A story of faith in China

by Fr. Dan Troy

Fr. Dan Troy lives and works in China. He is friends with a congregation of diocesan sisters near Gaoyi in Hebei Province who have established a rehabilitation centre for people with disabilities. He retells a visit to Yang Xu who, with the support of the sisters, has been creating handmade cards and producing his own artwork.

In February 2024, as I walked along the narrow dusty street in Gaoyi with Fr. Tim Mulroy and Fr. Alvaro Martinez towards the home of Yang Xu, I was aware that quite a few people have visited him in recent years. The gate was open for us to enter the small compound within which a series of rooms forms the family home, a few birds singing in cages adding to the beauty of what is inside the plain compound walls.

We walked towards Yang Xu’s room at the far corner of the compound and called out to him as we got near. Yang Xu’s mumbled response announced a warm welcome. As we entered, he greeted us from his wheelchair with a smile. I introduced Fr. Tim and Fr. Alvaro, both of whom were visiting mainland China for the first time to learn about the Church in China and our involvement. With typical Chinese kindness, Yang Xu’s mother arrived a few minutes later, welcomed us in a kind way and distributed cups of tea.

Yang Xu was born with severe cerebral palsy. He has never walked and has restricted use of his hands. His speech is also affected. However, he is very intelligent and is attentive to all that is happening. His family had no contact with the Church until the local congregation of diocesan sisters established a rehabilitation centre nearby for people with disabilities. Yang Xu became friendly with the sisters and they gradually taught him how to use a computer. He learned how to type with the aid of a stick held in his left hand. For a person who had never attended school, he made remarkable progress in using computers and learning to type. Within a number of months the sisters would call for his help to solve any problems that turned up with their computers. The student had truly become the teacher!

Fr. Alvaro, Fr. Tim and Fr. Dan with Yang Xu when they met in February 2024
Fr. Alvaro, Fr. Tim and Fr. Dan with Yang Xu when they met in February 2024

Around 2011, Sr. Lang at the convent asked me if Yang Xu could join a Columban project to make Christmas cards and greeting cards. He joined the project and was very happy to be involved in this work. A few years later he was encouraged to produce three pieces of artwork and later began to make greeting cards with small reprints of his artwork. Most of the cards are distributed to friends and benefactors in China and Hong Kong.

During this visit with Fr. Tim and Fr. Alvaro, we had the opportunity to see how Yang Xu makes the Christmas cards. It took five minutes of dedication and coordination with his hands to use the equipment to glue a picture in place on the main card, apply an ink stamp to print the greeting and then fold the card into its final shape. As if to show us that his skills are not just limited to artwork and card making, he then turned on his television and linked it to his computer to show us a 12-minute video that he produced a few years ago. The video showed the same process of how he makes the cards. With graphics, text and music to brighten up the video, it is a quite an achievement that Yang Xu has been able to produce something that is so engaging.

The creativity of the family can also be seen in how his father likes to practice calligraphy as well as take care of a few cheerful colourful birds. Yang Xu also likes to go to the nearby park to fly a kite, a great way for him to meet other people. His brother lives in an upstairs home with his wife and two children, all of whom are kind to Yang Xu. They appear to be a deeply supportive family.

Some of the cards created by Yang Xu
A selection of the cards assembled by Yang Xu

A number of years ago Yang Xu began going to the nearby Catholic church each Sunday. After attending Mass for a number of weeks, he became friendly with a few young parishioners. With their encouragement, he eventually expressed an interest in becoming a Catholic, a declaration that caused a little unease among his family due to them not knowing much about the life of the Church. However, within a few years, following his dad’s retirement from a job in local administration, Yang Xu received the sacrament of baptism. Easter of 2019 will be forever remembered by him as the day he became a member of the Catholic Church, a day that is a milestone on his gradual and unique journey of faith.

As Fr. Tim, Fr. Alvaro and I enjoyed our time in Yang Xu’s room, I was aware that it is a great privilege in China to have the opportunity to visit the home of a family. The colours, the furniture, the decoration and the photographs reveal so much about the people who live there. For Yang Xu, his room at the side of the family’s small compound is the place where his creativity blossoms like a beautiful flower, gradually opening up to the spring sunshine.

Saying goodbye to his parents, we headed out to the street to walk to the nearby convent. Yang Xu led the way in his new electric wheelchair, testing it for speed as he crossed the main road with a mere glance to check for traffic, the wind in his hair as he smiled gleefully, and us walking swiftly behind trying to catch up with him! As the three of us hurried along behind him, it seemed that God had placed us in the care of someone who was keen to show us that this is his home, that this is his town and that this is the place where he lives his life with a pleasant confidence and ever-deepening faith among family and friends.

The first Columbans were sent to China in 1920. Our involvement now is different to what was possible in previous generations. Columbans in China provide scholarships for Chinese priests, sisters and lay people to study overseas. We also facilitate and support formation courses for priests, sisters and lay people in China and as Fr. Dan explains, we have friendships with people who have disabilities. Columban Missionaries in China also facilitate visits by people to China so that they can understand more about Chinese society and the Chinese Church.