Discovering Jesus in our World: Surprising Encounters in Asia and the Pacific

From the Philip Harris Memorial Lecture May 29 2022, Christ Church Brunswick

Rowan Callick - Is China becoming more authoritarian? - 4BC

Rowan Callick


“I don’t believe in an interventionist God,” sings that famous Caulfield Grammar school graduate Nick Cave at the start of one of his most beautiful songs.

We hear a great deal about disbelief.

I heard recently on Radio National, a professor of philosophy insisting that life itself is so dreadful that it is wrong for both humans and animals to have offspring. Mars is a morally better planet than Earth, he insisted – did you guess correctly that the professor is a he? – since it contains no sentient beings.

We hear a great deal about the barrenness of life.

I also heard on the radio a different professor railing against our Anthropocene era, how the Covid pathogen comes from an anguished world revenging itself on humanity, and will do so until our inevitable day of extinction. He felt revulsion for religion, and described the idea of God as of “a psychopath in the sky,” while rather unctuously claiming an undefinable “spirituality”.

We hear also, then, about the extinction of hope.

And in our personal lives, too, many walk like the lonely figure in my favourite cartoon by Michael Leunig, along a street in the shadows named The Life You Lead, while glancing sideways at a brightly lit road leading off it, named The Life You Could Have Led. 

This climate of depression, regret and fatalism – a gloomy cloud which helped frame our recent federal election campaign – is often amplified in the echo-chamber of the internet as we sit alone staring at our screens.

But some of us haven’t given up on hope, especially IRL, In Real Life, something we’re in here and now at Christ Church – in contrast with virtual life. Why do we live in hope, as so many around us abandon it? 

I have worked as a journalist all my adult life. Ours is not a profession renowned for its optimism. Everywhere I’ve lived, people have asked me why you journalists focus always on the negative.

So it’s with a sense of surprise, to myself, that I feel compelled to tell tonight, a very different narrative. 

Philip Harris, whose name is honoured in our event this evening and whose widow Mary is here with us of course, was a person of hope, and a believer, as is Mary. He lived that hope and that belief through his many voluntary commitments towards bettering our world, including as honorary treasurer of Community Aid Abroad, now Oxfam, and of what is now Australian Volunteers International.

In many marvellous ways, we humans are actually today making life better, not worse. For instance, during the Good Friday fund-raising for the Royal Children’s Hospital, I learned that 40 years ago, just 5 per cent of children diagnosed with leukaemia survived, but that today, more than 90 per cent go on to live normal lives.

It’s important that we support those who achieve such wonderful results, and folk generally who shun despair, and work on for good.

But the stories I will tell, point to an even more important reality.

That the greatest person who ever lived, turned his world, this world, upside down 2,000 years ago, when it too was smitten by despair and dislocation and subjugation. He is still alive today and can be met in those who live in him. He is our source of hope. As Paul wrote, hope – something very different from wishful thinking – is one of three things that will last forever – unlike even Good Old Collingwood. Faith, hope and love will outlast all. The greatest is love. God is love. And he showed that love to us by sending us his son, Jesus, to live our human life.

Jesus was of course a tradie, a carpenter. He was born in Nazareth, a hill-town in the north of Israel. He lived his entire human life in Asia.

It was only when Paul turned his attention to the city of Philippi in today’s Greece, that the message of Jesus reached Europe, as we have been hearing from Bishop Lindsay’s riveting expositions at the Sunday evening “B & B” – Bible & Beer – sessions at the Lamb café next door.

Until then, the Way, as it was known, was purely an Asian Way. But now, Paul writes, we who once were far away have been brought near, in Christ Jesus.

Nathanael, who became one of the 12 disciples, asked sceptically when his friend Philip first urged him to meet Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Many of us within the Western church world, who think of it – wrongly – as the ancient epicentre of Christianity, wonder whether we can have anything to learn from those regions closer to Australia, from Asia or the Pacific islands. Surely we’re the ones who take Jesus with us to such places.

But Jesus is already there, alive, transforming people in our region. I have learned this from encounters that I haven’t sought; they have materialised in front of me in places where I had never expected to find him.

