I had been there for eleven months.
Eleven months of walking along the train tracks, through the rice fields to school. Eating beef braised in chili oil, stir-fried spinach, dumplings with chives and pork, rice. Eleven months of drinking chrysanthemum tea and eating tangerines at a teahouse by the river, hearing people say foreigner whenever I walked past, linking arms with friends. It had been eleven months of teaching classes of sixty students, mouthing along with the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed in another language, walking two blocks from an upscale shopping mall to a market selling live fish and chickens.
I could have talked about it for the rest of my life and still have more stories to tell.
My time there was nearly over. I’d go back to the United States in a few weeks. And so the pastor and some other uncles and aunties from the Chinese church had taken me to dinner at a family restaurant out in the country.
Like a child, I had learned how to talk in those months.
I listened first, learned how to hear the sounds before I learned to speak them. And then, somewhere around Month Three, I began to put together clumsy sentences. I used charades, I spoke slowly, I sounded like a four-year-old. I spoke sentences like “Where is the washing-clothes-thing?”
But every sentence, every word that I understood seemed important. Profound.
The pastor leaned in as the last plates were finally being cleared. “Christina,” he said in Chinese. “I want you to tell them something when you get back to the United States.” I strained to hear him.
“I want you to tell them what you saw.”
Even with my four-year-old’s Chinese, I could understand his advice. It was simple. It was beautiful.
It was the most vague, frustrating thing I had ever heard.
I have always wanted to be something a little more than what I am. A theologian, an academic, an activist.
What I am is a storyteller. What I am is a story-keeper.
I read novels. I learn the stories of the creeds, of the Scriptures, of the church. I listen to stories that people tell me–children in Sunday School, grandmothers in women’s meetings, cancer patients in the hospital. Like Mary, I treasure these things and ponder them in my heart.
Even as a preacher, I am less of a Teacher of Great Eternal Truths, more of a teller of stories. God was there, I say, and this is what happened.
As a child and a teenager, at Christian conferences, I was taught to “witness.” We learned phrases, Bible verses, arguments, short scripts to use to convince people to believe.
But I have no arguments, no scripts anymore. What I have is stories.
Maybe that pastor knew what it was to be a witness. It was the same as Jesus’ friends knew, the ones that wrote his life stories. I was there, they said, and then they wrote it down. God was there, and this is what happened. This is what I saw.
I am launching a new series here at the blog: What I Saw Wednesdays.
Every Wednesday, here at the blog, I will be writing about what I saw, close to home or far away. I have traveled and seen more than any one twentysomething deserves. To England and Syria, China and Palestine, Mexico and New Orleans.
These stories are not mine, any more than my money, my time, my life is mine. They are to be shared, pondered, told.
I was there. God was there. This is what happened. This is what I saw.