Finding Catholicism in China
As I was preparing to study abroad at the Sichuan International Studies University (SISU), some of the most frequent questions I was asked were about whether or not I was going to be able attend church there. “Isn’t Christianity banned in China?” “Are you going to have to find an underground church there?” While I had been to China with a group once before, our routine had been quite structured and I was unable to attend Mass. But I knew it was possible here. I just did not know the winding road I would take to find a Catholic community in Chongqing, China.
Before I left I started my search for Catholic churches on Google Maps, just to make sure they did exist. There were a number of different options that came up, but that was to be expected in a city of 36 million people. However, knowing that they existed was one thing. Getting to one was another matter.
My first couple weeks in Chongqing were so hectic that I was not even concerned with trying to find a church. But after a couple of weeks, when I found myself better equipped to get around the city, I realized my mistake. I had looked up the location of the churches on Google Maps, but all Google products are banned in China. I couldn’t look up any church’s location, nor did I know how to find one on any map available to me. So for two months I gave up and did not go to church. Then, after all that waiting, an incredible stroke of luck came my way.
One weekend the transfer students and foreign teachers took a trip to another part of the province to take part in a fishing tournament and to learn more about some of the local minority group’s cultures. As we were all loading onto the bus, I sat next to a man I did not know, who I learned was named Jerry. On the five-hour drive to Qianjiang, I talked to him quite a bit. He was originally from Seattle, but had lived in Taiwan for quite a while, and had been an English teacher at SISU for a number of years. After a while, he pulled out a book to read, which I saw was written by a Catholic priest. I asked if he was Catholic. He was. It became a conversation that completely changed my time in China.
“Do you go to church here?”
“Yes, there are a number of us foreign teachers at SISU that attend church.”
“Do you mind if I join you next Sunday?”
The next Sunday I woke up and met Jerry to attend church for the first time in China. The other teachers were not available to go with us that morning, so it was just the two of us. Even getting there was an experience, and I knew it was wise to have waited until I had a guide to show me where to go, because I would have gotten completely lost if I had tried to find the place on my own. We took the bus down to the subway station, bought our tickets, and traveled 12 stations across the city. Once we got off the subway, we had to walk about seven minutes until we finally came to the church. We traveled past historic monuments and new skyscrapers, ran across roads where there were no crossing spots, and wandered down lanes of wedding stores before we finally reached our destination.
We had to go down a number of steps to get to the entrance, and then there was a wall around the entire perimeter, with ushers standing by the entrance. As we got close Jerry started to take money out of his wallet.
“Do we have to pay to get in?” I asked.
“No, but there are a number of homeless people who sit outside the church, and I try to give them some money every time I come.”
Sure enough, as we started going down the steps, almost every other step had someone sitting on it who was dressed in rags in various states of disrepair. Some were offering services such as haircuts or shoe polishes. Most were disabled in some way. As we went down, Jerry stopped at each person and put some money in their dish. Walking past without donating anything was incredibly guilt-inducing for me, so every time after that I tried to bring enough to donate to them as well as to the church.
Once inside of the wall and in the courtyard, everything, even the architecture, was like a typical Western church. When I asked Jerry about this, he informed me that it was because the church had been built by French missionaries over one hundred years ago.
Being back at a Catholic church after being away for so long was a bizarre experience. While watching the altar servers prepare the altar for mass, the nuns mingling with all of the parishioners, and the people who would stop and pray at the shrine of Mary, I felt so connected with everyone there, even though I did not understand the local dialect.
Attending Mass was both familiar and completely different from what I had always known it to be. Jerry and I, as well as a number of other foreigners, were sitting on the balcony overlooking the church. Among us were two other people from the United States. One was an English teacher at another university and the other an engineer at Ford. There was also a college student from Burundi. During all of the following weeks we were also joined by two other English teachers from SISU, both of whom were from Ireland. Because we could not understand most of what was happening, we would pull out our phones and read the daily scripture in English while it was being read to us in Chinese. Being on my phone during church—and having it be acceptable—was a strange feeling.
After mass we met up with the church youth group. Every week after church they would do some sort of activity on a rotating schedule: this week was hiking. This is when my reputation among them came into being. By pure happenstance we were going to be climbing the mountain right behind SISU. We all traveled to the school, and then went to the main cafeteria to eat before setting out. After we had eaten, I went to the bathroom. But when I came back, everyone was gone. I wandered all over that part of campus looking for them, but to no avail. I did not have any way to contact them, since I had no data on my phone, and was unable to get Wi-Fi on campus. So I went back to my dorm. Then, when I was at a restaurant with Wi-Fi later that evening, I was able to get the messages everyone had sent me. I assured everyone that I was safe and had just gotten separated from the group. But the next week I knew my reputation in the group was cemented. I was “The Foreigner Who Got Lost.”
“Where were you?” “We couldn’t find you!” “Did you get lost?” These questions besieged me the next week at church. Even weeks after the incident I had people coming up to me to ask where I had gone, stating how sorry they were that this had happened. When we went on outings later I always had people right next to me, and some even took it upon themselves to hold my hand, making sure I did not get lost again.
We foreigners did not do much with the youth group because most of their activities either dealt with reading the Bible or studying faith, which was all in Chinese. Instead we would go to Starbucks afterwards to talk about religion, our experiences in China, or anything that came to mind. Finding this group of people, made up of both Chinese and foreigners, was an amazing adventure. I was even asked if I wanted to crash a wedding with one of the youth group members, so that I could see what a Chinese Catholic wedding was like. Two of us stayed after church one Sunday in the back pews and waited. It was an incredibly different ceremony than the ones I am used to here in the United States. The ceremony was incredibly quick, less than half an hour, and there were fewer than thirty people in attendance. Some, like my friend and me, were clearly not a part of the group. It was a very concise affair which all led up to a rather awkward hug in lieu of the traditional kiss. Then it was over and we left. Afterwards my friend told me that the couple was not even Catholic, but, because of the popularity of Western-style weddings, they decided to have it in the church.
Overall, finding a Catholic church in Chongqing was an incredible journey. I am so grateful to everyone I met there and for all of the wonderful, if sometimes a bit strange, experiences I had with them. Finding a Catholic community completely changed my entire study abroad experience. It has opened my eyes to a completely different aspect of the religion I knew from the United States. The group of men and women I met with every week became such an integral part of how I now view my faith and how people of different backgrounds can come together within a religion.