That discovery is best framed by a visit my wife Jan and I made to a Methodist church in a village on the Fijian island of Taveuni. On the whole of a great wall inside, is a colourful painting depicting the arrival by boat of the first missionaries. They are being welcomed joyfully by the villagers. Standing alongside them, also cheering on the missionaries, is Jesus himself. A big image, in every sense. Think about it.

When I was 25 years old, I left the industrial north-east of England to work for the Anglican archdiocese of Papua New Guinea, as communications officer. It was a great adventure, inspired in part by my visits to the Taize community in central France, with its heart open to the wider world. I actually thought at first I was answering an advert from west Africa, until, puzzled, I turned to the index of my atlas. I felt assured at that age that I had a lot to offer to the church in PNG; they were lucky to be getting me. 

On my very first evening after arriving there, I was invited to eat with Noah Bobom, a teacher at St Francis’ primary school, his wife Pauline and their kids, in the humidity of Koki in Port Moresby. They welcomed me with disarming warmth, and we sat on the mats of their modest home and ate fish, taro and aibika cooked in coconut milk over a fire. 

As Noah said grace, and began to speak eloquently, as did Pauline, about their lives, their love of Jesus, their hopes for the church and for the then very young nation, my world was turned upside down. As I walked the short distance back to the church house at St Francis where I was to live, I realised that I was there to learn, not to show others what to do, that Jesus had been awaiting me in the Bobom household and elsewhere; that I wasn’t carrying him with me along with my suitcases. And so it proved, in the rest of my 10 years in PNG.

At the start of John’s gospel, when John the Baptist is talking with a couple of his followers, Jesus walks past. “Look! There is the Lamb of God,” says John, surely surprising his friends. “Where are you staying?” they ask Jesus. “Come and see,” he says. And so it starts. They move into a new reality. In answer to Nathanael’s question about Jesus, whether any good can come out of Nazareth, Philip responds simply: “Come and see for yourself.” Of course, he does. Curiosity, coming and seeing – in Christ Church’s motto, entering the mystery – is a vital virtue, not only for journalists but for us all.

We need to see our lives as a journey, a pilgrimage. That means, keeping our wits about us and our eyes open. As I learned, when I at first thought I was heading for PNG in West Africa. And as a woman discovered a few years back, as I was standing behind her and her husband at a Migration desk at Tullamarine, and overheard the officer wish them a great holiday in Indonesia. The wife’s face suddenly turned into a mask of dread as she cried out to her husband: “But we’re going to Bali!”

There’s always something new to learn. 

Now for some stories – in which Jesus appears vividly, alive, in our diverse Asia-Pacific world.

I met 78 year old Sakie Yokota in her apartment block on the outskirts of Tokyo. She recounted what happened on November 15 1977. Her bubbly daughter Megumi had just turned 13. She and her husband Shigeru were preparing dinner in their middle class house in the small coastal city of Niigata. Their younger twin sons were playing. Megumi was doing badminton training after school, about 500 metres away. She was due home before 6 for dinner. When she had not turned up by 6.30 Sakie hurried to the school gym, but the badminton girls had all gone home. The police were called. A frantic search began. Tracker dogs lost Megumi’s scent on a nearby street running towards the lonely beach, flanked by pine woods. Massive police efforts ended in a blank. Then, 20 years later, Sakie and Shigeru received a call from an MP who learned during a South Korea visit that North Korean defectors had revealed that Kim Jong-il, the then Dear Leader, had in 1976 ordered his secret service to undertake an abduction program, to steal people to train North Korean agents how to pass themselves off as Japanese and thereby hijack planes and commit other acts of terrorism. One of the defectors had described a young abducted Japanese woman who still kept her old badminton racquet as a memento of her former life. So this had been the fate of Megumi. Sakie and Shigeru then campaigned tirelessly around the world for the release of those cruelly abducted in boats at night. 

How, I asked as the dignified couple showed me photos of their lively daughter, who is now aged 56 – lost, found again, but still beyond reach inside North Korea – have you managed to cope? “We struggled very much as a husband and wife,” said Sakie. 

