International Ministries

From Despair to Hope: A Visit to Mianzhu

March 6, 2009 Journal
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When the Wenchuan earthquake hit Sichuan Province last May, my seminary students and I shared our concerns and prayers, shed tears and joined in with donations for relief work—through the seminary, through the churches and through the Amity Foundation.  At that time, I saw the pictures of destruction and of relief efforts in action.  I read the Amity reports with interest and concern and passed them on to the ABC family through my MPT and IM.  One of my students,  Rev. Gu, who was on study leave from the Mianzhu church and was in the graduate program at Nanjing Seminary, was in frequent phone contact with her church members and gave us updates about their situation. As soon as she was allowed to, she returned home to minister to and shepherd her congregation as they continued to put their lives back together and reach out to others in need; and once in a while, I’d continue to learn more about their experience and their efforts in an e-mail from her.   
   
Then, a little over nine months after the quake, the destruction it wrought and the ongoing rehabilitation efforts in Mianzhu became even more real for me.  On January 17 and 18, I had the privilege of being one of two invited to represent Amity teachers and the one to represent ABC and IM  at the dedication of a temporary prefab building Amity had helped provide for the Mianzhu Church and to experience first-hand the journey from despair to hope. 

The city of Mianzhu and the surrounding countryside suffered some of the worst quake damage.  When we arrived in the city center after dark on the 16th, most buildings appeared to be standing and from the outside looked fine.  We very quickly learned, however, that many had suffered varying degrees of structural damage.  Some, like our hotel, had needed only minor repairs if any at all.  Others would remain unsafe for use without major work.  Some of our group who were on their second visit commented about how many more buildings were now back in use.  Nonetheless, quite a few buildings remained in total darkness, a sign that they were still unsafe.  The next morning, daylight did unveil some of visible cracks and other damage for us to see in a few of the neighboring buildings.  However, what we saw in the city center was nothing compared with some of the other communities and villages in the other parts of the Mianzhu area.

Seeing the destruction and the initial despair

On the morning of the 17th, we drove out to Hanwang Village, gateway to a beautiful scenic mountainous region. Its picturesque location had once made it quite prosperous, but the very same local geography also subjected it to those frightful ground-shaking moments that had caused the local people’s paradise to crumble around them.  For us, it was a journey back in time to that fateful and frightful event.  Even the hands on village clock were forever frozen at 2:28 p.m.  Slowly my eyes began to take in the magnitude of the destruction.  Buildings with gaping cracks.  Buildings with the whole front of the edifice missing.  Partial stairways, exposed and ending abruptly as landings had fallen away. Buildings with whole floors missing and those with the large concrete slabs of former floors dangling from partially standing walls.  A pile of rubble where a building had once stood between two others whose partial frames remained.  Further on, we were surrounded only by rubble, as not even a partial wall remained standing in a few areas. 

A somber heart slowed my step.  How could the human mind and psyche take this in?  I kept thinking… At 2:27, people had been bustling about their normal lives, but just one minute later all had changed, all had crumbled, all was gone.  A skewed mattress here, an overturned sofa there, a shoe, a jacket, a teddy bear.  How many had died?  How many had been rescued by those who dug through the rubble in search of loved ones and life?   Who had placed some special memorials there?  In memory of whom?  Some flowers.  A child’s stuffed frog perched for all to see.  

At the edge of the village, we stood on a river bank right where a damaged bridge had been washed away by flood waters that followed the quake.  The spot on which we stood had risen several feet and the incline we had walked up had once been flat.  The face of the mountain beside us had also shifted several feet in our direction.  Some earthquakes shift the ground vertically; others, horizontally; while still others have rotational movements.  This violent quake had jolted everything around with the force of all three.  Over the road above us stood a sign inviting people into this scenic mountain region.  
 
Back in inside the village again, a wall between two classrooms of a kindergarten had been torn and twisted.  A paper cutout of a child’s form once decorating that wall remained on it, but ripped and twisted, as though torn limb from limb.  Rubble lay at the foot of what had been stairs from the second and third floors.  A jungle gym lay twisted under bits of broken concrete. The whiteboard carried announcements written there on May 8th, as though frozen in time.

