Here’s a little story about the time we visited the State Church in Shantou, China.
It was our first Sunday ‘in country’. We had two days with our students and by this time our head and stomachs were both spinning. The only thing we had seen of Shantou was what we drove by on our way into town. Now we were going to venture into the big city, see what it was like and attend a church service.
The morning we woke up it was hot. Saying, “it was hot” in Shantou in July is, I suppose, like saying Atlantis is a little damp or that you might need a coat for the North Pole. It was extremely hot and extremely humid. You only ‘technically’ dried off after a shower, there was no real discernable difference to the amount of wet on your skin but the towel had passed over you. Breakfast was the usual (or what was becoming usual) and then down to the buses with our water bottles in hand.
We drove downtown, one large van, one small. It was always better not to look out the front windshield but you just couldn’t help yourself. It was the same attraction that people feel when they drive by an accident site wrestling between looking with morbid curiosity and respectfully not looking. Only in this case you were watching the ‘pre-accident’, waiting, knowing that somebody had to get run over here and amazed that it hadn’t happened yet.
One of the guys on our team had all he could handle and moved back to the back of the little bus. Cars, bicycles, pedestrians, motorbikes, bikes that had been motorized, tractors, forklifts (being used by a family of four as an SUV), buses, all going every direction honking at each other so much that it really lost it’s impact and became more ambient noise than warning of danger.
The streets were bustling and Sunday was a work day like any other. At the same time it was still a ‘different’ day and people of all ages and stages were able to go to church.
On the way I noticed a shop with Chinese characters and English words. It was obviously some kind of meat shop. The English read, “Chicken, Goose, Pork, Dog”. Later I would ask one of my students about this. “Do you eat dog?” I asked. “No,” he said, “not this time of year.”
Finally we pulled into a little parking area in front of a very large, very white building. I know ‘very’ is a poor man’s adjective but I just don’t know how to explain this white in an ‘eggshell white’ western world. It wasn’t just a bleached white, the combination of plain white along with the bright, hot sun made it, um, very white. I’m just bankrupt for words when it comes to describing this complete lack of color that scorched our non-protected eyes.
People young and old and a few somewhere in between stood around out front and greeted us or mostly stared at us as we arrived. It’s really something to enjoy ‘celebrity status’ just because you’re white. It’s exciting and humbling all at the same time. I was enjoying the attention even as I realized that anyone with my skin colour would be just as popular. We made our way into the building and through the crowd of people inside. The lobby was packed as people made their way upstairs, downstairs and into the main floor worship area. My hopes of slipping in quietly with my group and sitting in the back were quickly replaced by shock as we were led right down to the front to three rows reserved just for us. The ‘pews’ had little hand fans waiting for us made of plastic with pictures on them of birds and trees. There were also bottles of water waiting for us. Room temperature water. On a hot day, room temperature is, well, hot.
As we sat down the choir began to sing and we scanned our surroundings. The building was box shaped with an extension in front for the stage where the choir sat and the preacher preached at the pulpit. In back it extended for more seats. But it didn’t stop there, look up, look up, look way up. Balcony 1 with people seated behind us and on either side of us. Next floor and Balcony 2, again with people behind and on either side of us. Next floor, again more people on three side but at the other end, above the stage another area but no one was there…yet.
As we looked around we would make eye contact with people who would either look away very quickly or they would give us a big grin or a shy smile and a little wave. The choir was singing a hymn whose words were strange but tune familiar. Someone handed us a stack of papers with the days hymns printed for us in English. Between fans and drinks of warm water we could sing along to three familiar hymns. It was then we realized when we were given the song sheets, that we had been expected. No way to know if this was a typical Sunday or not at that point, anymore than someone could tell if it was a regular crowd here at home if everyone knew the entire Toronto Maple Leaf hockey team was going to be at church this Sunday. Or if it was Christmas Eve. Or Easter Sunday.
Have you ever been looking at someone, just absentmindedly, not in a stalking sort of way and suddenly they make eye contact with you and you’re hit with a wave of shock as you realize you were staring at someone and you look away as swiftly as possible to make it clear that you aren’t a stalker? Well, for some of us, it happens. It was hilarious to catch all of these Chinese staring at us, watch them squirm with embarrassment or delight when you connect with them and smile or wave. Not everyone was interested in us, but most of the people that morning were extremely interested.
