The soft edge of my furry-hooded jacket sheltered my face, nudging back the cold that seeped breezily into the van. The van, a characteristic, blunt-nosed aluminum crate with donut wheels, bumped and jostled out of smoggy Lanzhou and into the clear, icy dusk of a desert slowly freezing over. Packed tightly into the little vehicle were Curtis, Laura, Mercy, James, Roger, Charity, and I, seven delegates representing the hidden church and the force of foreign experts. It was Friday evening.
It had been a long week of teaching and we had left Lanzhou right after my last class. The van full of people had plucked me off the sidewalk as soon as I exited the building; I had not gone home to change, and I had not had time to eat. Like the others in that van, I was tired and hungry, but I was excited.
I had been part of the first trip like this in September. It was Mercy’s idea that the tourism department of Gansu University should form a partnership with the over-crowded high school in her home town. We organized the first trip to bring encouragement and extra professional development to the rural English teachers and some encouraging lectures to the high school students. Only Mercy, James, and I went on the first trip. When we arrived, there was a giant red banner floating upside down over the main gate of the campus shouting: “WELCOME FOREIGN TEACHERS TO OUR SCHOOL.” I was the only foreign teacher who had come. That banner was for me. I was not entirely sure why it was hung upside down, but I had concluded long ago that much of the manual labor done in China (including the composing of important road signs) was done by people who could not read English.
As I strode across the courtyard separating the two main buildings, hundreds of students pressed against the windows, shouting and waving and gawking. I wanted to hide. Instead, I waved back, feeling like the president on a diplomatic tour. Mercy had explained that, although the campus was designed for five thousand students, there were seven thousand enrolled. The classes were bulging and it was hard for teachers to keep control in their rooms. When the vice dean walked me out to the soccer field during the morning exercises I was nearly crushed by hundreds of students who mobbed me. I was the first foreigner they had ever seen. The dean had to push students back and call the security guards to get me out of the crowd and into the safety of the office.
Now we were bringing three foreigners.
Three and a half hours after leaving Lanzhou, we bounced into Mercy’s small home town. The cold was more tolerable in the crisp night, maybe because the air was drier in the countryside, not damp with the gaseous chemicals that turn the air in Lanzhou yellow. The sky reminded me forcefully of my own mountain home in Arizona, where on a snowy night the moonlight radiates across the treetops and stars blink like Christmas lights from the massive black dome. Here, those same stars glittered above a poverty stricken town in China’s poorest province. It was beautiful. But we had only moments to admire it before we were whisked into the school, where, at eight p.m., classes were still in session.
Laura gave a lecture on motivational strategies to the English teachers in the warm board room while Curtis and I formed a panel to answer questions. We talked until ten-thirty. We stopped on the sidewalk to eat fried veggies on a stick, then slept in a shabby hotel until six the following morning. We were ready with more presentations and lessons when classes began at seven. Laura and Curtis each gave interactive lectures to different groups of students. I rotated between the three English offices, talking with the teachers who had a free period, answering questions, sharing ideas, and sometimes just commiserating. I met one teacher who had just graduated from Gansu University, and I saw in his wan, tired face the future of my own optimistic students.
At the end of the morning the vice dean sent me a message from Mercy. She wanted me to have the chance to talk to students too. The vice dean would escort me to a classroom. I assumed that Mercy would be there, as she had been the time we had done this in September, talking in her quiet, winsome way, alluding to God carefully, and keeping us all from being arrested. However, the vice dean, upon reaching the classroom, hastily opened the door for me, nodded curtly, and hurried off with cell-phone in hand, to attend to the ever pressing business of his school. I walked alone to the front of a classroom packed with a hundred eager teens, having no idea how long I was meant to stay there, no introduction, and no sense of what to do. I decided to tell them a story, the story of Heather and I and the waterfall.
Heather and I are twelve years old. The hot August sun pours relentlessly down the rocky canyons of southern Utah, and we and my five older brothers are floating in old, rubber inner-tubes down the Virgin River. Heather and I are sharing a single tube. We cannot control it like my outdoorsy older brothers can, so we giggle and glide downstream wherever the current takes us, hitting rocks along the way. We fall several leagues behind my brothers.
Suddenly the five of them paddle to the river bank. They pull their tubes from the water and stand in the mud, staring at a treacherous-looking waterfall. They turn around and see us, giggling and floating backwards. They begin to shout. Christian waves his arms in the air and commands us to paddle as hard as we can for the shore. We begin flopping our hands and feet in the water, spinning our tube in circles.
“It’s not working!” Heather shouts.
We cower in our tube, and are swept toward the edge of the cascade.
“We have to swim!” I scream to Heather, “We can swim better than we can paddle!”
Without waiting for her, I push myself off the inner-tube. Instantly I am pulled underwater by the current. I begin gulping in brown river water. I can’t push against the river and a can’t get my footing. For several seconds I am hurled towards the falls, thrashing against current and trying to hold my head up. Suddenly I hit a large rock. I feel my body slam against its rough, cool surface, yank my arms around it, and pull myself out of the water while the river tumbles over the falls. I look up and see my brothers on the other side of the river. They have formed a chain with their bodies. Dan, the oldest, is holding onto a tree on the bank; Mike, the second one, is standing mid-river, holding onto Tim, who is holding onto Christian, who is holding onto Philip, who is holding onto Dan. Mike grabs Heather’s arm as she reaches the brink of the falls, and pulls her off the tube. Together my brothers pull her to safety while our inner tube sails over the waterfall and into the rocks below.
I hug my rock and breathe.
A hundred Chinese students sat at the edge of their stools, some of them gripping their desks while they listened. “Your lives probably feel like that sometimes, like you are on an inner tube you cannot control, like you are being pulled wherever life takes you. Maybe you jump off your raft, only to find yourself swept down a river you cannot keep your head above. Your lungs are filling with water.” Some of the students dropped their gazes; others kept their eyes fastened to me. “You need a Rock,” I continued. “You need to discover something that is unshakable, something that will pull you to safety and give you grounding in life.”
The vice dean and two of the head teachers insisted on taking us to lunch. I sat next to a student who had been in that crowded classroom. Mercy asked him to paraphrase the story I told. He did so, in careful English, ending with, “but she was saved by a rock.”
“And what,” Mercy asked, “do you think the Rock is?”
The student paused thoughtfully. “I think it is what you believe.”
Only thirteen percent of the 7,000 students at that middle school would be accepted to universities. For the others, their education would end when they walked out the gates at the end of their senior year. For both groups the time we spent with them was crucial, seeds planted in soft ground, waiting for their time to grow.