And then she said something that stunned me, in a country where Christians remain rare.

Just when they learned of the abduction, she said, “I came across the Christian Bible. I just stumbled across it somehow. None of our family were Christian, or even especially religious in the traditional Japanese way either. Then I read the Bible again and again, and again, and found a meaning for my life. I find it hard to explain. Something very solid entered in my heart and stomach, and I began to realise, it’s God inside of me. He gave me the message: ‘I know this is very painful, but I will help you to do your best.’ I now pray with my new Christian friends, many of them, for our children. And for the people of North Korea. If I had thrown myself into the ocean at Niigata as I contemplated doing often, we wouldn’t have started this campaign and these issues wouldn’t have surfaced, so everything has a meaning. My newfound faith is how I have managed to keep myself stable. I just hope I have my child back while I am alive. Such matters are not in human hands but in those of God,” Sakie said finally.

As I left the apartment block, I looked again at a painting in the foyer that had puzzled me when I arrived. It was of Sakie, her head bowed, an expression of intense purpose and deep humanity. Beneath is written simply the character for Prayer. It was a gift from a Christian neighbour, and Sakie had it hung where all could see.

Next, some stories of China, whose paramount leader has urged all Chinese people to be “unyielding Marxist atheists.” A land with seemingly insuperable party-state barriers to the gospel. A whole separate account can be presented about the persecution – the growing persecution – of believers in China today. But that’s not what I’m going to be talking about here tonight; I’m going to introduce instances of the wonderful growth of the faith there in the face of all that. 

Nestorian Christians travelled along the Silk Road in the 7th century to the then capital of Chang’an, today’s Xi’an. They were known as followers of jingjiao, the luminous religion. I have seen in Xi’an a stele, a stone carving made in Chinese by the Nestorians, in 781, that recounts the life of Jesus and his disciples – slightly varied from our gospels today. A century later Emperor Wuzong banned Christianity, which seemingly disappeared.

The Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci was the first European allowed to live in Beijing, in 1601. He was warmly received by the emperor, introduced many scientific terms into the Chinese language, and died there 10 years later. A professor at the Beijing Communist Party college told me how during the Cultural Revolution, youthful Red Guards had arrived at the compound, eager to destroy the graves of Ricci and many early missionaries who were buried there. The professor said, “We told them, ‘You guys have been doing great but tiring work for Chairman Mao, and now you need a rest. We’ll enjoy smashing up the graves of these imperialists ourselves.’ After they left we spent all night concealing the tombs and smashing up paving stones, which we showed the Red Guards when they returned the next morning as proof of our own great work for the Chairman.” The veteran professor then showed me, almost devoutly, round the tombs, preserved beautifully today.

Despite these and many other periods of violent suppression – and the barriers being added now – Christianity has been booming there this century; on a typical Sunday more people attend worship in the established churches alone in China, without adding the house churches, than worship in the whole of Europe including Britain. The sacrificial lives of Christians over many centuries are now, in God’s good time, bearing remarkable fruit.

As I scrabbled – as a China correspondent – through the dreadful chaos resulting from the 2008 earthquake in the Sichuan mountains that killed 80,0000 people I encountered Shi Kun, a 21 year old student working as a Red Cross volunteer at a school site where 400 children had been killed. He said, in a general chat, without my asking, that “many Christian believers are among those who have come as volunteers and relief workers. Their hearts are full of love.” Then on a night soon after, when most of the 4 million population of Chengdu, the Sichuan capital, still suffering severe aftershocks, were camping out, I saw two young men marching at a fierce pace along a river bank path, through the milling crowd. The figure in front shouted out (in Chinese of course), “People of China! You have been sinful and selfish. And now even the earth is shaking in grief. Repent!” Behind him, his comrade swiftly followed: “Jesus Christ is the answer! Call on him and he will save you.” And again, over and over. First one voice, then the other. There was something of the apocalypse around. Spinning out of the Sichuan disaster, many young Chinese – notably including Christian followers – were emboldened to become volunteers and, defying the usual controls, simply to turn up without being asked.

