We met at 12pm sharp with the rest of the church members. This is the first trip I have attended as a member of the Holy Family Church in Wuhan. We were told by our parish priest that dinner at the community we were going to visit was (as is all around China) served at 6pm in the evening. Like me, others who could not wait until 6pm to eat decided to get lunch and something to drink before we embarked on our journey.
Wuhan is situated in the centre of China and is the main city in Hubei province. Well known for its harsh summer months the weather here gets unbearably hot and humid. It is because of this that there is a joke that like their weather the Wuhan locals are equally hot headed. Short nights that end at 5 in the morning make us wake up incredibly early and sleep late into the night. It is no wonder we are grumpy. The best way to survive the heat is to keep hydrated and out of the sun. We stock up on drinks for the journey and make a move.
There are four cars driving us out into the village. Like any city in China a few hours out show a completely different scene. We drive on smooth motorway into vast spaces of land, sparsely populated with small houses of what I imagine are homes to village people living simple and manually intensive lives. We talk amongst ourselves, getting to know each other. Many of us are students but I also meet an American missionary who has been to one of these leprosy communities before in another part of China.
In truth, I tell her I thought leprosy colonies stopped existing and were only a thing of biblical times. However, she tells there still is a stigma surrounding leprosy. It was always assumed that the best way to handle the disease was to separate those with it from those without. This was certainly true of the methods used in China during the last century. Small colonies were created on the outskirts of big cities to accommodate those suffering with the disease. This often separated sufferers from their families and isolated them from the rest of society. It was a daunting thought. With the developments in medicine and treatments of the disease, perceptions had changed but these colonies still existed harboring sufferers from an old system.
We turned into a small settlement near to where the colony was situated. The road had change from the smooth tarmac and we were now bumping along a stony lane in a small village. There were stalls along the road side selling vegetables and fruits from I assume the surrounding farmland. People on their bikes stopped and peered curious at the cars, undoubtedly a rare sight. We stopped and asked for directions. A few false turns later we finally drove up into a gated community.
It was a humbling sight. All the members in the community were standing outside in wait of our arrival. They stood in a straight line shoulder to shoulder watching as we came out of the cars and greeted them. Some were clearly worse afflicted with the disease than others, stumps on their fingers and wrists disabled by the disease. Nervous we shook their hands anyhow, others hugging, all greeting “Ni hao”.
We were introduced to the two nuns who looked after the patients in the community. They smiled and shook our hands. We offered them drinks and fruits and other things the church collection had bought them. We were then led into a common area. The building was a simple concrete structure with large open windows. All the furniture inside the room was benches staked up in the corners and a large wooden desk at the front, on which we placed the drinks and a cake to share with each other for later.
To our surprise they had prepared for us lunch and we were led up to the main building where we were served. The table had all ready been set with a number of dishes arranged in the middle. We grabbed our seats, took our places and prayed for the meal. The mood at the table had become one of curiosity. None of us were sure exactly what had been prepared, but like many dinners attended before, you eat and ask. Many of us started with something familiar, a cold drink, the salted eggs on the side, rice with the fried eggplant. Then using our chopsticks we got more adventurous: one dish I tried that tasted like bony chicken were actually frog legs, other types of sea food proved surprisingly delicious, we ate and talked.
With our parish priest translating the nuns told us more about their lives and the community. Both of them had come from different parts of China and had been living in the community for close to a decade, only returning to their homes for a few weeks every few years, most of the time missing the annual spring festival to stay around with the other members. They smiled at us and were so grateful for our gifts. We thought they were amazing.
Most of the members in the community were old and looked to be well into their 70’s. The colony hadn’t taken in any new members for a long time now. The present members had therefore lived there for most of their lives, probably having arrived in the colony at a fairly young age. We could then understand why they had not returned to their families, knowing that this was now their home, some of them even forming relationships with each other. The nun’s explained that the members mostly looked after themselves, cooking their own meals when they could. Their job was to overlook the activities within the community and keep them active. We wondered how the sufferers could cook by themselves being clearly disabled. They told us they had learned to adjust and there were precautions taken to having proper cooking ware such as wooden handles on the pans and pots to prevent them getting burnt.
After our dinner we went downstairs. We joined the rest of the members in the common area where the benches were now laid out. We got a better chance to look around the room. On the walls were pictures of previous events and visits to the colony. Every one took their places around the room and we found ourselves visitors sitting on one side and the members on the other, we looked at them and them at us. We came up to introduce ourselves, expressing our gratitude for their invitation and warm welcome. They invited us to sing songs, but many of us weren’t prepared. Finally after some hesitation we managed to sing a few songs that we could all remember. They sang too, hymns in mandarin. The nun’s offered us red paper cut outs the members had made, pictures of Christ and Mary laminated in a glossy sheen.
We cut up some watermelon and the mood got even warmer. Everyone eating and thanking each other, freely blowing out seeds on to the floor. And after a few minutes the cake followed suit. We sang again thanking God for bringing us together. It was a meeting we were all lucky to have. It is known that access to these communities is not generally accepted especially to foreigners, so we were lucky to have
this chance. After the cake we were given a tour of the whole community. They showed us the recent construction that took place, a new infirmary had been built for when doctors came to do checkups on the members. There were new beds. We also peeked into some of the rooms of those badly affected. The disease had affected them terribly and along with their old age caused them to be bed ridden to a small mattress on the floor. Their rooms were minimal in furniture, but they held personal possessions of people who had been home all their lives. The sun was going down as the tour ended and so we made our way back to the centre of the buildings where we first met. There at the spring we took a group photo with the nuns and the members and then it was time to say good bye. As a small we thanked them and they thanked us. Saying goodbye and we got back into the cars and started back home.
On the way back the ride was silent, a combination of fatigue but also being extremely humbled by the level of welcome we had just experienced. We stopped along the way to visit the local church in the village. The parish priest there cut up a watermelon he had been growing for a few months in the yard outside the church, adjacent to a canal. It was sweet and unlike the others we usually tasted in the city. The church itself was a tall building built up on higher ground. The windows were traditional stained glass with different images of Christ on them. It reminded me of a Cathedral. Evening came along with bites from mosquitoes. We set off again on the road, city lights growing brighter as we drove into Hankou and then back to Wuchang, all the while I’m slightly more aware of the sacrifice and faith one can have in God and in life.