It was April, finally. The cold, polluted winter had long since come to a merciful close, and, as is customary in the arid foothills of the Qin Ling mountain range, the oppressive heat of the Gobi desert had already pushed springtime into the past as well.
Xi’an, one of the last surviving ancient cities of China – and my home of nine months – was about to be a sweltering dust pit. Soon, the rain would cease entirely and the whole town would starting thinking about what to do when the dust storms hit. And while the water trucks sprayed the streets and the street vendors sprayed their food carts, I and nine other foreigners were shaking the dust off our feet and preparing to go home.
We had arrived in August of 2015 – some of us having never flown in a plane – to live, eat, breathe and pray in China for nine months with a single goal: to share the gospel with as many college students as possible.
After enduring record high temperatures for the last two months of the summer, we settled in for a long, cold winter; one that turned out to be a lot longer and a lot colder than any of us anticipated.
Classes began, and so did our work. Soon enough, we found out just how hard international ministry can be. Cultural and language barriers stalled our communication, dysfunctions in the team made morale dip to dangerous lows, and despite the adventure and romance of it all, I found myself with a deep and gnawing homesickness that I just couldn’t seem to shake.
Months passed with precious little to show for our work, it seemed. There were glimmers of hope in some of our new friends’ eyes – recognition, it seemed, of that ancient and holy voice that speaks to us all in its own way of the eventual reunion of God and Man.
But we weren’t there for glimmers. We were there for results. We were there for sinner’s prayers.
We were in for a long winter.
Snow fell a few times as the wintry weeks dragged by. I awoke one morning to the overjoyed shouts of one of my three roommates elated over seeing something even as remotely familiar as snow. As I poured myself a cup of coffee, I watched the feathery flakes pass by our eighth-floor apartment window on their way to the street below.
They were sad flakes, wet shreds more resembling ash than snow, and as I looked up at the brown cloud that seemed to have parked over the city for the winter, I wondered how long it would be before I saw the sun again – my sun, the American sun, the same sun my roommate was reminded of when he saw the snow. The sun of familiarity, and family, and home.
Soon enough, the cloud moved on, and as our religious dealings passed beneath the polluted sky, my feelings for China and its people began to change. When I arrived, I saw them as my job – share the gospel with as many as possible, congratulate the ones who accept, leave behind those who don’t, and get out in May. Yet, as the cold gusts of January and February slowly blew themselves away, and March passed through, I found myself kneeling by my bed for a few extra minutes every night praying for the people I had passed by.
It was April, finally. But, for some reason, I found myself profoundly conflicted. All I had wanted the whole winter was to come home to America. Why was I reluctant to leave?
It was mid-May when I came to terms with it, but by then, we had already boarded the plane. As China passed below us and faded into the distance, I realized it had ceased to be a place I visited – it had become my home. Its people were no longer my job, they were my family.
I had found love – a different type of love than I’d ever known. It was a love I found from sticking with it, and now, I was leaving. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
But, from where I stand now, I see it was the best choice. I see that the love I found in China can be found anywhere – and for anyone – if given enough time. It’s a type of love that is learned; love borne of struggle and dysfunction, purified by rich experience and dumb mistakes. It’s learned through long, cold winters, and occasionally realized when spring rolls around.
It doesn’t take going to China to learn that kind of love, although it did for me.
So, the question I ask myself and you is this: You have to start somewhere – why not here?
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.