China: A Missionary’s Tale

Sharing the Gospel with others was always my top priority as a senior staff worker of Christ’s Youth in Action. My mission field was with the youth in the Philippines, especially in university campuses. God would later broaden my vision to embrace a people who counted for one-fourth of the world’s population at that time.

A HEART FOR CHINA

China held no particular attraction for me when I was growing up. I remember my disappointment when the Filipino-Chinese would cheer for the Chinese national team over the Filipino team in an invitational basketball tournament. I also remember how a visit to Communist China with my family in 1977 piqued my interest in this secretive nation. But it was only in 1984 when I read the book Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret that any real interest in China emerged.

Hudson Taylor was a missionary in China when a Chinese man approached him after his sermon. The young man asked, “Is everything you shared with us about Jesus true?” Hudson Taylor answered, “Oh, yes!” Again the young man asked, “How long have you known about this Jesus?” Hudson Taylor answered, “A very long time, for years. “The young man then responded, “Why has it taken you so long to come and share this with us? My father died without hearing about Jesus.”

That story struck me. I thought, here I am enjoying the joys of knowing Jesus when there are so many people in China who have not yet heard the Good News. A seed was planted in my heart, and I offered myself to be sent to China to share the Gospel. I was still in formation then as part of the sisterhood in community, so I couldn’t go to China unless I was sent. So I prayed and waited on God’s perfect will and perfect time. As I waited, anything Chinese attracted my attention. I believed it was not a coincidence when my family hosted guests of Cardinal Sin from the Church in China. They came to our home for dinner and I accompanied them the following day for a visit to a farm outside the city: We became friends and they reciprocated our hospitality by hosting us when we went to China.

The following year, I received a call from our leader in the community asking if I would be willing to represent the Filipino youth in an official delegation that Cardinal Sin would send to China. Contrary to my usually quiet demeanor, I found myself literally jumping for joy and enthusiastically accepting the invitation. What added to the joy of this great news was we were going that October and I would celebrate my birthday there, which would coincide with Mission Sunday that year. God’s hand was evident and I knew He was opening the doors for me to do mission work there one day.

The highlight of our days in China was celebrating Mission Sunday with Bishop Jin of Shanghai. Fr. Calle, S.J., a member of the Philippine delegation, told us that Bishop Jin secretly remained loyal to the Pope and was under surveillance by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.’ The birthday wish I asked of the Lord was to deliver through Bishop Jin the letters we brought for the Jesuits in prison who were celebrating the anniversary of their ordination. God granted this request and added a surprise birthday cake during our dinner with the bishop. To this day, I remember the sight of the Shrine to Our Lady atop She Shan, Chinese for Snake Mountain. I recalled the Old Testament prophecy in the Book of Genesis that the woman will crush the serpent with her heel. The Chinese Catholics were suppressed in their faith and unable to celebrate the Eucharist, but they’ve sustained their faith by praying the rosary.

As we concluded our visit to China, our plane had some engine trouble. We waited for hours in the plane and were later told in the terminal that we had to retrieve our luggage from the plane’s cargo bay. We would stay overnight while the plane was being fixed. We decided to use the money for our overnight accommodations to book passage on a ship from Xiamen that would take us to our destination in Hong Kong. This was an apt closure to our visit because the entire delegation gathered on the top deck praying for China as the ship made its way toward Hong Kong.

THE DOORS TO CHINA OPEN

The visit validated my desire to go on mission to China and my leaders in community encouraged me to prepare to return even as I waited for God to unfold how this would take place. I started by trying to learn a little Mandarin and also by beginning to evangelize Chinese in the Philippines. I thought the best way to do this would be to go to the International Center in U.P. Daimon, where there were students from Mainland China. I recalled Ma Hairong, the translator for Cardinal Sin’s visitors, was a student at U.P. So I went to the International Center and asked at the reception if she was there. I was told she had already returned to China. Providentially, the person manning the reception, Zhang Lanying, was from China. The actual receptionist had just asked Lanying to replace her while she took a brief break. This chance encounter, or should I say divine appointment, began a friendship with Lanying that would bear fruit and lead to my receiving a scholarship grant in China.

It was nearing Christmas, so I invited Lanying and some other Chinese students to come and experience the Philippine celebration of Christmas. Our friendship continued with picnics, weekends of volleyball, outings to Tagaytay, and introducing them to brothers and sisters in the community. As the bonds of friendship grew, they advised me to apply for a grant under the Cultural Exchange Agreement with China. This would open the doors for me to study as a scholar in China, and hopefully come to teach at their university, Hua Qiao University (the Overseas Chinese University in Quanzhou, an ancient cultural capital of China).

I applied and was accepted for a one-year language scholarship grant at the Beijing Language Institute (Beijing Yuyan Xueyuan). In August 1990, I prepared to depart with four other Filipino scholars for Beijing, not realizing that the Chinese government would provide for our board, lodging and even a monthly allowance.

What a joy it was to settle in to my six-square-meter dormitory room with my Filipino roommate and attend Chinese language classes.

