Editor’s Note: From May 6-19, a group of 14 Yale Divinity School students were in China on a YDS travel seminar. Accompanied by Assistant Professor of Asian Theology Chloë Starr and Associate Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Anna Ramirez, the group began their trip in Beijing, then traveled to Huhehaote, Inner Mongolia, then to Nanjing, and finally to Shanghai. They visited seminaries, rural and urban churches, Confucian temples, and mosques, in addition to famous sites such as the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Tomb of Genghis Khan. Following are the reflections of one of the student travelers, Jesse Zink ’12 M.Div., who blogged about the group’s time in China at http://jessezink.wordpress.com.
A student’s notes from China: travel as enlightenment
By Jesse Zink ’12 M.Div.
It’s not often you get to come face-to-face with your own errors. But on the Yale Divinity School travel seminar trip to China in May, I had exactly that painful pleasure.
Our group of 14 students was privileged to hear a lecture from Yang Huilin, a senior administrator at Beijing’s Renmin University and a leading Sino-Christian theologian. I had written a paper on Prof. Yang’s theology for class earlier in the semester, taking issue with what I perceived to be his attempt to do theology outside the church and in too close a relationship with the state. I’ll spare you the details, but in that lecture – and later, over drinks with one of Prof. Yang’s senior doctoral students – I realized I had grievously misinterpreted Prof. Yang’s scholarship because of my pre-travel ignorance of the context that shapes Chinese Christianity and theology. Fortunately, Prof. Chloë Starr was forgiving of a young upstart in her marking of my essay.
It was opportunities like this to talk face-to-face with Chinese Christians that were most memorable for me. On a long bus ride, stuck in Nanjing traffic, I listened to Maple, our young tour guide for the day, tell me how she decided to be baptized. She first learned about Christianity when she went to university and liked what she heard but was scared of baptism. She didn’t understand what “new life” after baptism meant, and she was afraid of the changes that would occur as she came out of the water. But after months of prayer, she decided to go ahead anyway. The feeling when she came out of the water, she said, was like nothing she had felt before, and she now counts that day, June 10, as her birthday.
I’ve learned in class at the divinity school how non-Christians in the Roman empire often misinterpreted early Christian rites – what is a “love feast” after all, and what does it mean to eat the “body of Christ?” But here was an example of the same thing happening today. Fortunately for us, Maple moved past her misunderstandings and now has a story to tell that reminds us all of the transformative power of baptism, something I know that I often forget.
Our group saw much in two weeks in China, thanks to the deep connections Prof. Starr has in the country. We visited with Bible college students in Inner Mongolia, who will return to their remote villages as some of the only educated Christians in the region. (I played ping-pong with some Bible college students. There’s a reason they win all those medals in the Olympics.) They wanted to know why we have so many denominations in the United States when they have just one Protestant denomination, the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Despite the single denomination, the church has considerable diversity within it. We worshipped with Christians in a rural agricultural community and sang traditional hymns and prayers. But we also worshipped at a jam-packed church in Beijing, whose service wouldn’t have been out of place in a suburban American mega-church. We met pastors, priests, and other church leaders who explained the challenges facing a church that is growing so rapidly and the hopes they have for how Christianity can transform a society that is increasingly consumed by runaway capitalism and individualism.
Most of all, I thought about this odd conundrum. The church in China is growing at an explosive rate and is hard-pressed for capable leaders, adequate facilities, and decent education. In the United States, we have plenty of great seminaries, historic church buildings, and some great leaders. But in the mainline denominations I’m most familiar with, we don’t seem to have all that many Christians. Given this, I wanted to know, how can we students at Yale best respond and engage with our sisters and brothers in Christ on the other side of the world? What role is God calling us into?
I once saw an advertisement for a frequent flier program for business people that said, “There’s no substitute for a handshake.” In the church, I guess we might say, “There’s no substitute for common prayer, worship, and discussion.” That is precisely what our group was privileged to do for two weeks in May—meet people in their own context, listen, and learn what they had to say. It’s these kinds of trips that build the unity of the worldwide body of Christ one relationship at a time. And it’s why travel is such an important part of a complete education.