Back in Beijing, I chatted over after-worship coffee at our church community there, with an American who had worked in China earlier but was now lecturing at the famous Riverside seminary in New York. He explained to me that a group of Chinese businesswomen and men had funded his return to run a week-long seminar. They were all starting to do business in the Middle East and Africa and wanted to be equipped to evangelise effectively to their hosts, as well as to fellow Chinese, while spending lengthy periods there.

On my second three-year term in Beijing, I went with a small group from our church community to the old capital of Xi’an, to one of 21 theological institutions run in China by the Three-Self, or Protestant, Church. We had been helping support programs at this Bible School for many years, and we had got to know the president, a brilliant and devout woman, pretty well. There were 140 students, resident in six-person dormitories. One group of mainly middle-aged women was especially remarkable. They were doing a one-year course in evangelism, with their focus, they said, on spreading the gospel along the Belt and Road, also dubbed the New Silk Road, which China’s leader Xi Jinping created to boost Beijing’s influence, especially across Asia into Europe, and in Africa. Here, then, Jesus is inspiring his followers to preach him and his message along that same Belt and Road.

Another visit included the president’s home-place, Fuyincun, Gospel Village, in the countryside. The pastor there showed us his most treasured item: the desk brought by the region’s first, and only, foreign missionary, a Scotsman. A desk on which, 170 years later, that Chinese pastor still wrote weekly sermons. The church that missionary had helped found was surely built on rock. When we visited, it was packed with hundreds of people; some families had walked for hours alongside rice fields to get there.

On visits to Shanxi, one of China’s poorest provinces, I became friends with people working with an extraordinary Christian organisation, named Evergreen. In 1909, 17 year old Norwegian Peter Torjesen heard a mission organiser speak about China. He placed the few coins he had in the collection plate, and added a brief note he wrote with his pencil. Nine years later he sailed there, under the auspices of the China Inland Mission. After two years’ language study, his childhood sweetheart, Valborg Tonnessen, joined him, and they were married, and despatched to the toughest place on the map: Hequ, a town alongside the Great Wall, on the edge of a fearsome desert. The previous missionary there had been killed by the Boxers during their rebellion 20 years earlier.

Peter and Valborg survived civil war, famine, and in Peter’s case typhoid, and then came the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. The Torjesens sheltered large numbers of Chinese refugees, protected from aerial attack by a Norwegian flag which they lay flat on the ground, because of their country’s neutrality. But when the Norwegian government fled into exile in London, they were bombed by Japanese warplanes. Peter – whose Chinese name was Ye Yongqing, Evergreen Leaf – became the first missionary to die in that war, killed by the centre-beam of the house as it collapsed. Hundreds of Hequ people attended the funeral service, amidst scenes of devastation. The local Catholic priest, a German, spoke on the theme: “Greater love has no man, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

Valborg and their four children managed to escape China. Fifty years later, as China opened up following Mao Zedong’s death, Hequ’s communist party secretary decided to establish a monument to recognise Torjesen as a “martyr of the people.” The Torjesens’ children and grandchildren were invited to a celebration to honour them. The Vice Governor of the province, Guo Yuhuai, astonished the family by adding: “We want you to come back – for the long-term,” for a commitment such as Peter had made.

He pointed especially to Finn, who had grown up as a missionary child in Taiwan, where he met his wife Sandy, so handily both spoke Chinese. The Vice Governor said he wanted them to act as a bridge between the resources of the West and the needs of Shanxi.

In 1993, Finn and Sandy named their new group Evergreen, and based it in the provincial capital, Taiyuan. They operate transparently, their organisation’s aims say, “to develop services for the people, continuing the good works of Ye Yongqing, acknowledging God’s gracious calling in our lives and reflecting the credibility of Christ.” Members must have professional skills as well as missionary competence, “and the higher we raise the barrier, the better the people who come,” Finn says. “As doors open, we find out what’s possible. Rather than entering ‘under the radar,’ which makes people around you nervous, we become part of the community.” There is now a majority of Chinese staff on the team – 40, with 34 foreign experts. They provide ethical education for police and military. They train midwives. They teach older people to read. They run a model farm to help small farmers diversify their products – including by making cheese. They run marriage guidance classes. They run a public library where children can study after school. “We are involved in life here,” Finn says.

