Discovering the Joy: Serving the City with Chinese Scholars

“Volunteering created this opportunity for me. I realized that these are real, ordinary people. Some people are homeless because they suffer from addictions or mental illness. Others have lost their homes because they don’t have a job. They are not like the remarks that people make about the homeless in the newspaper or on websites, or that my friends make all the time. Maybe some of them had caused a crime before, but isn’t my prejudice another crime of the heart?”
Robert, a visiting professor from China at the University of Washington, wrote the above after volunteering for the first time, serving a meal to people at the Recovery Café in Seattle. Visiting scholars like Robert are professors and researchers from top Chinese universities, visiting the United States for one year with a program sponsored by the Chinese government. I minister to Chinese internationals and our goal is to love, serve, and ultimately equip scholars for return to China, sharing the gospel with them. I have found that one of the best ways to serve scholars is to invite them to serve others with me here in Seattle.

Once I took a group of six scholars to an adult daycare facility to share a presentation about Chinese New Year. Our audience included people with mental and physical disabilities of all ages. Some in the crowd asked questions, both on and off topic, while some napped during the presentation. When the scholars finished sharing their New Year pictures and traditions, our audience applauded. The scholars were beaming. As soon as we were out the door, they asked, “Heidi, when can we do this again?”

When I invite them to come along with me, most of the scholars have not yet clearly heard or grasped the gospel. They often do not know the basics of who Jesus is and what he did. So why include them in the hands-on practice of living out the good news, before they themselves can explain it?

I find that given all of the background work we do to help the scholars understand the gospel, it is time for them to go home by the time they are able to make sense of it. It takes time to remove barriers, lay the foundation, and share the story. But the scholars are curious to learn about Christianity and American culture while in the United States, and their curiosity greatly increases and finds a concrete context for conversation once they participate in faith in action.

One female graduate student from China loved helping make hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the Union Gospel Mission Rescue Van every Tuesday. While slathering peanut butter on bread she said, “I never had a chance to do this back home, because I was so busy studying.” And she meant it. In high school, she studied more than twelve hours per day, every day, to get a good score on the college entrance exam. She had no time for anything else, let alone volunteering for the good of strangers. In college, she wanted to volunteer but did not know how to find an opportunity.

This focused pursuit of personal success is not as selfish as we may imagine. Children grow up knowing that they must succeed in order to take care of their parents, their child, their group. Family is the social safety net. This pressure to achieve, combined with restrictions on non-profit organizations, makes service to strangers rare and even difficult, though people truly want to do it.

So the scholars are often thrilled to find they can simply jump in and serve others, thereby included in our society in a profound way while here. They are suddenly a part of the “in-circle,” no longer foreigners who need help with directions or English, but team members who have something to contribute in our city.

Some time ago, I taught English in China. While there, I was surprised to hear the way my students talked about homeless people: “They are so lazy. They are always trying to trick people.” Then they would cite a news story about someone tricking the public. I understand that there are lazy and “tricky” homeless people, but I couldn’t understand the seeming lack of compassion. I heard the same opinions often from visiting scholars as well. I thought, “Why are they so prejudiced and black-and-white about this?”

Volunteering together now, I see the scholars open up with compassion to homeless and hurting people as they personally serve them. This is often accompanied by expressions of surprise and humble admissions of past prejudice. I realized the blanket dismissal of the homeless was mostly a matter of “survival blinders.” Without the gospel, and with so much pressure, how can anyone see hurting people and not be overwhelmed with guilt? The same is true of me.

Given the intensity of life back home, what joy when the scholars have the freedom to taste the joy of giving to strangers, of dropping those protective blinders. While exploring our culture and taking a sabbatical from family and normal work obligations, the burden of focused achievement is temporarily lifted for many. And it is lifted long enough to get an unforgettable taste of the joy of serving people without expectation of repayment – total strangers who are outside the family and group, who they may never see again.


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Every Friday night, I participate in a program for internationals at a local church. We enjoy cross-cultural friendships and do dinner, a brief worship time, and ESL classes. The scholars who have the biggest smiles are those helping chop vegetables in the kitchen and serving the food. They are discovering where the joy is at, and it’s exhilarating. One scholar surprised me. Apron on, brow sweaty, she effusively exclaimed, “I am so excited to be working in the kitchen! I have never done this before. I love this!”

When I go to someone’s home for a meal, I feel truly at home when I am able to help with the dishes. I believe it is the same for internationals here. What would happen if we gave them a chance to serve, even before they were believers? What if, with discernment from the Holy Spirit, we invite them to help share the good news with others (in word or deed) even as they are learning it? What if we invite them as friends into the “kitchen” of our lives and ministry endeavors?

There are many ways we can share the good news and disciple Chinese scholars – listening well and loving them, teaching them, inviting them to our homes and small groups. But one of the most powerful ways to do this is by inviting them to “come and see” the good news, serving alongside Christians. After all, that is the kind of partnership and friendship Jesus offered his disciples when he called them. Our invitation to the gospel is the opportunity to say, “You are not just someone I’m going to teach ESL to, or show hospitality to. You are made to overflow love to others. Come and experience that joy with me.”

 

Heidi Ifland is on staff with China Outreach Ministries in Seattle, Washington. She graduated from Covenant College in 2005 and subsequently taught English at a university in China. 

