The next day, well-rested and freshly showered, I rickshawed back to the dingy guesthouse. A small crowd of clean tourists was gathered by the front door. I guessed that none of them had spent the night at the guesthouse, although we had all paid for it in our tour package. A young Tibetan man appeared and introduced himself as the guide who would take us, for a week, around the ancient city of Lhasa.
The city was busier than it had been when my bus from the airport had rumbled into town the evening before. Pedestrians strolled down clean, cobbled streets; bicycles and carts wobbled by; and vendors set their wares outside the front doors of their shops. The cold, clean air gave everyone energy. But the mechanical whir that forms the soundtrack to most cityscapes was missing. In the background was a strange, pensive silence that was almost oppressive.
Our tour started at the Jokhang Temple, where rows of orange-robed monks sat in deep, frozen meditation. A nice-smelling tourist in a straw hat next to me sighed as we peered at them through the door.
“Now that’s what we all need,” he breathed softly, “peace.”
“Peace?” I stared at the monks.
“Yeah!” he said. “Just look at them.”
“I’m not so sure that’s peace,” I countered quietly. “I mean, look at their faces. They don’t look happy; they look empty. An abandoned house is not peaceful. Not the way a healthy home is.”
The man looked surprised. “But,” he said, sounding offended, “there is so much tension and bad feeling in the world. If we all spent a little more time meditating and a little less time arguing, we would all be better off.”
“Oh I agree! Completely.”
“But,” I bumbled on, mostly to myself, “I don’t think meditating will help if we are meditating on the wrong things. When you have a headache you can’t go to the cabinet and just start downing Pepto-Bismol. Not just any medicine will help.”
The man shrugged.
The raucous music of a cell phone sounded in the temple. We watched a monk jolt from his meditations as if he had been tased. He stepped outside, fumbled in his orange robes and withdrew an iPhone. He answered it and stood for several minutes in the sunshine, talking in animated tones. Eventually he switched it off, muttered something, and walked back into the temple, ostensibly to resume his contemplation. I giggled. “I don’t think they are as carefree as they look.”
But that was the only time I laughed that day. As my tour went on, my heart grew painfully heavy. Inside the dark, smoky belly of the Sera Monastery I watched a long line of men, women and children whose cracked feet and dry limbs poked like bones from dirty rags. They dragged themselves into the temple to leave gifts for their gods, laying butter and fruit and milk before their dead lords—food that might otherwise have nourished those skinny children. They left their sacrifices in front of the silent, glistening statues in the temple and came and kissed the feet of the monks, who touched their foreheads and muttered a blessing. The monks, rotund and well-fed, would collect the offerings, eat what they wanted, and throw away the rest.
When our tour for the day was over, the man with the straw hat asked me to join him for a drink. I declined. I told him I wanted to go someplace quiet to meditate. I walked back through the quiet streets, to my quiet hotel, lost in my thoughts. I was about to step into the elevator in the cold, tiled lobby, when the receptionist sat up behind the front desk where he had been napping, and cried, “Oh, Miss! Miss!”
I stopped. “Yes?”
“Oh, Miss, please, can you check out now?”
“What? No,” I said, suddenly remembering that I had only checked in for one night, “I mean, I want to stay all week.”
“No, Miss, I’m sorry, we have no vacancy. There are reservations, you know. I’m sorry, you’ll have to check out.”
My heart plummeted, landing with a cold splash in my stomach as I pictured myself out on the streets again “Oh please!” I said, “No, you have to have a room! I have nowhere else to go. There must be something.”
The boy looked apologetic. “I’m sorry, Miss.”
“Look,” I said, beginning to panic.
“Wait,” said the boy, as he squinted at the old computer on the desk. “Wait….” There was a long pause. “Okay. You can stay in your room.” he looked up happily.
I blinked. “Just like that?” I said, more to God than to him.
“Yes, but you’ll have to pay in advance.”
“No problem.” I said, shaky with relief, “Thank you. Thank you very much.”
The days of my journey through Tibet spilled over one another in much the same way. There were more monasteries, more hunger, more children, more beggars, more pilgrims stumbling a few steps and then falling on their faces in the dust. I could see it, but I could not change it. I shared the story of Jesus with the tourist in the straw hat, and he avoided me for the rest of the trip. Finally, weary of seeing so much and doing so little, lonely from having no one to think through it all with me, I left Tibet and stepped off a plane in Chengdu, one of China’s larger, noisier cities. The constant industrial groaning of that city was strangely comforting.
Two friends who lived in Lanzhou, Elyana from the Philippines, and Sarah from the States, were travelling through Chengdu and were staying at the Super Eight hotel. I met them at Starbucks, which was also (not so strangely) comforting. Starbucks is the same all over the world; every Starbucks in every country has the same smell, corresponding pastries, and chic décor. Only the languages on menus and the cities on mugs are different. Still, with my dark mocha in hand, settled back in a deep leather chair, it was hard to talk with my friends. I felt that if I said anything I would have to say everything—and it would be impossible to say everything. The cloud that had settled over me in Tibet was pushed back a little by their company, but nothing could clear it up.
“So Ann, you’re awfully quiet!” Elyana turned her bright, brown eyes on me. “How was Tibet?”