And Peter Torjesen has not been forgotten. When his widow Valborg returned to their Norwegian home village, then-retired Sunday school teacher Erik Little presented her with the piece of paper which he discovered Peter had placed in the collection bowl at that 1909 missionary service, together with the meagre coins he had. On the paper he had prophetically written the words “Og mit liv” (“And my life”). Today that paper is in China, framed on a wall of Evergreen’s office in Taiyuan. Most who see it, weep.

On my last visit there, with others from our Beijing church, we shared lunch with the lively kids at the annual Evergreen summer youth camp in the countryside, and then drove through a devoutly Catholic area. When we went to look inside a huge new Italianate church with a great dome, we found hundreds of young people there for a regional Catholic youth assembly, earnestly discussing witnessing to their faith. We drove on towards a mountainside topped by a large statue of Jesus, with the road up to it featuring the stations of the cross. There were many pilgrims, and a church near the top of the mountain was full – for a Saturday morning mass, accompanied musically by a band of local men playing traditional Chinese instruments.

There’s a post script to this story. Six months ago, I had a conversation with a woman called to ordination here. She had met her husband while both were studying in Taiyuan. She graduated a year earlier than him, and went to live with his family – in Hequ. She was touched by the “very beautiful relationship” between her husband’s grandmother and grandfather – who had been a pastor – and by their Christian faith, which inspired also her own commitment to Jesus. She learned that the grandfather had been an assistant, following his conversion, to Evergreen Leaf, Peter Torjesen. Now, with her husband, she is ministering here, to Melburnians.

Another woman from China, recently ordained at St Paul’s Cathedral, recounted how during hard times her family had foraged for food, and she and her young son collapsed in comas after eating wild mushrooms. The mother of a colleague of her husband visited them in hospital, and said the best way she could help was by delivering the message of life: “We all have a God who loves us so much, he sent his son to die for us.” She had never before even thought of any religion, but took her son, as they convalesced, to a church close to the hospital. There under a large cross, she told me, she sat and cried. “I had the feeling I was finally home, even in an empty church. I put what little cash I had, my jewellery, in the offering box, and said I would devote the rest of my life to Jesus. I felt peace.”

On the outskirts of Beijing a few years ago, I walked up five flights of grubby stairs to the modest but impeccably neat flat of a university professor, to interview him about the cultural revolution on which he is an expert. His living room cum study was packed by books, but what arrested my attention was a huge print of a sad but solicitous Jesus staring straight at me from the only wall without bookshelves. A former Red Guard, he is now a keen Christian, a member of a house church, and we stayed talking for hours.

Five years ago I spent a week living among the Lisu, a culture of about 750,000 people, part-Tibetan part-Burmese, who live in mountainous north-west Yunnan province that morphs into the Himalayas, not far from where the English novelist James Hilton set his imagined Shangri-La. They live off the land, and are inventive farmers. Their original religion was shamanistic, but for the last 120 years they have been devoutly Christian, with a wooden church at the centre of every village. Only two missionaries, Englishman James Fraser, an eager musician, and his co-worker, Karen Burmese evangelist Ba Thaw, ever came to the area, arriving in 1910. Fraser died there of cerebral malaria. His memorial reads: How beautiful the feet of those who bring good news. The Lisu now have 720 churches but just 35 paid pastors. Their worship is congregationally-focused, with discussion sometimes about who will lead the next part of a service. They sing still today, the hymns translated into the Lisu language by Fraser – familiar to many here this evening – but unaccompanied and with traditional, breathtaking Lisu harmonies. They perform elaborate dance routines to Christian songs. The churches we visited, all built by village labour, were full. And among the worshippers here at Christ Church – and here this evening – is an architect from China who I discovered a couple of weeks ago, designed a beautiful church for the Lisu, which tragically, government officials later insisted on demolishing; another, all-too-typical story.

I met 26 year old marketing manager Wang Wei as he strained to get inside the packed Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in south Beijing one Maundy Thursday. He said: “Most of my friends talk endlessly about their new mobiles. But what I’ve bought mostly lets me down in the end. I started coming here because I’m interested in the music and the atmosphere and, especially, the sincerity.”

