing to be in China rather than Chino is not important; we do the same thing in each place. So it is not a conscious choice to be somewhere. It does seem, however, that ‘preparing’ is more about heart than mind and body. In Philippians, Paul does not exhort us to go somewhere or to work; rather he asks us to love much, love well and love intelligently. We simply find ourselves somewhere, with our sleeves rolled up and working ’till we ache, because we choose to care. What can one person do? What can I do? Care. Care enough to love. Care enough to do something, anything. Care enough to listen with our heart; to work to meet needs; to work hard; to work selflessly; to work until the person in need knows that you care – and wonders why you care. Paul encourages us to love much and love well so that Christ can be understood as the loving Son of God. That I can do. That is something Luanne and I have chosen to do together.

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Take Time

Daily life is falling into a natural pace.  Lu and I now take leisurely strolls through parks (our favorite is in Shanghai) and along village lanes.  It’s nice.  We now can take time to pay attention to the people in our lives, and to the small details of life that seem to make a difference.

My first novel, Wind Horse, is now available on Amazon Books, and I am beginning on two new titles – one fiction and the other non-fiction.  Join me on this blog as I begin to explore the ideas integral to these new texts.

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