Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Week 5

On Sunday morning, Graham and I walked along the Songhua River, across one of the four bridges that connects the east and west sides of the city, and into small but prominent Catholic cathedral. The church faces the river and sits next to a busy roundabout, which circles a classic Communist statue—peasant worker atop a twenty-foot red pedestal. According to the plaque in front of the church (which marks it as a local historic site), it was built under the supervision of a French priest nearly 100 years ago. It was damaged during Mao’s Cultural Revolution (c. 1966-1976) but has since been restored.

We arrived shortly after a service had ended and wandered among worshippers gathering on the lawn before we entered the church. I’m no expert in medieval architecture or French Catholicism, but I have seen a few European cathedrals, and this fit one the mold. The statue of Mary, paintings of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus, confessional booth, hymnals, rosaries, vaulted ceilings, and stained glass were all there.

As a person of faith, I’ve struggled to learn what it means to be a follower of Jesus here in China. Compared with 30 years ago, religious believers are remarkably free to read their sacred texts, gather publically, and openly express their faith. However, all citizens who attend church are listed on a government roster of Christians. This identification effectively limits their ability to advance in society, since they have no chance of ever joining the Communist Party. Most Christians are uneducated and poor, and the vast majority are women. As a form of community outreach, Bo Hua Hospital offers free health screenings for members of local churches, knowing that they otherwise may not be able to access and afford these services.

In the United States, and especially down in the Bible belt, politicians and business leaders claim a religious affiliation for a step up in society. In China, announcing your faith takes you a step down. However, the country has been shifting from anti-religion to slowly affirming some of its Taoist and Buddhist spiritual roots, as leaders recognize that belief systems encourage social stability and morality. Being faithful follower looks very different in this culture and socio-economic system. The one-child policy, cutthroat education system, rapid economic growth, swiftly shifting cultural norms, and political system raise questions about integrity, justice, love, and faithfulness that I have never had to ask.

It makes me despair to see that missionaries of ages past defined faith as a type of architecture, painting, and style of music, rather than a life of love and peace. Yet, when I hear my Chinese friends talk about pursuing a life of purpose beyond personal achievement and hedonist pursuits and when I see people embracing life together, supporting one another, and reaching out in love to their community, I have hope that there is a way to bridge the cultural divide and share our common beliefs, hopes, and experiences.