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Shirley’s Gift


Philip and Julie Bender (crouching, second row) invited student and friend Shirley (left, front row) to ask three or four friends to join with them in singing some English Christmas carols at the Chinese Agape Church they attend in Chongqing. Shirley promptly recruited seven singers. Two more later asked to join.

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January 5, 2007
- Philip Bender

Chongqing, China — The best gift that my wife Julie and I received this past Christmas did not come wrapped in brightly colored paper. In fact, it could neither be boxed nor bought.

Our gift was given to us by Shirley, a Chinese student friend. She delivered it during the Christmas eve worship service at the Chinese Agape Church we attend in the central China metropolis of Chongqing. Shirley’s gift was a prayer.

Shirley had accompanied us to the same service on Christmas Eve, 2005. That had been her first visit ever to a church. Now she wanted to go again. In early December, Shirley stopped me on the campus of the university where we teach. "I’ve not been back to church since last year,” she confessed. “But I want you to promise that you will take me along again on Christmas Eve.” I agreed. Later, whenever we would meet, Shirley would sternly remind me of my promise.

Although Christmas is not a holiday in China, its cultural and commercial trappings are everywhere. A huge market in downtown Chongqing does a brisk trade in tree ornaments, tinsel, Christmas cards, cardboard reindeer, and Santa Claus suits (no nativity sets are for sale, however). Waitresses don Santa caps, Frosty the Snowman serenades department store shoppers, and many Chinese parents give presents to their children. On Christmas Eve, throngs frolic in the city’s tree-lit squares. So pervasive has the secular Christmas spirit become that loud Chinese voices have begun to warn against a Western cultural invasion.

But within this sea of consumption and glitter, the Agape Church witnesses to the spiritual reality of the season – the birth of Jesus.

And that is the part of Christmas that Shirley wanted to experience again.

The church music director had invited Julie and me to sing some Christmas songs in English during the service. When we inquired whether we could enlist some students to help, we received permission to bring “a few.” We asked Shirley whether she and three or four friends would sing with us. Shirley promptly recruited seven. Two other students also asked to join.

Arriving 45 minutes before the service began, our group of 12 had to sit near the back, because the sanctuary was already nearly full. Several of the students had never been inside a church before. Many listened to the gathering music with obvious awe and wonder. One seated beside me said, “Church makes me feel peaceful and holy.”

After some traditional carols, a drama presented the story of Jesus’ birth. The students watched attentively, and whispered questions: “What is a manger? Who were the Jews? Did the wise men know that Herod was a bad king?” Another wondered what “Alleluia” meant. As I tried to explain the word, she replied, “Oh, in Chinese we would say, ‘Hao ji le!’”

When our turn in the two-hour program came, we proceeded to the stage to sing Silent Night, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Many of the hundreds of worshippers beamed with delight.

Then, near the end of the service, as the choir sang Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” in Mandarin, Shirley gave us her gift.

On the way to church, Shirley had surprised me by asking, out of the blue, whether she could pray for Julie and me. “Of course,” I replied. “What should I pray for?” she wondered. “Pray that we might be good teachers and good friends to the people in China we meet,” I answered. “Should I pray in English or Chinese,” she asked, only half-jokingly. “It doesn’t matter,” I assured.

As the choir mightily proclaimed “Hallelujah, for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth,” Shirley’s eyes were closed. Her lips seemed to be moving.

The next morning we found this email message. It had been sent around midnight: “Phil and Julie, This night in church I really prayed that you two will be good teachers and friends to us! In fact you have been that all the time! May you be happy and lucky forever! In my heart you are my grandparents. Shirley."

Thank you, Shirley, for your wonderful Christmas gift. Hao ji le! Christ is born!

Philip and Julie Bender teach English and demonstrate Christian friendship with Chinese students at the Chongqing University of Medical Sciences. Mennonite Church Canada Witness is one of four Mennonite bodies that makes possible the work of Mennonite Partners in China (formerly China Educational Exchange)