Not far from the kindergarten, a lone cat sat atop the rubble, crying.  He appeared to have had enough to eat, but he just sat there crying and crying.  Had that been his home?  Had he lost his family?  A little further on, another lone cat was crying just inside a severely damaged shell of a building, perhaps a shop, perhaps a home, perhaps both.  What cries there must have been on the day when all of this happened!  What cries there must have been in the days that followed as people searched for loved ones and began to realize all they had lost!  
These scenes of Hanwang Village are now preserved just as they are-- a memorial to those suffered and to those who lost their lives.  For me seeing the immensity and the completeness of the destruction, brought the reality of what had happened home and made it possible to begin to probe the unfathomable sense of horror, grief and despair that it bespoke, even as it honored those who had suffered and died there.

Finding the hope and the returning of life

Fortunately, the story does not end with that despair.  As we journeyed from the Hanwang memorial area, all around there were signs of life.  It seemed like hundreds of “villages” of temporary prefab housing had sprung up on all sides.  Rich green fields showed the life within them and were preparing to sustain the life of the people.  Roads were periodically lined with shops and stalls made of a frame covered by a kind of heavy rice-bag-type material or straw matting or tenting material, sometimes standing in front of unusable buildings, other times lining the roads alone.  There was the hustle and bustle of vendors and shoppers carrying on their normal daily activities.  People stopped to chat with one another in the market.  At one intersection a couple of cars decorated for a wedding passed by, presumably carrying the bride and groom and their wedding party to their next destination. 

Rebuilding could be seen everywhere. The great need for building materials has made those materials and the hiring of labor to help with construction more expensive than before, but the building is going on nonetheless.  You can see ground that has been measured out for construction, the masonry work of walls rising between metal rods intended to strengthen these new structures, roofs going on and new buildings near completion.  We drove past an area where all of the buildings, old and new, had their exterior walls decorated with the traditional colorful Mianzhu New Year Paintings like those depicted in this year’s Amity calendar and showing the optimistic spirit of a people with hope in their hearts.
  
A major part of Amity’s current comprehensive relief efforts are focused in Woyun Village which has residents living in about fourteen “groups” scattered over a fairly wide area. We stopped in several parts of the village to distribute winter clothing from Amity, first in some individual homes and then in a more central gathering point. In one home, the older couple had given the one room of the home that was still safe to live in to their son and daughter-in-law, while they themselves slept in temporary tent-like quarters.  Another mother was expecting her son to arrive home from college to start his winter holiday the very next day.  With smiling faces, all tried on their new winter jackets to make sure the jacket and trouser set would fit; and many shared pieces of their lives with us, demonstrating their trust in and relationship with the Amity staff who had brought us to visit. 

At the larger gathering point for distribution, smiles greeted us from the moment we arrived, smiles that we were told were seldom seen in the earlier parts of the crisis a few months back.  There were many who shared words from their hearts on both sides—from Amity and those of us visiting and from the villagers. Then we all participated in the clothing distribution.  Amity had collected the sizes of each individual and had a winter jacket and pair trousers for each one.  Beyond the obvious meeting of the need for warmth in the cold of winter, this scene with all of its interactions is symbolic to me of Amity’s embodying a kind of love which values and cares about each and every person.  

We saw some very, very large tall round metal containers in the temporary shelters where the people we visited lived and learned that they were also from Amity.  They would provide safe storage for the harvest—keeping the food that would sustain the lives of the people for use when it was needed. We contributed toward granaries like these.

 Amity is also helping the villagers of Woyun to build new homes that will be able withstand any future earthquake of the same magnitude.  Amity engaged experts to provide the basic plan, to train the people in how to do this earthquake-proof construction and to inspect and advise throughout the construction process.  All of the villagers are involved.  Moreover, they are encouraging and helping each other make sure they follow the earthquake-proof guidelines.  In the end, when all meet these strict standards, Amity will cover a large share of the costs and the villagers will have homes in which they can always be and feel safe and secure.

