Project Canterbury

Forward in Western China

By Deaconess Emily Lily Stewart
C.M.S. Missionary in Szechwan

Foreword by the Archbishop of Sydney

London: Church Missionary Society, 1934.

Chapter X. Life in a Szechwan Parish

It is market day. Around us are all the sights and sounds of a Chinese city--the noisy haggling over prices, the shouts of the many coolies as they hurry to and fro with their burdens, the clanging of various instruments used by pedlars to advertise their goods, and now and again the doleful cry of a beggar. We can scarcely hear our own voices, but we stop to speak to a woman who is just leaving a temple. She is in trouble and we try to tell her of One Who said: "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Finding that she can read, we give her a little pamphlet and an invitation to visit us. Then we pass on, pausing at the market square to hand somebody a tract. Instantly hands are stretched out to us from all directions and our bundle of tracts is soon gone.

In spite of the pressing business of the hour there is always an audience for the street speaker. We search the crowd eagerly for any signs of truth seeking or awakening desire. The majority nod their heads wisely and say: "Good words!" or some such polite phrase, and pass on. Usually there are one or two who stay to ask questions. Not all of these are really interested; most are merely curious, some are critical, a few are eager to learn. It is with these last that we do our work. The idea of a missionary telling the old, old story to a crowd of people who have never heard it before, carries with it a great deal of romance, but the actual work begins when half-a-dozen of those people sit down for instruction.

Perhaps the real romance lies here. We are treasure seekers. Each time we go forth we pray the Master to lead us where His treasure is hidden. We do not always recognize it at first, so earth-stained and disfigured has it become. Sometimes we are tempted to think we have made a mistake and have picked up only a pebble. But no task is hopeless to Him, and we can only wonder and worship when, after long rubbing and polishing of the treasure, the glorious colours gleam forth as they catch His radiance.

On our return we may find our friend from the temple sitting in the guest hall, which opens on to a main street and is used as a preaching hall on market days. She has listened while several workers have given their simple witness, and is now in earnest conversation with one of them. For many years she has been seeking peace, seeking it in fastings and chantings, but finding only sinking sand whereon she cannot rest. Now she learns to lay her burden at the Saviour's feet and to trust in Him alone.

In a Chinese parish the work of the Church is not considered to be the work of the paid minister alone. On market days, which usually occur two or three times a week, when the city is crowded with people from the surrounding villages, the preaching hall is open during the whole morning. Several of the Christian men and often one or two women as well, undertake the work of preaching on these occasions, one worker relieving another so that the message is being told forth continually all the morning. Non-market days find us in the country, sometimes holding evangelistic meetings at the farmhouses of Christians who can usually muster an audience from among their neighbours and friends.

Sunday is a fairly heavy day for the average clergyman in England, but often in a Chinese parish there may be said to be several Sundays in a week if there are out-stations to be cared for. Perhaps one ordained man has charge of a main station and six or seven out-stations, at some of which there is no full-time evangelist, nor even a licensed reader, and all services have to be provided for by the main station. Here the staff is fully occupied on Sundays; there are Sunday schools, adult classes, and evangelistic meetings to be undertaken beside the regular church services. Then on Monday, somebody must go to P------ to take the services; on Tuesday to C------, and so on. One afternoon during the week there is a gathering for intercession, and on another the members of the Women's Missionary Service League meet for various departments of their work. In some places the members of this League support a worker in one of the out-stations. Sometimes they form preaching bands and go to various homes, wherever they can find an entrance, to "lecture" about Christianity. The word "lecture" still has a strange attraction for Chinese ears, and is a passport into many circles where the preacher would not be welcome. Of course the "lecture" becomes a simple talk about Christ, and personal witness prayerfully given never fails to gain an interest.

Chinese festivals and national holidays provide unique opportunities for special evangelistic effort. The Nanking Government has officially abolished the old Chinese calendar and forbidden its use. But Szechwan is a long way from Nanking, and the Szechwanese go merrily on with their old festivals. The New Year usually falls some time in February, and this holiday is kept up for ten days, during which evangelistic campaigns with large open-air gatherings are held.

Workers form themselves into groups and relieve each other, so that the work goes on continually throughout the day. Lantern services sometimes follow in the evenings, and these attract large crowds. Special festivals occur during this period, when streams of pilgrims go to the temples to burn incense; among them go also the colporteurs and evangelists, with their message for all who will listen. Other festivals during the year afford further opportunities for work among pilgrims.

