After the season of the Incarnation, the Church calendar turns to Epiphany, heralded on January 6 by the story of the Magi, wise ones from the East. It is a story of how Jesus comes to be perceived as One in whom the very nature of God is uniquely revealed, not only to those shaped by Judaism, but also to those shaped by other cultures and geographies.
This November, for the second time in two years, I had the privilege of travelling to China, not as a tourist, but as a guest and pilgrim – perhaps a kind of reverse Epiphany journey, discovering the wisdom of the East and the light it casts on the human and divine nature of Christ.
I went as part of a small, unofficial group of eight touring West China. The theme of our pilgrimage was “A Yangtze Journey: in the Footsteps of Katharine Hockin,” after a Canadian missionary who, with her widowed mother Lily Hockin, served in West China during the turbulent years between the Nationalist Revolution in 1911 and the departure of foreign missionaries in 1951 following the outbreak of the Korean War.
Our journey began on November 20, 2017 in Shanghai, continued by high-speed train to Yichang, then by cruise boat along the Yangtze River to Chongqing, and from there to Chengdu and Leshan in Sichuan Province. We were following the path taken by Canadian missionaries at the turn of the last century to an alien environment where language, culture, and geography were completely unfamiliar.
The early success of the missionaries in making converts to Christianity was limited. Yet their commitment to the physical and spiritual well-being of the Chinese people in this isolated and poverty-stricken corner of China was unmistakeable, and over time, we learned, was deeply appreciated.
In each of the three major cities we visited, our group received VIP treatment as a sign of gratitude for the pioneering work of Canadian missionaries more than a century ago: some as doctors and educators who founded hospitals, dental clinics, and universities, some as pastors who “walked the talk” when preaching and teaching the Christian message.
In Chongqing, the #5 People’s Hospital displayed a striking mural in the front entrance with scenes of Canadian doctors and nurses treating wounded soldiers during the 1911 revolution, or relieving the suffering of the citizens of Chongqing during the Japanese bombing of the late 1930s.
In Leshan, the day’s program included a visit to the original homes, hospitals, and churches of the first missionaries from Canada, a guided tour of the newly constructed 17-storey People’s Hospital of Leshan, a gala lunch hosted by the Vice Mayor of Leshan, and a boat tour to view the Giant Buddha.
In Chengdu, on the sidewalk in front of the Second People’s Hospital, we saw a larger than life sculpture with a sign: “More than a Century of Great Love.” It depicted Canadians like Dr. Omar Kilborn, who founded the Red Cross Society during the 1911 revolution, and was a founding member of the first hospital to provide western medical care in Chengdu, and the West China Union University, a flagship centre of medical education and dentistry. It showed his wife, Dr. Retta Omar, treating a peasant woman on a stretcher, a sign of her care for women’s health; and a graphic scene of someone in a dentist’s chair being treated by Dr. Lindsay Thompson, using an opium pipe as an anaesthetic.
What our group witnessed was the long-term fruit of the seeds that were sown by people like Katharine Hockin and the wider missionary movement of which she was part. It was also visible in a vibrant Church that continues to grow and be transformed. We worshipped in a congregation of 800, talked and sang with young students learning to become lay pastors, and met an elderly couple preparing to be baptized at Christmas with scores of others.
Besides offering people the prospect of spiritual purpose and meaningful community in an increasingly anonymous society, the churches we visited also provide direct aid to people of low income, financial assistance to students in need, or hospitality to seniors and singles. I was struck by the diversity among local churches – one had a full-immersion font at the front, one had a congregational style with wonderful Methodist hymns, another was almost like being in an Anglican cathedral.
Though to me these churches still seemed somewhat Western in style and appearance, I discovered, in one-to-one conversations, that their commitment to apply the good news of the gospel to the Chinese context was anything but. In particular, the Church in China has chosen to be “post-denominational” following the departure of foreign missionaries, giving higher priority to unity and practical ethics than to doctrinal distinctions. They are committed to cooperate with the positive initiatives of the People’s China in spite of significant ideological differences. And they are striving to articulate a “truly Chinese” theology that is not filtered through inherited missionary perspectives.
Decade after decade, ordinary Chinese people have experienced oppression, civil war, invasion, revolution, and more recently, exponential economic expansion. Today, the role of the Communist Party in the People’s China is muddied and complex, yet given the challenge presented by the staggering dimensions and diversity of the Chinese population, it is a regime that appears to be relatively functional. Wherever we went, we experienced a spirit of resilience, openness, and warmth, and an unexpected degree of interest and gratitude among Christians and non-Christians alike for the legacy of Canadian missionaries.
Something transformative happens in the exchange of peoples from different geographies, histories, and culture. In the gospel of Matthew we read of wise men from the East who followed a star to find and worship the infant Christ, bringing what gifts they had to a place of encounter and vulnerability. In a sense, these early missionaries did the reverse – they had no star to follow, but nevertheless brought what gifts they had to a place of encounter and vulnerability, finding that, among the people of West China, Christ was both already present and yet to be born.
Read more about Maylanne’s journey to China at the blog, In the Footsteps of Katharine Hockin.