The staff of the Philippine Embassy took us under their wings and cautioned us that the Chinese government would monitor our activities. I was careful to ask my brothers and sisters in the community not to overtly write about God in their letters to me. We even decided not to use a code, agreeing to refer to God by using our baptismal name. This way a single name would not stand out and draw attention in any of our written communication.

Letter writing was a major form of communication since mobile phones and the Internet were not widely used in China at that time. There were only three English TV channels available in Beijing –

 MTV, StarSports and StarWorld. We had to wait for Sundays, when Filipino families would host us after Sunday Mass at the Philippine Embassy, to catch the latest news on CNN. I subscribed to the English China Daily to understand the country’s perception of the world. I particularly enjoyed the international sports section. I also kept abreast with current events by listening to the BBC and Voice of America on my pocket short-wave radio.

In the meantime, I focused on the three major goals that my leaders in community gave me: learn the language, intercede for China and make friends. I added a fourth – that I be able to bring one soul to Him while I was in China.

By God’s grace, I was able to do all four.

I interceded for China daily, with the map of China on the wall beside my bed.

I not only learned conversational Mandarin. I passed the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), similar to the TOEFL for the English language, with an intermediate’s rating when we were only expected to attain the beginner’s rating.

I made several Chinese friends.

But more importantly, more than one of my Chinese friends became part of the Christian family by receiving the sacrament of baptism.

I looked for a way to minister so I volunteered to handle the children’s Catechism on Sundays before Mass. It was a privilege for me to help prepare these kids to receive their first Holy Communion.

I also became part of an ecumenical Bible study group in school that was limited to foreigners. This led to a wonderful celebration of Easter with an ecumenical dawn service. Nothing could match the experience of gathering in our buses while it was still dark to be at the Great Wall before dawn. We welcomed the sunrise with songs of praise and rejoiced in the resurrection of Jesus, Our Lord, in a land that had yet to acknowledge Him.

I also volunteered to help a local Chinese with English in exchange for help with Mandarin. While the student in charge of this language exchange told me that I could reject the person assigned to me because she might be too old, I was happy to accept her because she was just a few years older than me. Thus began a cherished friendship with Wu Yao.

MY NEW FAMILY IN CHINA

Wu Yao taught English at a Chinese middle school and wanted to improve her English. We began with weekly discussions on Thursdays. But soon we moved from school to Wu Yao’s home, which at that time was off-limits to foreigners. Since I was just beginning to speak Mandarin, Wu Yao asked me not to speak to the guard at the entrance of their apartment building. She explained I was a friend visiting from Southern China. Like most Filipinos, I must have some Chinese blood and the guard let me through without question. Wu Yao introduced me to her husband and their only son (the Chinese have a one-child policy) and they became my family in China. Soon, we spent weekends together as well.

More significantly, Wu Yao brought me to meet her parents in a guarded area more than an hour’s bike ride from school. Her father was a physicist and her mother a performer in the Beijing Opera. Both of them were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and were now living in a secure location. Wu Yao’s sister died in the great earthquake of Tianjin. I now became like a sister to her. I shared with her what I could about my faith and my choice to live a consecrated life. But my Mandarin was not good enough and neither did my Chinese-English dictionary give me the needed vocabulary.

I remember when I told her I had to attend a religious service and could not come to her home on Holy Thursday. She said I should just come the next day. When I said there was another service on Friday, she said to come on Saturday. She was surprised when I said I would still be attending a service on Saturday and Sunday. I tried to explain what Christians were celebrating. She was puzzled when I spoke of Jesus dying on Good Friday and rising to life on the third day. It was then when I understood St. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:4, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

I continued to pray for Wu Yao and her family. The end of my year in Beijing soon came and it broke my heart to say goodbye to her. I would be moving to Jin Jiang in the south of China to live with the Tans, a missionary family from the Ligaya ng Panginoon community. Given the limited means of communication in China at that time, I knew I might never see Wu Yao again. I gave her a final embrace and entrusted her to the Lord, praying that we would see each other again at Jesus’ final coming when all men would be gathered to Him. I introduced Wu Yao to a friend in the Philippine Embassy who could help her with her English. But I later learned from my friend that Wu Yao moved out of their apartment building, which was demolished, to an unknown address. I had the opportunity years later to return to Beijing and drive by Wu Yao’s former residence. The place was unrecognizable.

The other family I had in Beijing was Lanying’s family. They took care of me as if I were their daughter. I would visit them on the weekends, traveling from school to their home by bike, and enjoy a sumptuous home-cooked meal. Lanying was still studying in Manila at that time.

I made many more Chinese friends, especially among my students, in Jin Jiang City and later at Hua Qjao University. Some of them accepted my invitation to come to the Philippines and were later baptized into the Catholic faith. A most cherished friend from Jin Jiang was Dong Hong. A friend met her when she worked as a food attendant in a hotel. I looked her up and befriended her and her family. They too became my family in Southern China. When I was hospitalized, they were there to care for me. I have kept in touch with Dong Hong and her family through the years because of frequent visits to Fujian.