Another phase of parochial life is the short-term schools which are held from time to time in the central stations. These schools usually last about ten days. From thirty to sixty men or women attend them, some travelling several miles from the furthest limits of the parish and residing on the church compound for the time being. Systematic teaching in the Faith is given during the period, devotional habits are fostered, and special meetings held for the deepening of the spiritual life. These schools are attended mainly by country people, and have to be held at those seasons when farming activities are comparatively slack. Schools on similar lines are often held for those about to be baptized or confirmed. The advantages of thus getting people away from their ordinary surroundings for a period of teaching cannot be over-estimated. Often the country people work so hard that as soon as they sit down sleep overcomes them. It is difficult in such conditions to teach them anything! Only when they come away from their home environment and are rested in body do their minds become sufficiently active to take in spiritual truth.

Parochial visiting in China is very different from that in England. Every young worker at home remembers that "doorstep feeling" belonging to his or her early efforts in this connexion. Well, there is no doorstep to stand on here, and very often no door by which to enter, but only a wooden board which is taken out in the daytime. Some of the poorer homes consist of one room, so dark that it is used only for eating and sleeping, and all day long the women with their needlework or spinning sit on stools around the threshold.

There is not much difficulty either in opening a conversation, for in China one always remarks on the obvious. As you pass down the street you notice what people are doing, and you say to a woman: "Oh, you are making shoes!" She will answer: "Yes, I am making shoes," and if you pause in your walk she will fetch another stool and invite you to sit down. So far so good, but you have not really begun yet. Most people know you are a religious teacher, and one woman begins to tell you how devout she is. "I burn incense every day to a number of gods, and," she adds cheerfully, "I always put in a stick of incense for Ie Su (Jesus)." She is a little surprised because you show no enthusiasm. After more conversation you try to get down to serious things. She assents to everything you say with emphatic jerks of the head and a cheerful smile, and when you pause, asks how many days it took you to come from your country to China, and how many dollars it cost. You begin again, and perhaps this time you are interrupted by a child who comes running up with a terrible sore on his face. Worse even than the sore itself are the filthy remedies which have been applied to it, and you realize instantly that a little clean hot water and boracic powder may work wonders. The woman is quite ready to fall in with your suggestion and to bring the child to you for treatment. This gives you a better opportunity of contact with the family, and perhaps when next you begin to talk to them about spiritual things they will listen with more attentive interest.

Visiting in the better-class homes is a more delicate matter. If you can find a mutual friend an introduction can often be effected; if not, you may send your card and await results. An invitation to "come and pass the time" will probably follow, and though this is often a mere form of words and means nothing, you will be quite in order in acting upon it. A missionary sometimes feels that much time is wasted in preliminaries and empty conversation that lead nowhere, but these things are inevitable among an oriental people and are not really waste of time if they lead to friendship, without which one can do very little.

If there is a mission hospital within a day's journey your work is easier. [The C.M.S. has a hospital with eighty beds at Mienchu.] Whole families have been brought to Christ through the successful treatment of one patient in hospital, and sometimes a weekly courtyard meeting has resulted. Even if medical aid is not successful, the kindly spirit that prevails in a Christian hospital seldom fails to touch the hearts of the people. "I know you tried to save him, doctor," said one poor mother with the tears running down her cheeks, "and though he is dead I shall always be glad that he died here, where you did so much for him." In lonely stations where there is no hospital, a missionary with very little medical experience but with knowledge of simple hygiene can do much to alleviate and prevent suffering.

In most cities a visit to the government schools paves the way for contact with both teachers and students. The latter get very little free time, but usually on Sunday afternoon an hour or two's leisure will enable them to come and visit you, and an invitation to do so is generally appreciated. Besides work among outside students, most churches have their own lower primary school, and often an old scholars' club can be formed, by means of which touch can be kept with the girls or boys who have passed through the school.

So we go on in the ordinary routine of a Chinese parish. And if at the end of some apparently fruitless day we are tempted to think we have failed, the Master is there to put new life into us, and to whisper: "Never mind. I have not failed. Keep your eyes upon Me." So we take courage and go forward.

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