China: The story of a faith journey

Six years ago, on a summer Sunday morning, as I stood outside the door of Holy Family Church in Wuhan, I was greeted by a young Chinese woman. A conversation began.

Lucy Lu had returned to be with her family in Wuhan, having arrived from the US where she was studying. I enquired about her studies in the US.

She surprised me by saying that she was studying for an MA in Theology. Meeting a Chinese lay person who studies theology on a full-time basis is a rare event. My level of interest in her story probably showed as the conversation continued. After a few minutes, rather than try to continue talking in the busy setting of the church compound, I suggested that we could meet for a coffee later in the week.

A few days later we met and continued our conversation. The mid-week setting was a more relaxed opportunity to hear about Lucy’s journey from Wuhan to her eventual studies of theology in the US. She was born into a family in Wuhan that had no connection with the Church.

Having completed her high school education, an opportunity turned up for her to go to the US to study for a degree in history. Setting out for the US, neither she nor anyone in her family could have expected that significant developments would unfold for her in being introduced to the Church and the Catholic faith.

While Lucy studied history in the US, one of her teachers showed particular kindness towards her. This led to an invitation for Lucy to join the teacher’s family at their home once a week for evening meal. People who have been away from home for extended periods of time know that the kindness of others provides hope and encouragement that endure in the heart for a long time.

For Lucy, this experience of kindness was to be an important turning point in her life. Initially, she tried to understand why a family, that had no connection with her own family, would offer such kindness and care to someone from the other side of the world. She was someone who had been a stranger to them in previous times but was now being welcomed like a new member of their family.

Lucy Lu

Her ongoing search for an answer eventually led her to draw her own conclusion about the motivation for their kindness. She learned that the family believed in God and that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was a central belief for them, providing them guidance about how to live their lives.

The witness of Christian faith by this family led Lucy to make the decision to prepare for baptism. She was received into the Church in the US. When she completed her degree in history, Lucy returned to China. The influence of her experiences in the US began to show in the way she lived the next year of her life.

She worked with two faith-based organisations in Beijing, one of which provides residential care for young women in need of special support. Through the encouragement of the religious sister in charge of that organisation, Lucy returned to the US to begin studies for an MA in Theology.

In China, I have often noticed that there is a uniqueness about the faith journey of each person who receives baptism as an adult, especially when a person’s family has never had previous contact with the Church. Such experiences in China are a constant reminder that God’s Spirit finds its way to stir the hearts of people in a deeply personal way in all areas of Chinese society, whether that be among people who are struggling with poverty or working in areas of influence, whether they are suffering from physical limitations or engaged in work of high professional competence, whether they live in isolated rural areas or in China’s megacities.

The personal and precious details of each of these people’s stories point towards what I see as a deep mystery in a country as big as China, where the largest population of any nation in history lives within its borders. In a nation with a population of more than a thousand million people, God does not work in sweeping ways of immense influence.

Rather, God finds a unique and gentle approach to touch the hearts of people in a way that is deeply personal, a way that is patiently crafted to flow with the contours of the person’s life: a series of encounters that remain important for the entire life of the person, the unfolding of events leading to their faith story being continually told with sincerity for the rest of their lives, a story that allows them and others to marvel at how God reaches each person in their own special time and in a way that is deeply reassuring, a way that brings lasting peace.

As we sat in the coffee shop Lucy continued to share details of her faith journey. I felt that I was listening to a story that has never been experienced by anyone else in the history of Christianity, but yet a story that echoed of the endless creativity of God in the way the Mystery at the heart of our world finds its way to speak gently to the depths of a person’s heart if the person listens attentively.

Later that summer Lucy returned to the US and eventually received her MA in Theology. A student of great academic commitment, she then decided to continue her studies and was accepted to study for a PhD in Theology in the US. A large part of these studies has been researching the writings of John C.H. Wu (1899 – 1966), a noted legal expert who produced the first draft of China’s 1933 constitution and also wrote extensively about the Catholic faith.

As Lucy nears the completion of her studies, the COVID-19 developments of recent months have entailed living with the anxiety of being separated from her family members who have been living through the uncertainty of events in Wuhan. Like a growing number of people around the world, she knows that even if an emergency developed for her family, there would be no way for her to travel home to be with them at this time.

Thankfully, like so many others, Lucy has been able to make the emotional adjustment that is needed at this time, prayer providing her with the strength to face the current reality on a daily basis.

In more recent weeks concerns about the effects of the coronavirus have eased considerably in China. However, in more recent weeks Lucy’s family in Wuhan are now turning their attention to her situation in the US, a reversal of experience as the virus continues to twist our world in fast and painful ways.

As with any person living away from family, she seeks to calm the waters by reassuring them that she is safe and well, a similar approach to what she heard from them a few weeks earlier when the focus was on her native land.

At Lucy continues with the final stages of her studies, she lives with other lay women in a supportive faith community. Their spirituality places a strong emphasis on the model of discipleship of Our Lady. Looking to the future she sees the importance of lay people, especially women, studying theology and taking up roles of responsibility in the Church.

As Lucy probes the writings of John C. H. Wu, to sift out the gems of his spirituality, she has also seen other developments within her own family. Her mother was baptised a number of years ago. Her grandmother received baptism on her deathbed in 2017.

For a person who sees Mary as an important model of discipleship, another gem of God’s grace was unearthed quite recently for Lucy as she read a papal document, a gem of grace that reaches back in a deeply personal way to a time long before she had any contact with the Church.

Her reading brought to light the pleasant fact that a Marian year was initiated by Pope John Paul II from June 1987 to August 1988, Lucy’s birth in May of that year seen now by her as a providential moment that she describes by saying, “Mary has always been in my life even before I became aware of her care”.

The attention God gives to guiding and forming the life of one person among a population of more than a thousand million people is presumably a reflection of how God reaches out in hope to each person in our world in a personal way, seeking to assure each of us that there is a unique place for us in our family, in the community and in the wider world, whether it be in times gone by that were shared with some of our ancestors or in these weeks and months of uncertainty when all people around the world need to cooperate for the well-being of the entire human family.

The author is a Catholic living in Wuhan, China.

Courtesy: Independent Catholic News

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