It was great to have this diversion. The church service was what I would call a “traditional service”. The choir sang and then led us in singing. A few announcements were made and the young man making announcements pointed to us mid-announcements, oh, he’s talking about us, i hope it’s something nice, I looked up and for 3 floors up (or so it seems in my memory) Chinese faces, young, old, men & women, looked over the edges of balconies and stared into our little section up front and centre. It was standing room only with chairs in the aisles and the sight of faces above faces peering down made us feel like bugs under a magnifying glass (but not in a “burning ants” kind of way – this was painless).
The diversion was nice because just after announcements the sermon started.
It really seemed like a straight forward traditional service. Here on P.E.I. that means in and out in 60 minutes or your tithe back. So as hot as we were, as sweat soaked as our clothes were, as warm as our drinking water was, as woozy and out of it as some of us were feeling (my friend Gordon had taken a motion sickness pill for the bus ride after breakfast, now the ‘drowsiness’ side effect had kicked in and he was becoming a damp leaner) it looked like another 15 minutes and we would be on our way to lunch and air conditioning.
But no. An older man was speaking now after the younger one. His 15 Minute sermon became 20, 20 became 30 and the realization settled in to our baking brains: he’s just finished the introduction. I’ve preached some long sermons before, but a long sermon in a language you don’t know…ouch. Mid-sermon we perked up again when he kept motioning towards us. We glanced around nervously. He would make a remark and the crowd would laugh. We glanced around more nervously. Finally word got passed over to us before we glanced around in a panic at the next round of pointing and laughing, the message was on Hebrews 12, running the race of faith with endurance.
What he was saying about us, we were told, though it was not translated for us, was positive. Whew. Dial down. Drink some tepid water.
About 45 minutes into the sermon I looked up. There, on level 3, a tiny Chinese face looking down at us. This must have been a nursery or children’s church area. Another tiny face. Another. Thankful for another diversion I looked up. I subtly waved. I smiled. I grinned. And then as quickly as the little faces appeared they disappeared again.
Finally, one hour and fifteen minutes after the sermon began, it was over. (yes, I clocked it, another diversion.) And suddenly the service was over and the crowd began to disperse. We stood, shaking a little, wondering why we didn’t learn to ask ‘where’s the restroom’ in Mandarin and committed to never complaining about a long service back home again.
People waved to us, came up and shook hands, came up with small children and had them shake our hands (who knew if they would ever shake a white hand again?). Then we were led back to a small room where we met with the minister and his ‘board’. The young man turned out to be the pastor and the older men who met with us were delightful. They did their best to speak to us in English and we had our translators helping us out as well. They told us that the church had been built by the same businessman that had given the money for Shantou University to be built. This explained the similar color scheme: white. It also explained the similar architecture. One of the old men told us that he had spoken to the businessman about Jesus and the businessman told him that one day he might become a Christian, this, the old man said, was what they prayed for. We exchanged introductions, I invited the pastor who was about my age, to come and speak at our church in Canada anytime. After more chatting it was time for us to leave. We sought out the restrooms, squattys, and visited them before we jumped on the bus.
On the way to the bus I saw two charming little boys. They looked like twins. They were with a young woman and all three were getting on a bicycle together. I noticed they had on matching outfits, tank tops and shorts. On the boys little shirts were a familiar logo. It was the stylized logo for Star Wars with the ‘Star’ over the ‘Wars’. Only in this case, the logo actually read, “Star Warm”. It was a clever knock off, factory second, translation error? It didn’t matter, they, like many, many others, were pleased to have a shirt with English words on it. We saw a lot of this with the most bizarre English sayings that made no sense but were in English. It left me wondering about the shirts I see over on this side of the world with Chinese characters on them. What do you suppose those really say?
I took a picture of the two boys and gave them pins of the Canadian flag. They were very pleased with that, even though the flag meant nothing to them a gift did.
I joined the rest of our team, each person getting on back on the bus with their own stories from the morning, our heads and stomachs still spinning. We left there a very excited group, excited about the experience we had just had, excited about the experience we were about to have: lunch at McDonalds and then a stop at the local Wal-mart! From the sacred to the profane.