I felt my eyebrows lower as I thought about what to say. “It was very…interesting.”
“Didn’t you think it was dark?” asked Sarah. “I have never felt such a heaviness as I felt the time I was in Tibet.”
“Yes. I did think it was dark. I thought it was–” I groped for a word to convey my impressions–“overcast. Like something was hanging over Lhasa.”
“That’s how I felt too! And isn’t it strange,” Elyana observed, “when the people are so bright and fun!” I recalled my boisterous Tibetan students in Lanzhou.
“Well,” she continued cheerfully, “I’m looking forward to hearing from Pam Newman and Brother Jonas. They have been working with Tibetans for years, you know. We’re having lunch together later.”
“You’re having lunch with people who work with Tibetans?”
“Yes; they’re a lot of fun. You want to come?”
I decided to stick with those girls. I checked into their hotel and joined them for lunch.
Chengdu is not like Lanzhou. Lanzhou, in those days, did not even have a McDonalds, much less a Starbucks or a Super Eight Hotel. Chengdu had Starbucks, Micky Ds, WalMart, Pizza Hut, Subway, Super Eight, a Hilton, and best of all: Pete’s TexMex. That is where Elyana and Sarah were going to meet Pam Newman and Brother Jonas for lunch.
The restaurant was crowded with White people. A sunken dining room was surrounded by a raised seating area, and in the far right corner was a secluded table surrounded by ferns. When we got there, Pam and Brother Jonas were already seated. Pam was a comfortably dressed middle-aged woman; Brother Jonas was a portly Chinese pastor with slicked back hair and a tie. They both welcomed us casually.
“I am in desperate need of a pedicure,” Pam said.
Elyana grinned. “Totally! Do you still go to Hannah’s?”
Pam sighed. “Big bummer. Hannah’s closed. I’ve been going to this little place on Ming Dao Street. So far so good. She does awesome French tips.” Pam turned to me. “I always get a pedicure when I come back from the villages,” she said brightly. “It helps me unwind. It helps me feel human again!”
“So,” she continued, “you’re Ann?”
“And you just got back from Lhasa? What did you think?”
We sat at the table and pulled the menus toward us. I stared at a column of Mexican entrées while I tried to think of what to say. “Well, I thought it was…dark.”
“Yes, most people say that.”
“Like the hold of a slave-trading ship. Not that I’ve ever really seen one. But, you know,” my voice trailed off, “like in the movies.”
“Uh hu. Yeah, that’s how I feel when I’m in the villages. That’s partly why I get a pedicure.”
I tried not to laugh.
“Really.” She said, her dark eyes bright with hope, “I sit and soak my feet and look out at the city and recite Bible verses in my head. Revelation seven nine: I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb! And once all the crud is out of my toenails and I don’t feel so heavy, I’m ready to go back again!”
“You are talking about villages around here, right?” Sarah said.
“Yes, Tibetan villages, some as near as fifty miles outside Chengdu. We take those little bread loaf vans, you know the little tin ones that are so cramped, they can get into some pretty remote areas. This time, though, we got stuck. I might have to just throw those shoes away.”
“What do you do in the villages?” I asked quietly.
“A little of everything. We visit people’s homes; we share the gospel; we try to meet medical needs; we bring clothes and food for the churches to distribute.”
“The churches?” Church was the last word I expected to hear at the end of a sentence about Tibetan villages. “I didn’t know there were churches in the villages. Tibetan churches?”
“Oh yes! It is amazing. Jonas here is our Chinese liaison; he helps coordinate the Chinese and Tibetan underground churches, and the foreign workers.” Brother Jonas stood up and shook my hand.
“I see,” he said, peering into my eyes as he sat back down, “that you are carrying a burden.”
“A burden?” I repeated.
“Yes. A burden. I think it is for the Tibetan people. Am I right?”
I hesitated. “Well, I have been feeling sort of heavy since I came back. I don’t know if I am burdened especially for the Tibetan people or just burdened generally by the oppression I saw.”
“Perhaps it is the same thing.”
“I am definitely burdened for my own Tibetan students.”
“You have Tibetan students?”
For the next two hours Pam, Brother Jonas, Elyana, Sarah, and I filled ourselves with tamales while we talked about our experiences and work with Tibetan people. I shared my testimony in Chinese for the first time, and explained how much I enjoyed hanging out with Jack and Simon and all of their friends, but how little difference it seemed to make.
Pam nodded. “You know,” she said, “when I began here twenty years ago, I felt just like you. And I still do. I am still burdened by love for people I cannot help. But that’s the thing, our job is to love them, not to help them. God will do the helping. If you love those students of yours, God will help through you, even if you cannot see Him doing it.”
I tried to blink back the tears in my eyes. Pam saw me and grabbed my hand. “Be courageous,” she said, “and be glad! Gladness is a powerful force. And God is moving. We have seen over five hundred Tibetan people put their faith in Christ, and we are walking beside them as they learn to be disciples.”
Five hundred. They had seen over five hundred people find the boundless satisfaction of life outside of self–life hidden in Christ. Those five hundred settled in my heart and accompanied me back to Lanzhou, comforting my mind and lifting the weight that had encompassed it on the dark plains of Tibet. Salvation was coming, even to the darkest reaches of the world.