Yu Jie, one of China’s leading dissident writers, explained to me how he and other young intellectuals had become Christians, “forming a small family” – which they call The Ark – and that this religious belief is “embedded in my thinking and in my relationships, and that belief helps me to remove a sense of fear.”

Jan learned from another worshipper at our Beijing church, how he had been in a store where he noticed the assistant had a Chinese Bible open. He asked what she might be seeking in it. She said, “I was told there is love in this book.” He sent her to 1 Corinthians. Such conversations do happen here of course, but I’ll venture, not often in such an open and artless fashion.

The headmaster of a local school in Xuzhou refused to enrol the seven year old grandson of retired teacher Han Rufen, “Granny Han,” telling her that the boy’s IQ was just 39, so it was “meaningless to educate such a child, such a fool.” Gloom settled over the whole family. Then a psychologist friend visiting from Beijing, encouraged Granny Han to contact the local children’s hospital, which gave her a list of 30 similar children. She visited their homes, and found in several, the door unlocked and the children inside, tied to a table or chair while the parents both had to go out to work. With parents’ help, she set up a tiny special school and, being a Christian, asked fellow church members for prayer and advice. Through the church, contact was made with our worship community in Beijing, one of whose members, a Chinese American woman, Doreen, worked for UNESCO. She found funding to send teachers for training in Hong Kong. The school was extended, new bright classrooms built and equipment provided. But when the local education chief inspected it he pronounced it too good for such “subnormal” children, and said he would redesignate it to the city’s regular school system. Doreen witnessed this shocking setback, and as she returned by train to Beijing, prayed for some breakthrough, and then simply wept. A fellow traveller asked what was upsetting her. “I can do something about that,” he said, and picked up his mobile phone. It was the deputy mayor. The school was saved. Today, Han’s “fool” of a grandson is working in a factory and living in his own flat. And the school is becoming a model, copied in many other parts of China too.

My final story comes from St Paul’s Cathedral here. As a young IT worker, who had come from Pakistan, walked down the steps of Flinders Street station he decided on a whim to check out the old building opposite. A Muslim like almost all Pakistanis, he had never been inside a church. As he wandered round, a mid-day prayer was broadcast. The prayer cycle for that day included the Anglican diocese and people of Pakistan. Our friend was extremely surprised, and as he left mentioned this to a verger. They exchanged contacts, and in time the conversation included a priest too. Today, that IT worker is a priest of this diocese, about to take charge of a parish.

I could go on. A common thread is that Jesus works in our region through people’s authenticity and sincerity rather than through their smartness or charisma.

The best-known Christian leader I have met is Mother Teresa of Calcutta; we talked while she was establishing a home for her Missionaries of Charity in Hanuabada in Port Moresby. What was she was like, people ask, was she charismatic – but it’s hard to answer because her ego was so diminished that she was almost transparent. She focused in our conversation almost entirely on what I should be doing with my life, turning my questions to her into questions about me, just as Jesus so often did. She was simply in Christ, to use Paul’s term.  

And so, after such stories and encounters, how can I not believe, unlike Nick Cave, in an interventionist God. And – spoiler alert – he does acknowledge into his song that his beloved does so believe, and adds that if he could too, he might also see Christ walk “in grace and love.”

I have drawn three simple conclusions from seeing Jesus so vividly, when least expected.

First, if we are ever tempted to draw a line between ourselves and others, including people in strikingly different cultures in Asia and the Pacific, then – as has been said recently in this church – we will always, always, find Jesus on the other side of that line. We should have our eyes wide open to see him, ready to be surprised, wherever we go.

Second, people can encounter Jesus through us too, if we walk with him, if we live for others, if we simply live in him. Our job is to point others not to an ethical code or a system of thought or a group of like-minded people – but to Jesus.

Third, while many of us here this evening may have two or even three passports, we are all “citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives,” as Paul says in Philippians. We are fellow pilgrims, wherever we may come from and wherever we may travel in this world, all “one in Christ Jesus.”