As she stood by the door of the Holy Family Church a few weeks ago after the end of mass for the international community in Wuhan, a smiling Theresa Alpha reflected on her three years of study in one universities in the city. His laughter was superimposed on the recall of stories associated with his stay in this part of China. Before arriving in China to study a master’s degree in business administration, her hope was to see different parts of the country during the annual vacation. However, the pandemic has ended travel opportunities, restrictions on international students have often been more onerous than expected of the wider population.
The opportunity for Theresa to come to China was one of thousands of scholarships offered each year by the Chinese government to students from other countries. These scholarships have been in place for many years and are a way to strengthen ties between China and some countries that seek such bilateral cooperation. This long-term policy ultimately sees many graduates maintain contact with China after returning home, with some of them given the opportunity to eventually hold political leadership positions in those countries.
Before coming to China, Theresa had been told by her father in Sierra Leone that she should become familiar with the practice of prayer in her apartment rather than having the opportunity to be an active community member in a church. . Early advice was based on his assumption that there are no churches in China, an assumption not uncommon in other countries. Within two weeks of arriving in China, Theresa was briefed by a student from the international community active at Holy Family Church. After his first visit to the church, news was sent to his father who was very happy to receive a correction to his assumptions about church life in China.
Over the weeks, Theresa has become an active member of the international community. With the onset of the pandemic in early 2020, all church activities were cancelled. Many members of the international community have left China and except for a few who moved to Wuhan from China, no new members have arrived due to China’s strict border control measures during the pandemic. During the second year of the pandemic, the small community tried to maintain its fragile administrative structure. Theresa has kindly agreed to take on the lead role of community responsibility.
Over the next year, as the international community could not gather at the church due to local regulations, Theresa encouraged members to attend Chinese Mass. To keep the community spirit alive, occasional meals were organized, as well as a sports day at a local park. . Taking on the role of community leader in unusual times, she has at times spoken of the challenges of keeping a community together at a time when gathering in church was not possible in the normal way. A few Sunday Masses at the homes of members of the international community took on increased importance, in particular this year’s celebration on Easter Sunday morning which was followed by a lunch provided by the gracious hosts.
Perhaps Theresa’s most creative endeavor came last October when the new Bishop of Wuhan, Francis Cui Qingqi, came for his first official visit to the parish. After Sunday morning Chinese mass, Theresa and other members of the international community invited him to take a group photo in the center of the church, with flowers presented to mark the important occasion. It happened with such efficiency that the new bishop wondered how such an organization was possible in a parish where the news of his visit had not been announced officially. Thérèse also presented him with a selection of the annual magazines published by members of the community over the past ten years, the gift to the bishop being a sweet reminder that the international community was still present in Wuhan. He was also communicating what had been expressed in a number of letters sent to him when he was administrator of the diocese, a request to receive permission to resume mass for the international community as soon as possible.
The diplomacy undertaken that Sunday may have been providential. A few months later, a Chinese priest who had studied philosophy and theology in France was appointed to the parish. A few weeks after his arrival, it was announced that the community could meet again for mass in French or in English. As Theresa’s graduation approached, she found that things were now returning to a more normal situation, with her patience and commitment on behalf of the international community paying off for all.
At the time of her recent graduation, there was a job offer for Theresa in an international company in Shanghai, an opportunity to gain good work experience for a few years, which would be beneficial for her career in the years to come. coming. Theresa’s transfer of duties to someone else within the community and her departure from Wuhan coincided with her last primary responsibility for the community, finalizing the publication of the community’s annual magazine. Following its release just a few weeks ago, it is a colorful production by people going through unusual times in this part of China. Inside the magazine is an interesting group photo showing Theresa standing confidently next to the new Bishop of Wuhan, Francis Cui Qingqi.
Presumably, a copy of the magazine will eventually reach Theresa’s father in Sierra Leone. This will likely be the day he learns even more about Church life in China as he sees his daughter alongside one of China’s newest bishops, appointed by Pope Francis and so, despite many challenges, connecting Church members in multiple countries in a truly universal way.
Father Dan Troy is a member of St Columban’s Missionary Society. He lives in China.