A new monthly column in which Jenni Pretorius Hill shares stories of hope which bring Heaven’s perspective to Earth
Heaven is crammed into a small village in a remote part of China. If you ever find yourself lost and happen upon it, it may appear to be just a scattering of huts amidst rice paddies and pointed mountains; and you would dismiss it immediately as rather lovely, but not where you would ever want to live.
I spent the summer of 2001 volunteer teaching in an English school in one of China’s big cities and part of my responsibility was assisting at a summer school in this very rural village. I was reluctant to go, not so much because of the covert and potentially dangerous nature of the operation, but because of the extreme remoteness of the location at the height of the Chinese summer. The village was about a three-hour drive from the city, much of it on a dirt track, and we needed to arrange special transport because it did not lie on any major route. Most of the city children who would be attending were from affluent Communist homes, some of them children of ranking officials, but none of them had ever experienced the challenge of rural existence and the deprivations that come with poverty. More importantly, they had never received the opportunity of hearing the good news of Jesus. The plan was to remove them from city life, cell phone connectivity and the luxuries of home so that they could be immersed in truth – eyes opened to the reality of communism, and hearts exposed to the love of a creator God. It was a risky business, however. Proselytising in China is a criminal offence and the penalty especially harsh if it involves children.
I remember the journey out of the city – the bus load of spoilt sweet-stickied children, some wanting their mothers, but most near delirious with excitement at their first holiday away from home – and my own feelings of trepidation. Our arrival at the village only heightened my misgivings and growing reluctance to the job I had committed to for the next two weeks. There were no ablution facilities; a trench behind the school served as the communal toilet. I discovered quickly that lingering longer than a few seconds invited a swarm of mutant mosquitoes, the size of hornets, to ascend from the putrid depths and attack your exposed rear, where you would be scratching for days afterwards. There was no running water and meals consisted of a watery rice gruel three times a day, often served with faded cabbage and a few floating bits of meat that I preferred not to identify. And it was hot. So hot that moving from one shaded spot to another across a stretch of undiluted sunlight meant a river of sweat cascading down my spine. But, incredibly, the children seemed to love every minute of each play-filled, technology-absent day, as did the handful of Americans who had flown into China just for the experience. There was a teenager from Alabama who got savaged by insects that had infested her sleeping mat and every day I watched as the welts got so big that they began connecting to form a red swollen mass. While I was wondering whether China would offer hospital helicopter extractions for foreigners, she cheerfully insisted that it wasn’t anything to worry about. I was so focused on the internal vision of the bus returning to the village to collect us, that I did not regard what God was doing, not only among the children, but in the village itself.
Among our party of Americans, there were a few Chinese evangelists. They kept apart from us (for security reasons) but every day I would see them among the huts and interacting with the villagers. They carried invitations to an event in the school hall and their aim was for every person in the village – from child to grandparent – to attend. On the day of the scheduled meeting, one of the evangelists approached me and asked me whether I would like to attend that evening. He asked me not to tell the others as just having one foreigner there was enough to jeopardise the whole village. I don’t know why he did this, and why he chose me to be the only western witness. I hope it was less about my miserable demeanour than it was a prompting of God. But to this day, I am grateful for the invitation.
I understood nothing of what was said that night as one evangelist spoke after another. They took turns standing in front of a chalk board and occasionally would write something and I could gather that it might be a Scripture or a meaningful illustration of their message. Then, many hours in, in an instant, the atmosphere charged with something like an electric current. It compelled me to sudden alertness, and I looked around the hall, and I noticed a child, not older than five years of age, with tears streaming down his face. So clearly did I hear the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to me: “For out of the mouths of babes I have ordained praise” and as I looked around, I saw people beginning to cry all over the room – children and grandparents, mothers and fathers. I didn’t need for the evangelist to tell me later that every single person in the village came to Christ that night.
I have often travelled back in my mind to that hot, cramped hall in a forgotten village in China and I have imagined, how years prior that same hall would likely have been used to host the public denunciations of the Cultural Revolution, and the cruelties and humiliations perpetuated by Mao’s Red Guard. The memory serves to remind me of how God is in this world; more present and more powerful than any force of darkness pitted against us.
There is an extract from the poem Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning that reads as follows: Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; the rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
My Chinese village saw Jesus that night, and I did too. He had been there all along. I hope to live a life barefoot, hypothetically at least, but there have been many moments since this lesson where I have missed Him in my preoccupation with the screams and shouts of this world and with everything that seems to be failing and falling apart. His presence and work in our lives and in our nation is abundant and beautiful, never absent nor withdrawn. It’s up to us whether we choose to see it.
I like to think that, with a smile on His face, He sent a mail truck into the village a few days later – just because He is that kind and that aware of my human frailties. And since there was a situation in the city that needed to be attended to, I got a pass to hitch a ride to the closest town where I caught a bus home.
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