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A Bow of Peace in China, a Lasting Easter Blessing

April 15, 2001|WILLIAM J. FELTUS | William J. Feltus is a pollster in Washington. From 1991 to 1997, he was staff director of the Senate's Republican Conference

Wondering this past week where the U.S. air crew just released from China would be attending Easter services made me think about Easter six years ago in Xian, a walled city established 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus.

Before 6 a.m. on Easter, April 16, 1995, we three U.S. congressional staffers gathered in the lobby of the Xian Sheraton, as instructed by our Chinese hosts. It was still dark as our driver wound through the narrow streets of this ancient city, China's first capital and most famous for the thousands of terra cotta warriors buried as a tribute to an emperor.

Our choice of nearby churches was limited to one. When the Communists took control of China in 1949, they closed nearly all churches, ending a rich tradition of Christian missionary and charity work. The government considered religion in general and Christianity in particular to be a capitalist scheme to mollify the oppressed masses. Mao Tse-tung referred to churchgoers as "rice Christians," suggesting that they were more interested in Sunday potluck suppers than in the Bible.

We were delivered to a door in a wall in an alley. Behind the wall was a small, pre-World War II Catholic church built in the mission style. Inside, we had the feeling of being in a poor parish in rural Guatemala instead of China. It was lit darkly with candles and dim bulbs and in need of repair. While on this "fact-finding mission," we had been shown a lot of great new factories, office buildings and Western-style hotels, some of which had Gideon Bibles in the drawers. But in this place on Easter, you had the feeling it was going to take the government quite a while longer to get around to the churches.

It became apparent that our Chinese hosts had gotten us to the church early so we could get seats. While the service wasn't to start for at least 45 minutes, the pews were nearly full with working-class Chinese, many of whom seemed to have kept an all-night vigil. A choir chanted and the congregation responded. We had no idea what they were singing. As we seated ourselves in the third pew from the rear, people turned around to stare at the oddity of three Americans wearing ties and starched shirts in their neighborhood church.

By 7 a.m., the pews and the aisles were full. I noticed that a man had placed himself on my right, on the floor outside our pew. He sat on the floor and recited some words quietly to himself, perhaps praying the rosary. He had no legs, but sat on a board and moved himself with his hands. I realized this only after we "exchanged the peace." In the United States, this involves much hand-shaking. In China, you stand, look a person in the eye and bow. The man on the board could not stand, but he smiled at me, bowed his head and, without words, made me feel welcome on Easter morning in China.

It was getting late, and my companions and I agreed that, to make our first scheduled meeting, we would have to leave before Holy Communion. The collection plate had not been passed, so I decided to give our pooled offering to my new friend in the aisle. It was more money than he had probably ever seen in his life, enough to buy him a year of rice. I hoped he would keep some for himself, though I had a feeling that he was no rice Christian and our entire offering would go to the collection plate.

But just as I turned to give him the wad of yuan, he took off quickly down the aisle. Communion was about to start and as there was no special access for the disabled, I suppose he had to beat the crowd. I should have pressed down the aisle after him and have always regretted not doing so. Instead, we squeezed out against the crowd pressing toward the altar. Beyond the doors, people were waiting 10 deep to get into the church to go to communion.

The U.S. air crew of 24 returned from Hainan island will celebrate this Easter back home with their families. And on Easter morning, I hope that one Chinese Christian is again allowed to be in the aisle of his church in Xian, where he paddled away from me and a fortune of yuan to be first to pray about something that happened at another walled city almost 2,000 years ago.

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