LIFE IN SOUTHERN CHINA

I spent my time in Southern China with the Tan family. Jimmy and Malou Tan were also members of the Ligaya ng Panginoon Community, who, together with their three children, responded to the call to be missionaries in China. Their home became a venue for numerous activities. We made friends in the neighborhood by walking around with their four-year-old daughter who always drew much attention. We invited people we’d meet to our home and we were invited into theirs. We also befriended the Filipinos who were working at nearby companies and hotels. We conducted a Life in the Spirit Seminar for Filipino students who were studying at the university. We also had an ecumenical faith sharing group, since the nearest Catholic church was on an island that required a three-hour drive and a boat trip.

The Jesuits of the Philippine-based China Mission advised us that we should not try to get in touch with the underground church for the latter’s protection. Since it would be difficult to celebrate Mass, we celebrated a weekly paraliturgy at home – sometimes referred to as a “dry Mass” – since there was no priest present. It included all the Sunday readings and had a symbolic breaking of bread and wine. It was an extra special occasion when a priest would visit and we could actually celebrate the Eucharist in union with Holy Mother Church. One such memorable time was when we celebrated Easter Sunday Mass with Fr. Jose Calle, S.J., who visited us from Taiwan or Manila as often as he could. The Easter Gospel reading became so vivid to us when we realized that we were secretly meeting behind closed doors to celebrate the Eucharist, just as the Apostles did after the death of Jesus for fear of the Jews.

The time I spent in China was precious. It was as if I was on an extended personal retreat with the Lord. I originally thought that I would stay there for good, or at least for a long time, but an emergency cut my trip unexpectedly. My father suffered a massive heart attack. He didn’t want me to know at first, but when his health deteriorated, he asked that I be called home. What happened to Dad during his three-month stay in the hospital was nothing short of a miracle related in another chapter of this book.

I returned to China to complete my contract as a foreign expert teaching English to future teachers and science students. It was a fruitful year of befriending many Chinese students, celebrating Christmas with them as part of our English class, and visiting their homes. Southern China allowed greater liberties than the strongly controlled Beijing.

A week before final exams, I was taken ill with a bout of kidney stones. It was an unforgettable experience. I almost had to be transported to the hospital in a bicycle cart because the ambulance driver was drunk. The hospital had no elevator so I had to go up and down four flights of stairs to reach the ward.

Then I was asked to take a picture of my ultrasound on the monitor screen because the machine couldn’t make a printout. To top it all, I was asked to jump 400 times after they made me take a herbal medicine brewed in a clay pot at my bedside. These moments were made more precious because I would soon be leaving China to accompany my father to the United States for what the doctors said were to be my father’s final years.

ANOTHER MISSION FIELD

I arrived in San Francisco on Father’s Day and, as most things are with the Lord, He had far better plans than what we had imagined. He brought us there not for a heart transplant for my father but for the early detection of breast cancer for my mother. As for me, I was there to serve my parents. But my father encouraged me to make good use of the opportunity to pursue post-graduate studies. This resulted in a doctorate degree in Education which, unknown to me then, would open the door for me to serve in the academe. I also began serving the City on the Hill community in Los Angeles, and organized monthly gatherings with former Ligaya members in the Bay Area. It was a refreshing time for me.

We decided to return to Manila a year later without pushing through with the heart transplant. Dad’s quality of life had improved tremendously and it was a greater risk to proceed with the procedure. He lived for another 10 years without it. Ironically, this was the amount of time the doctors said the transplant would give him.

In God’s eternal plan, I moved from one mission field in China to another in North America, and ultimately returned to one back home among the youth in our universities. Originally, I was invited to work with the Teaching Development Center of our community, but since it wasn’t set up yet, I was allowed to explore other options.

I wrote a good friend, Sr. Marjo Matias, r.a., who was the principal of Assumption High School. She asked me to see her as she was eager to have me back. As I entered the school and made my way toward Sr. Marjo’s office, I bumped into Mo. Carmen Reyes, r.a., the former college president. She offered me on the spot a teaching position at the college. What confirmed the decision for me was finding out that the current college president was a good friend of mine, Sr. Clare Cecilia Salvani, r.a. We met during the beatification of MME and later became friends during the Emmanuel sisters’ summer mission trip to the Visayas. I had come full circle – back home with the Assumption nuns and teaching college students. It was an almost idyllic experience for me previously teaching eager Chinese students so I didn’t expect anything to come close. But my freshmen college students were exceptional, and it was pure joy!

This would not be my final mission field. After seven years, God led me to “put out into the deep” and serve at a large non-sectarian university in the heart of Manila. After that, more mission fields emerged. In a way, we are always on mission.

My Prayer for You:

What is your mission field? Your family? Your workplace? Or maybe God is sending you to a specific group of people or place? A brother in the Lord once said we may have discovered the treasure hidden in a field, but we should not be so attached to the field that God cannot send us to other mission fields. May we go wherever and whenever we are sent and bring with us the light of the Gospel shining through our lives!


This article is excerpted from Taken by Love: From a Rebellious Youth to a Missionary in China, Chapter Seven, (c) 2015 by Elizabeth Melchor, published through Shepherd’s Voice Publications, Inc., under its self-publishing arm: lifedreams books, Quezon City, Phlippines. Used with permission.

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