Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 20, 2004
Faith shared on a Chinese train
Tiny medals sustain couple's faith through persecution
By PAT McDONALD
Special to the WCR
Several years ago an event occurred that has always given me pause to appreciate the power of spirituality. I was travelling on an overnight train from the northern Chinese city of Harbin, near the Russian border.
I had spent four months in China coaching and assisting the eventual China national junior men's basketball team and was on my way back to Beijing and Canada. Security was tight in China and practising any religion was dealt with harshly.
During my stay I had observed Catholic churches boarded up and many other churches sacked and desecrated by Red Guards ever since the days of the Cultural Revolution.
I remember being taken by my interpreter Tong Tzu to visit a once majestic Russian Orthodox cathedral in downtown Harbin that had been desecrated during the Cultural Revolution. Many Russians had fled during the Bolshevik Revolution and settled in Harbin.
A once-ornate altar now was splattered with paint and Maoist slogans. Frescoes and murals were all irretrievably scarred. The church was now used as a storage facility for a furniture factory. As I was leaving the main part of this church I spotted a marking on the wall that might have appeared as desecration but was not. Someone had painted the "sign of a fish" behind the altar.
Not everyone was abandoning his or her faith. One of those Red Guards, Susan, became a teacher, was befriended by my daughter at her Teachers School in Harbin, and went on to spend a year with us in Grande Prairie. It was Susan and Tong Zhu, at great risk to themselves, who had brought me to the Russian church.
Now two compartments down from me sat an elderly couple on their way to Beijing. My interpreter, whom I trusted, informed me that the old couple would like to talk to me as they had heard I was Canadian.
My interpreter, Tong Zhu (now out of China), had told me that the husband had been a mayor near Beijing prior to Chairman Mao's revolution and his wife had been a professor of music at Beijing University.
Uprooted during purge
During the "Purge of the Intellectuals" in China they were uprooted and sent to the northern part of China for "re-education." They had spent 24 harsh years digging ditches, being re-educated, carrying slop pails and being humiliated as they worked the rice fields. Now they were on their way home.
They showed me photos of their children whom they had not seen all these years. I showed them photos of my family. They had spotted my crucifix under my shirt and asked if I was a Christian. I told them yes I was - a Catholic Christian. There was an exchange of quick phrases and the elderly woman clasped her coarse, weather beaten hands in mine.
With my limited Mandarin and the help of my interpreter I was able to determine that Catholic missionaries had baptized them Catholic many years before during the Second World War. Since the Communist takeover by Mao Tse Tung, they had not met any believers nor seen a church or had any opportunity to receive the Eucharist. Indeed any outward sign would have been ruthlessly dealt with.
Even now foreigners were immediately expelled from China if caught promoting any religion. I had an idea. They had some bread and I went back and got some wine that had been given to me by a Communist Party official when I boarded the train in Harbin. Little did he know to what use I would now put that wine.
With the bread and wine I began to recall as best I could the Last Supper of Jesus. Although they spoke no English and I very little Mandarin they understood and shared the meaning and nodded as I related the events of the Last Supper.
When I recalled the words of Jesus "This is my body, . . . this is my blood" in Latin and we broke the bread and shared, this lovely old couple each made the Sign of the Cross. It was as if all the previous 24 years of hardship, devoid of any Eucharist or companions for this faith-filled couple, had evaporated. They were in community.
Medals inside lapel
It was then the elderly gentleman showed me the inside of his lapel where he had sewn a small miraculous medal of Mary. His wife had a medal of the Sacred Heart of Jesus sewn into the hem of her jacket. This had sustained them somehow all these years.
It was I who was overwhelmed in that tiny compartment on a Chinese train in one of the most oppressive of anti-Catholic countries. I asked if I might take a photograph of them. I have looked at it many times in the intervening years.
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