By Sr Joan O’Connor

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It was one of the poorest villages I had visited in China. As our driver, Mr Wang Gou Hai, wended his way between the narrow streets, I was struck by the stark poverty all around. This happened some years ago, when China’s much-vaunted economic growth had barely touched many of the interior regions where people still grappled with the age-old problem of basic survival

We received a warm welcome from the Sisters, about forty in all. The majority of them were quite youthful, a striking hallmark of the vibrant Church in China. Over the simple midday meal they told us about their life and work. They took care of about fifty disabled children. Most had been picked up from the highways and byways. That very morning a disabled five-day-old baby had been left on the doorstep lying in a cardboard box.

The centre had little by way of modern conveniences. No beds or cots; the little ones lay on long planks and in the freezing weather snuggled close and kept each other warm. The Sisters did not complain but were happy to be able to feed the children with the produce from an acre of ground at the back of the convent. They lived an austere life of prayer, reflection, study and unremitting manual labour, in their efforts to give the children the best care they could manage. In spite of all this austerity, love joy, laughter and peace flowed in abundance about the place.

During the meal, Mr Wang, who was city-bred and ex-army to boot, seemed unusually interested in all that was said. He scrutinised the Sisters’ faces as they spoke, and asked sharp questions about their life, and why they had given up everything to serve the poor. As the young Sr Superior responded I gave thanks to God for the simple way in which she gave witness to the Gospel with her life. Afterwards, as we helped to clean up, I noticed Mr Wang gazing intently at a faded picture of the Last Supper, the only decoration on the bare walls of the room. The afternoon was taken up with simple rehabilitation guidance for the children, my speciality, and arrangements to return and give a training course to the Sisters.

Mr Wang wandered about and chatted to anyone who had time to talk to him. Arriving home late that night, Mr Wang seemed ready for a long session as we shared an evening meal together. “You know”, he said, “I can’t help thinking this religion or whatever you call it is a good thing, I can see how it helps people”. Then looking intently at me he said, “Tell me more about the man who likes his wine”. Thrown for an instant, and not sure who he was referring to, I hesitated. Then I remembered that I had seen him gazing at the picture of the Last Supper. Aware that as foreigners and guests we are forbidden to discuss politics and religion, I promised Mr Wang that he would be my driver on the next trip to that particular centre. Then he could ask the Sisters everything about “the man who likes his wine”, as he called him.

Over and over during my time in China, I have had experiences of God’s tangible presence in this vast country. While not able to engage in direct evangelization, I have on numberless occasions been a go-between in proclaiming the Kingdom of God. God is found everywhere we look, even in a faded picture on the wall.

Sr Joan, a specialist in Conductive Education for disabled children, has spent years working in Hong Kong and China.