Stephen met us at the Kunming airport and we went to his house to drop off our luggage and repack a few things into a simple backpack for a couple of days in the village. (I will not identify the village or give names of people to ensure the safety of our friends.) The rest of the team wouldn’t arrive for several days so this was my chance to show my buddy, Jon, the “Miao Mountains, the village, and to meet a very special man – the Village Leader. Our driver was a long-time friend and he met us at the curb outside Stephen’s apartment. With him was Stephen’s assistant who was serving on this trip as an additional translator, a petite young woman, with a great sense of humor, and a very firm will! Without hesitation, she called out, “Shotgun!” and climbed in the front passenger seat (she had her American colloquialisms down). This wasn’t an expression of her sense of humor, this was part of her resolve, accompanied by the warning that she gets carsick. So, with a shrug of our shoulders, the three of us, none of whom would ever be accused of being little guys, wedged ourselves into the back seat of the tiny car. Stephen to my left, Jon to my right, with me straddling the transmission hump on the floor of the back seat. A bit of personal sinfulness emerged, along with a few grins, as we allowed our knee caps to dig into the back of the front passenger seat, an attempt at a little “shotgun” pay back. Seatbelts? We didn’t even try as they were buried behind us. As soon as the doors closed, we were off into the night, for what would later be referred to as, “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” It gave new meaning to following in the train.
Within a few minutes it was clear that the front suspension was gone as the car shimmied and shook itself down the highway. We held our breath and prayed. This ride was a gift, the kindness of a friend, and we couldn’t let him lose face by telling him that we feared death at high speeds. While we quietly grimaced in the backseat, up front our translator chatted away, apparently oblivious to the suspension issues and any problems with her stomach. In time the road surface changed from a concrete highway to an asphalt street and then, to dirt. That’s when things really got fun.
We drove at night to provide the freedom to a travel without interruption and checkpoints. But it was apparently important that we also arrive as fast as possible as we spent a good part of the trip bumping across potholes, sliding around corners, screaming up inclines, and taking blind hairpins like no one would ever be coming the other direction. In the backseat we were wedged in so tightly that we held each other in place. All we could do was laugh – two Chinese in the front and three Americans in the back.
As we prepared to make the final dash up the mountain to the village we drove through farmers’ fields, crossed narrow concrete pathways (which were really rice dikes), and twisted in and out of narrow town streets. We squeezed past the occasional “Mao-blue-truck” as they rumbled down the mountain in the other direction, We drove over the rice and other grains spread out on the road so that vehicles could help separate the good stuff from the chaff. Finally, with a burst of Ahmao over his cellphone announcing our arrival, we pulled into the village. And there, waiting for us was the Village Leader, our friend.
Two years previous a team from Costa Mesa had raised the funds and participated in the work to create a significant new water system for the village (The ultimate purpose of the water system was to not only improve the quality of village life, but to allow the church to host a greater number of people for training in the Gospel). For me, this was a long awaited return visit with friends. But for Stephen, this was his home-base in the mountains. We followed our friend down the pathways, passed chickens, piglets, and goats, and stepped into a meeting room on the church grounds. The room was next to the kitchen where wood-fired woks backed to the meeting room wall and radiated heat to keep the room warm on the cool mountain evening. Tea, fruit, sunflower seeds, and conversation followed. It always happens this way. No rushing is allowed. The relationship matters more than the schedule (oh, how we need to learn that in the US). Tomorrow, when it was daylight, we would see the changes in the village, but for now we would sit, talk, and celebrate our reunion.
When the time was complete we walked across the concrete pad separating the two buildings, up three steps, and into the church. About 60 people waited for us. Some had walked for 4 hours on the narrow, twisting, and mountain pathways between villages so that they could be there for the evening. Then they waited an additional 45 minutes past the start time while we relaxed with tea, fruit, sunflower seeds, and conversation. Whatever village they were from, these dear saints were all the descendants of the same spiritual father, BoGeli.
We spoke, they spoke, they sang, we sang – for hours.
On the top of a mountain in Yunnan China, a humble space once again became a holy place and I was reminded, through tears, that this is what it’ll be like in heaven: “. . . a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9) There are no boundaries or dividing walls for the people of God. Borders, nations, politics, and philosophies of government can’t separate the Church. The only thing that divides us is sin and ignorance, not our home address or the language we speak. All that was overcome when Jesus completed the work of the cross and rose from the dead. The Holy Spirit, through Paul, says it perfectly: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
And so we were – one in Christ – three big American guys, a room full of Miao, at the top of a mountain, at the end of dirt road, following in the train.