Late in the afternoon, we gathered with the Woyun villagers in the courtyard outside Amity’s prefab local office building for a community event—the presenting and judging of Spring Festival couplets written by villagers of all ages.  Between presentations of groups of couplets were interwoven interviews with some of the authors as well as performances of songs and traditional dances. They even got me and Gary (the other Amity teacher representative) up on stage to sing—Gary’s voice in the lead carrying the tune and me trying to follow in the background.  “You are my sunshine” followed by “If you’re happy and you know it” in which we enlisted three of the local children to help with clapping hands and stomping feet were our little offerings for the day.  Many of the couplets spoke of experiences following the earthquake, honoring the hardship while pointing to the hope, especially the hope found in the love being shared. In the end, prizes were given for the winning couplets in the eyes of the judges.  In this community event, I saw first-hand that Amity was concerned, not just with helping the people meet their physical needs, but also with the people’s emotional needs, with their need to express themselves,  their need to relax and have fun, and their need to relate and share together in community.
 
Thanks to Amity, in just one day, we journeyed from the sight of complete destruction and despair to the living reality of love and hope and new visions alive for the future, and the church dedication the next day would be equally moving and add even more depth to that hope.

Thanks and praise be to God!  -- The church dedication

The original Mianzhu church building is an historic building built in 1923.  Moreover, it had just been renovated within the last couple of years.  It was a beautiful place for the believers of Mianzhu to worship together, and they typically would have had a couple hundred people in worship each week.   That was before the quake. 

Today, though the building is still standing and will remain so as a memorial both to its own past history and to the earthquake, the damage that it sustained make it unsafe to use for worship services.  I have etched in my mind pictures Rev. Gu showed me of the cross that had tumbled to the ground and of other damage, as well as of seeing the building first hand on Sunday, January 18th.  I have imprinted on my heart the images of an Amity photo with people huddled partially under a tent, partially under umbrellas, getting wet in the rain and yet remaining for worship and of the accompanying promise from Amity to help them put up a temporary structure as a safe place in which to worship God together. 

Now, next to the historic church building stands an enormous prefab building, bigger than I could have ever imagined possible.  When we arrived, the pre-service singing practice was going on and the immense sanctuary was already three-quarters full.  The people kept steadily streaming in until, by the time the service began, the entire room was filled to overflowing, with others standing crowded around each of the three huge open doorways.  Over a thousand people worship there regularly each Sunday, and in my heart I am sure that there were well-over a thousand as we worshipped together that morning. 

How does a church grow so quickly from a couple of hundred long-time faithful believers to well over a thousand people gathering to worship God together?  The answer has to lie in the witness of love in the way those faithful believers have been reaching out to others in need with concrete expressions of love during this time of crisis and recovery.  The answer has to lie in a hunger in the human spirit to connect with that kind of unconditional love which has its source in God who is Love.  The answer has to lie in the power of the Holy Spirit at work in their midst in this special time.

The service was filled with joy and thanksgiving, with hymns and anthems and a message of love, which focused on the nature of the love that comes from God, the source of love.  The dedication that followed was filled with joy and thanksgiving, words of recognition, gifts and praise to God.  A special Bible, the 60 millionth Bible to be printed at the Amity Printing Company was presented to Rev. Gu and the congregation.  Gifts and words of encouragement were shared by visiting church leaders from Jiangsu Province and the City of Nanjing and others. 

I was moved by the love that has been shared by Amity.  I was moved by the love shared by this Mianzhu congregation from the time when they had no walls and worshipped in the rain to the love shared today both within and beyond the walls of their new temporary building.  I was moved by the sight of my student, Rev. Gu, who had left a congregation of a couple hundred to study in Nanjing and had returned less than a year later to a congregation that was growing rapidly and who now leads a congregation of over a thousand.  I was moved by the power of love and the power of the Holy Spirit. 

For me, the spirit of hope was alive that morning in worshipping God together with the Mianzhu congregation, for the love of God under girds the deepest and the highest hope possible.  And I am reminded of Paul’s words “Everything works together for good for those who love the Lord.”  Of course, the destruction and terrible losses of the earthquake were and are not good, but there was amazing good to be seen in the love-filled relief efforts of Amity and the love-filled outreach of the church.  There was amazing good to be found the love and hope shared and growing in the hearts of the people and in all the evidence of renewed life rising up on all sides.  For me it is a story befitting the Lenten and Easter season that we have just entered. 

For more stories visit the Amity website at www.amityfoundation.org .