Despite the neon and towering glass, there was a patina of poverty that cloaked Urumqi. Pollution-choked trees were tended by stooped, shuffling women. Men pulled their livelihoods in wooden carts balanced on bicycle wheels. Three-wheeled motorcycles ferried whole families, squeezed onto roads with horse-carts, packed buses, and unfamiliar makes of cars, three vehicles wide in two lanes. The city was colorful and fascinating, but the neon flickered over crumbling facades. We said our good-byes to the gracious folks of our hotel and agency, who despite our lack of shared language, had shared sweet connections. The Himalayas were hidden by rain clouds when we left for the airport.
We arrived in Guangzhou late last night, a four and a half hour flight made longer by delays before departure, a tired baby and myriad emotions for me when we received news before takeoff that family at home was falling sick. With the dust of the Gobi desert still on our feet, we finally stepped onto the tarmac in southern China, overwhelmed by the damp, enveloping heat and amazed at the sparkle of this city. Lush green trees line the streets, and gold and glass buildings are framed by gardens of bougainvillea and bright impatiens blooming. Folks wander beneath the crystal chandelier in our lobby sipping from Starbucks green straws. It feels like…a different country.
We breakfasted like royalty, grateful for some more familiar options this morning. Not having brave stomachs, regardless of how brave our palates were, in Urumqi we never ventured into forest frog with pumpkin puree, South China crab (Urumqi being the most landlocked city in the world) or beef gelatin slices on the breakfast buffet at our last hotel. After orange juice and French toast today (with sister enjoying rice and yogurt), we joined the rest of the Holt families, taking a bus to the international clinic where some forty other families were waiting for the obligatory exam required for our children’s US visas. The noise and heat were stifling.
In that crowded waiting room, I watched a patient father pace with his screaming two year old son, the child inconsolable. I saw the tears of a new mother, holding close the daughter that was emotionally pushing away. Children with disabilities, whose families’ lives would forever change because of the care-taking involved, were held in the arms of mothers and fathers who had traversed the globe to find them. I was awed by it all, and sitting on that plastic chair with a child – near stranger -- in my arms, I thought a lot about the challenge I received from a friend this week to look critically at religion. If ever there was a time for me to re-examine what I believe and why, now is the time. I am in a country where prayer flags fly from trees, incense burns in temples and others prostrate themselves at the call from a minaret. What sets apart the book that I carry?
It was an elevator conversation that reminded me just how unique Christianity is in the world religions. I had seen the woman at breakfast, smiled at her over tea, and she stood now, touching my arm. “Thank you for doing this for this child,” she said in halting English. “We are not so brave in this country.” The elevator doors slide open, and she is gone, and I hold a little girl in my arms who isn’t sure that is where she wants to be. It isn’t bravery, I want to tell her. I am not brave! This trip represents all of my worst fears wrapped up and faced in a two week stretch. No, I am not brave. But this is why I am here: the book that I carry says that He loves us and made a way for us. There was nothing we had to do…no path to enlightenment, no prescribed prayers, nothing except opening our arms to the One that gives us hope. Just as a child in an orphanage cannot orchestrate their adoption, there is nothing for us to do except reach for our Daddy’s arms extended to us. And, even when we turn away like our Mercy, unsure of how safe it is to love, He still reaches. (Galatians 4:3-7)
The little girl, sleeping now beside me, will always remind me of how He traversed the world for us and loved us before we loved Him. Oh, the gift…