The day after Christmas, we traveled down into the heart of the city to spend a couple hours assembly-line fashion, packing backpacks for a project undertaken by a local Relief Organization that was providing mittens, socks, hats, and school supplies to some of the poorest children in Sichuan province. The day after that, I was lovingly sent off by my husband and children to join a small group that would travel to two schools, and two registered churches in the province, where we would distribute the bags and see some of these communities firsthand.
There were many things about this trip that I was thankful for. The opportunity alone to get out of the city and see the mountain towns and people was enough on its own. Added to that the chance to talk with workers (like our leader, Joy) who are on the ground full time with these people and hear about the issues, concerns, victories, and struggles they are dealing with, as well as hearing the needs and hopes of the local leaders in their cities was something I am rarely able to do, but so thankful for and inspired by.
It was also eye opening on many levels. China is vast and complicated. Many things you hear are true in one place, but not another. So to hear how things are being done, and what the true needs are, was in some ways different than the way things are often presented in media or from decades old realities that are not always the case anymore.
Mostly though, I was just humbled to be in the presence of so many children who treated us as though we were offering them the moon, when all we had brought was simple backpacks with a few necessary items. They lined up to greet us, three thousand strong, and stood in the bitter cold as we bundled out of the bus and were offered hot tea and seats at a long, red table high up on stage. It is the standard practice in China, to do things with grandness and formality far beyond what the occasion may call for, even at a poor school in a rural town. And it is our duty to accept it all with graciousness, and allow them to treat us as honored guests, though I felt more like a sham who should have brought far more to deserve all this attention.
The backpacks mostly went to the poorest of students, and to those who are labeled as China's Left Behind children. These are children who are the victims of a cultural phenomenon of migration by working adults to the cities, where they go from poor rural areas with little opportunity, to be able to provide for their children and parents. Studies estimate that there are about 58 million of these children in China, living with aging grandparents or any family that is able to care for them, and often even being left to board at the schools they attend.
I went into the dorms of some of these children. Plain, unpainted concrete walls, black with mold, and long narrow rooms with no electricity lined on both sides with rustic metal bunkbeds, a simple slab of wood for a mattress and a quilt or two for bedding. This is all they own, besides the pencil and notebook and schoolbooks in their backpack down in the classroom.
We also visited a small woman and her fellowship. The small room, open to the outside was half filled with mostly old men and women, and she cried grateful tears as she told of their Christmas service which had gone so well, and had allowed them to go out on the streets. They sang, offered us more hot water for our freezing hands to hold, and shared with us their burdens and needs that they asked us to join them in remembering. It is remote there. Not many workers want to come. It is hard work, and slow- lonely at times.
The aging group is without a generation to follow it, and the young children are without a generation to parent them. It is a burdensome thing to see.
The church calendar traditionally celebrates Christmas for 12 days. On the fourth day, December 28th, we celebrate the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents, which is to remember the atrocity of Herod as he slaughtered all the two year old's in Bethlehem in an attempt to destroy the threat of the Messiah he had heard about. As I hugged these children who smile at me so willingly, but whose lives I can't imagine, the words of Bobby Gross, as he described the significance of remembering Herod's evil act, came to mind.
" To remember Herod's atrocity is to strip sentimentality from the birth of Christ. On this day we confront the evil in our world, the violence of the powerful against the weak, the sorrow of those who suffer injustice and the very real darkness into which the light shines."
Yes, Christmas is far more than just remembering it as Jesus' Birthday. There are real powers of darkness and suffering going on here. And there is a very real light that has come into the world and is coming again. It is not just a nice analogy.
Just as we shouldn't look at the manger with sentimentality, so we shouldn't view these children in that way either. There are many things about their lives that I am too far away from to understand or make conjectures about. But I am thankful to follow in footsteps of those who are far closer, and do what I can to be a hand or a foot or even just a big stubby toe.