The Covid-19 virus has subsided in China, and in Wuhan, where it started, restrictions are very slowly being lifted. A Catholic based in the city sends this exclusive report.
Yang Xu lives in Gaoyi, a town directly south of Beijing, the rural area's transport system receiving a boost in recent years when a high-speed train station was built on the new line connecting the capital to Wuhan. Life for Yang Xu is far removed from the efficiency and speed that is symbolised by the growing web of China's new rail system. 35 years ago he was born with cerebral palsy. He has never walked and his hands have limited power. He speaks with a restricted voice. In recent years an electric motor was added to his wheelchair, a change that has provided him with increased mobility around the town, a place where he is well known among the people.
During a 2011 visit to see the religious sisters who run a rehabilitation centre in Gaoyi, I was introduced to Yang Xu. This also provided the opportunity to visit his home to meet his parents, his brother, and more recently his sister-in-law, niece and nephew. Within this family environment Yang Xu has experienced a life of ongoing love and support, a place where he has made a special contribution to all those around him.
Yang Xu's contact with the Church began by an accident of geography. In 2007, a short distance from his home, the diocesan sisters of Zhaoxian set up a physical rehabilitation centre for orphans in their care and other children in this rural area of Hebei province. One day Yang Xu met one of the sisters on the street, a meeting that led to his first visit to their centre. While he was not going there for physical rehabilitation, he was able to see all that was happening at the new facility. Over time he became friendly with the sisters. As the months passed, they showed him how to use a computer. Due to his physical restrictions he needed the assistance of a short stick in his left hand to reach across to the keyboard, the turned end of the stick being the vital point of contact as a bridge was formed to link his life with the world of technology. Gifted with a bright mind, Yang Xu made steady progress as his horizons expanded. Gradually he learned how to resolve problems with computer viruses and was regularly called upon by the sisters to solve the latest glitch in their system.
As the friendship grew between Yang Xu and the sisters, his parents were anxious about what was happening. Previously, they had never had contact with the Church. Unaware of what was unfolding for their son, they urged caution. However, as time went by they could see that he was benefitting from his interaction with the sisters and they became more accepting.
In 2011, Sr Lang asked Yang Xu if he would like to become involved in a project where he could make Christmas cards and greeting cards in his home. In a typically humble way, he replied that he would try. A few weeks later he started his part time job. The day he received his first payment for his work from the sisters was a special occasion for him, a day he marked by going to a nearby shop to buy a massage stick for his mother.
Over the next few months, as Yang Xu built up his confidence at making the cards, he decided to let his computer skills overlap with his new work. Over a number of weeks he used the camera on his computer to record the various stages of how the cards are made, the glueing of a Nativity picture on a blank card, the printing of a Christmas greeting on the other side of the card followed by the folding of the card. He edited the video recordings, added a written description of the process, supplemented the footage with graphics and enhanced it with background music in a 12-minute presentation of his work. A particularly nice part of his video is the music he selected for the opening scene. The song he chose is a popular one in China, one that announces that the sun will shine after the wind and the rain have passed, an expression of his own hopes as well as his experience of life.
About eight years ago Yang Xu began attending Mass at the nearby Catholic church. Within a couple of years he expressed a wish to receive Baptism. This came as a surprise to his parents and stirred more caution for them as he engaged with people beyond their familiar circle. It is important to appreciate their reservations in a context where the Church was so far from their lives. Yang Xu was agreeable to respecting their views on what would have been a big step for him. However, appreciation of their position did not mean abandoning his involvement with the Church. He continued to attend Mass each Sunday and became friendly with more people in the parish. Within a couple more years Yang Xu discovered that Baptism by desire is a possibility in the Catholic Church, a means by which a person who wishes to become a member of the Church can receive the grace of Baptism through a sincere wish if they happen to die while in the process of preparing for Baptism. His ability to understand and speak about this unique item of accommodation in the Church shows his keen attentiveness to the wider world, in this case to something that is probably beyond the awareness of most Catholics.
While Yang Xu maintained his contact with the Church, his connection with the wider community of Gaoyi also continued to grow. Part of this took place when he requested his family to buy him a small trailer that could be attached to his wheelchair. The trailer is fitted with a few shelves that can hold a variety of small items ranging from plastic toys to cables for mobile phones. Each evening Yang Xu goes to the local square where people gather at a variety of foodstalls, his presence there leading to the possibility that they might buy an occasional item from him. He concedes that business has not been so good. However, his evenings mingling among the people on the street has a value that goes far beyond what could be measured by financial statistics.
One of the most meaningful events I have ever attended took place five years ago when Yang Xu invited me to join him and six other people for an evening meal at a simple restaurant in Gaoyi. In preparation for the meal he went to the restaurant the previous day to check the menu. Three sisters from the rehabilitation centre, three of Yang Xu's Catholic friends and I gathered at 6 o'clock for the meal at which he sat at the head of the table. Yang Xu ordered the food, invited one person to say grace and ensured that all was in place for this important social occasion. At the beginning of the meal we toasted him for his friendship and generosity. One of his friends sat beside him and helped him to eat. His glass was occasionally lifted up so that he could drink through a straw. Without anybody putting words on what was happening, it was possible to see that Yang Xu had the confidence to organise this great outing, a gathering of friends who sat down with him for a meal, he sitting at the head of the table as our gracious host. On that evening he treated us from the fruit of his labour.
A few years ago Yang Xu was encouraged to apply his talents in a new way. The encouragement came in the form of a suggestion to express himself through art in a way that reflected something of his life experience. While he showed initial reservation about this possibility, his left hand eventually reached for a paint brush and over the next few weeks he produced three colourful works of art. The three paintings, Sunrise Over Calvary, Glimpse of a Rainbow and Crossroads of Life have become templates for three styles of greeting cards that he has been making since that time, each reflecting an aspect of his unique life. The original artwork has been framed and now hangs in his bedroom, milestones in a life that reflects how God remains faithful to him.
The outbreak of the coronavirus in China disrupted Yang Xu's life in a similar way to how it has disrupted the lives of millions of other people here. For some weeks he was unable to go the town square at night to set up his shop. Contact with the diocesan sisters was also interrupted so he had to stop making the cards. However, these disruptions in Yang Xu's life have not caused him too much upset. They can be seen as minor interruptions in comparison to what he has lived through for 35 years. They are also minor changes for him in comparison to the suffering that many families face due to the coronavirus here in China and in a growing number of countries around the world. In more recent days Yang Xu's life has returned to normal as restrictions in Gaoyi have eased.
Other developments in recent times have also brought fresh encouragement for Yang Xu. Two years ago he approached his parents once again about his wish to receive Baptism. On this occasion his conversation with them met with a response that shows how time can eventually bring a change to the hearts of all people. Their position had softened and they agreed to allow him to prepare for Baptism. Over the next 12 months he attended classes on sacramental preparation at the parish church. One year ago, at the Easter Vigil in Gaoyi parish, along with a number of other people from the area, Yang Xu received the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.
This year, while churches throughout China have been closed due to the coronavirus, it seems as if Yang Xu has been calmly gliding through the disruptions of daily life as smoothly as he moves through the streets of Gaoyi on his electric wheelchair, travelling forward at his own speed with the wind in his hair and hope in his heart. China is blessed to have Yang Xu as one of its people. The Church is blessed to have him as a member of its family.
The 12 minute video made by Yang Xu can be viewed on the Youku video website by clicking on this link:
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