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Easter 2013

One of the priests at St. Joseph’s here in Beijing wrote this account.  I should like to meet the ladies of whom he speaks.

“He Is Risen! He Is Risen Indeed! 

     The eight ladies sitting around me in the plain conference room definitely belonged to the rural side of the Chinese urban rural divide. They were all middle aged peasant women very much of their time and place. Their weatherbeaten faces told of the hardships of life in a “cotton belt where planting, tending and harvesting of the white plant are still done “old school” and mechanisation remains a pipe dream. Too old to have been caught up in the extraordinary growth that has transformed China they live according to the rhythm of the seasons; a lifestyle that is fast becoming archaic in the new China. Their age is also against them in other ways also, the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, and a poor appreciation of the merits of educating girls deprived them of schooling; all of them are functionally illiterate. Only a few of them are comfortable in Mandarin, and even those that seem to be speaking in the Standard Language are difficult to understand. Though only four hours by train from the capital one is definitely a world away from urbane Beijing.

       Despite their apparent unsophistication, these women have a global sense that is surprisingly rich. Foreigners are relatively common visitors, and I am welcomed with curtesy but little of the wonder that is par for the course in other places. Despite their limited education, certain world events are discussed and analysed with as much enthusiasm as in Poland or the Spain. They will never visit France or Italy but they mention towns and cities in both countries with relative ease. I don’t know if any of these ladies have sons or daughters who studied in the US but it would be unremarkable if they did and they are in daily contact with returned graduates. Their sense of the august universities of US may be vague but are at most only one degree of affinity away from those hallowed halls.

      The link that makes these village women global citizens is their Faith. With their sisters (and brothers!) in New York, Dublin and Bombay the ladies of XizhongYing face the challenge of making the love of God and neighbour alive. Through their Faith Jerusalem, Nazareth, Rome and Lourdes become barely less real and perhaps more emotionally present to them than Beijing or Shanghai. The network of relationships which follow faith has made their pastor a graduate of Catholic University of America and a Sister from the village a student at Chicago Theological Union. The new Pope’s election, is already old news even if the CCTV failed to cover the white smoke as the rest of the world did, and nobody had to ask who is this Francis after whom he chose to be named. These women may be illiterate, and have no access to the internet, but they the are connected into something which is bigger than themselves and which means the world to them.

      The ladies of Xizhongying face a problem. Poverty in the Middle Kingdom, like Socialism, has “Chinese Characteristics”and rural poverty is proving particularly intractable. Though poor themselves, their faith demands they help those even worse off around them. They have reached the limits of individual charitable deeds and these brave women are dipping their toes in rather murky waters of organised social service in a Communist country. What may seem second nature in Europe or the ‘States is bewilderingly novel here. The impulse to serve the poor of course is common, but the stuff of organised charity, meeting, minutes, treasurer’s reports, fundraising, and volunteer management, is all strange and new for women who can have a deep impulse to love of neighbour, but have never even heard of a raffle, or a bake sale, let alone organised one, nor managed the proceeds for the good of the poor.

      Often, for outsiders, the High Drama of China-Vatican’s on again off again relationship dominates our understanding of the Catholic Church in China. But for me the exciting story is in the experiences of people like the women of Xizhongying. In a small village in a forgotten part of Hebei, the yearly retold story of feet washed, a cross borne and an empty tomb offers and demands of these villagers more than the Confucian tradition or family loyalty expects. These ladies, rather than work out their response to this story on their own, are struggling to organise co-ordinate, sustainable charitable work. We may never arrive at announcements of “Bingo Night in the Church Hall” to fund it, but in the halting efforts of these women to care together for the poor around them I see evidence, if such were needed, that Christ not only washed feed and then died for us but that on the third day He did indeed Rise from the Dead! Alleluia.”


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