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The Internal Cross: A Pastoral Letter
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LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA

With rising pressure and persecution in China, there are two challenges imperative for church leaders. The first challenge is for current leaders to love Christ above all else, and not to stray into legalism or love of the world. The second challenge is to raise up the next generation of leaders, who will humbly model Jesus even if current leaders are arrested.

WILL YOU JOIN US IN PRAYING FOR LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT IN CHINA? PRAY FOR:

  1. Current leaders to grow in their daily walks with Christ
  2. Current leaders to shepherd and raise up new leaders
  3. New leaders who love Christ and will model him to the world
  4. New leaders to love and care for the church

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ABOUT LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT

About Shenyang

Shenyang is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Liaoning Province. It is known for its rich history and cultural heritage, including the Shenyang Imperial Palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Shenyang is also a hub for China’s heavy industry, with companies such as the China First Automobile Group and the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation having their headquarters in the city.

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About Qingdao

Qingdao is a city located in eastern China and is famous for its beaches, beer, and seafood. The city is home to several landmarks, including the Zhanqiao Pier and the Badaguan Scenic Area. Qingdao is also a major port and has a thriving economy, with industries such as electronics, petrochemicals, and machinery.

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About Xiamen

Xiamen is a city located in southeastern China and is a popular tourist destination known for its beautiful coastal scenery, including Gulangyu Island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is also a hub for China’s high-tech industry, with companies such as Huawei and ZTE having research and development centers in Xiamen.

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About Chongqing

Chongqing is a city located in southwestern China and is a major economic center in the region. The city is known for its spicy cuisine, especially its hot pot dishes, and is also famous for the Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam. Chongqing is also home to several historic sites, including the Dazu Rock Carvings, which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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About Nanjing

Nanjing is a city located in eastern China and is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It is one of China’s ancient capitals and has a rich cultural history, including the Ming Xiaoling Mausoleum, the Nanjing City Wall, and the Confucius Temple. Nanjing is also a modern city with a thriving economy and is home to several universities, including Nanjing University and Southeast University.

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About Changchun

Changchun is a city located in northeastern China and is the capital of Jilin Province. It is known for its rich cultural heritage and is home to several historical landmarks such as the Puppet Emperor’s Palace and the Jingyuetan National Forest Park. Changchun is also a hub for China’s automotive industry, with several major automobile manufacturers having their headquarters in the city.

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About Guangzhou

Guangzhou, also known as Canton, is a city located in southern China and is the capital of Guangdong Province. It is one of the country’s largest and most prosperous cities, serving as a major transportation and trading hub for the region. Guangzhou is renowned for its modern architecture, including the Canton Tower and the Guangzhou Opera House, as well as its Cantonese cuisine, which is famous for its variety and bold flavors. The city also has a rich history, with landmarks such as the Chen Clan Ancestral Hall, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, and the Temple of the Six Banyan Trees. Additionally, Guangzhou hosts the annual Canton Fair, the largest trade fair in China.

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About Kunming

Kunming is a city located in southwest China and is the capital of Yunnan Province. Known as the “City of Eternal Spring” for its mild climate, Kunming is a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and cultural diversity. The city is home to several scenic spots, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Stone Forest, Dian Lake, and the Western Hills. Kunming is also famous for its unique cuisine, which features a mix of Han, Yi, and Bai ethnic flavors. The city has a rich cultural history, with ancient temples and shrines like the Yuantong Temple and the Golden Temple, and it’s also a hub for Yunnan’s ethnic minority cultures, such as the Yi and Bai peoples.

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About Shenzhen

Shenzhen is a city located in southeastern China and is one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolises. The city is renowned for its thriving tech industry, with companies such as Huawei, Tencent, and DJI having their headquarters in Shenzhen. The city also has a vibrant cultural scene, with numerous museums, art galleries, and parks. Shenzhen is also known for its modern architecture, such as the Ping An Finance Center and the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center. Despite its modernization, Shenzhen also has a rich history and cultural heritage, with landmarks such as the Dapeng Fortress and the Chiwan Tin Hau Temple.

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About Chengdu

Chengdu is a city located in the southwestern region of China, and the capital of Sichuan province. It has a population of over 18 million people, and it is famous for its spicy Sichuan cuisine, laid-back lifestyle, and its cute and cuddly residents – the giant pandas. Chengdu is home to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, where visitors can observe these adorable creatures in their natural habitat. The city also boasts a rich cultural heritage, with numerous temples, museums, and historical sites scattered throughout its boundaries. Chengdu is a city of contrasts, with ancient traditions coexisting alongside modern developments, making it an intriguing and fascinating destination for visitors to China. 

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About Beijing

Beijing is the capital city of China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 21 million people. The city has a rich history that spans over 3,000 years, and it has served as the capital of various dynasties throughout China’s history. Beijing is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in China, including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven. The city is also a hub for political, cultural, and educational activities, with numerous universities and research institutions located within its boundaries. Beijing is renowned for its traditional architecture, rich cuisine, and vibrant cultural scene, making it a must-visit destination for travelers to China.

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About Shanghai

Shanghai is a vibrant and dynamic city located on the eastern coast of China. It is the largest city in China and one of the most populous cities in the world, with a population of over 24 million people. Shanghai is a global financial hub and a major center for international trade, with a rich history and culture that spans over 1,000 years. The city is famous for its iconic skyline, which features towering skyscrapers such as the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai Tower. Shanghai is also home to a diverse culinary scene, world-class museums and art galleries, and numerous shopping districts. It is a city that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, making it a fascinating destination for visitors from around the world.

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