A letter from John McCall in Taiwan
From a Rainy Beginning to Sun-splashed Mountains
I left in pouring rain, walking out of the seminary gate down the mountain to the bus stop. By the time the bus arrived, I was soaked. I took the crowded Friday afternoon bus to the train station where I took a train to a city south of Taipei. An aboriginal pastor, one of my former students, picked me up at the train station and we headed to the high mountains of central Taiwan.
When we got to the mountain village several hours later, it was still raining and it was late, so we drank some tea to warm up. It was cold up in the mountains and there is no heat inside Taiwanese homes. Thankfully, the bed where I slept had three thick comforters.
When we awoke early the next morning, the sun was beginning to spread its golden rays across the heavy clouds. It was a welcome sight. We had a simple breakfast and then the village youth arrived at the church to begin practice for the worship band. Five high mountain church youth groups were meeting together this morning, and I had been asked to preach at the renewal service. The other youth groups slowly began to arrive from even higher villages tucked into these rugged mountains. Most of these junior high and high school youth attend school in the plains and come home on the weekend to see their families and to attend church activities. The church is still the center of their lives. In their schools they are often a misunderstood minority, but back in their home churches they can be themselves and grow into the people God has created them to be.
The service started with music that rocked the rafters, and the youth were all on their feet clapping and singing with joy. Their faces have distinct features that let me know they were all from the same Tyral tribe. After the singing I stood to speak (for an hour!), and they stayed with me, listening intently, even laughing at my jokes (I don’t know why, but I tend to be funnier in Mandarin). I challenged them to become more like Christ in their families, in their schools, in their churches, and in the larger society. These are youth who face challenges of alcohol abuse in their families, discrimination at school, and difficult job prospects upon graduation. But they exude joy and, when they are together, they truly act as one big family. There is an innocence about them that is really refreshing.
After the service we met on the basketball court, where the church folks had prepared a wonderful lunch for all of us. After lunch they continued with sports contests and the pastor took me to another village, one that shares all work in common. They pool their resources and no one in the village is in want. I asked them how they were able to succeed in making communal decisions, and while they said it is not easy, they depend upon God to lead them. We took a beautiful hike through a bamboo forest looking out on steep and angular mountains that looked like a scene from a Chinese painting.
We drove back on the windy mountain road for training on Saturday evening for elders and deacons. While the youth met in the sanctuary for their weekly fellowship meeting, I challenged the elders and deacons in a cold Sunday school room to dream big about how God can use them to be spiritual leaders.
The next morning it was about 45 degrees inside, so it took courage to get out from under the comforters. Since there is no heat in the homes, many of the village folks have a room with a wood stove. Folks from the neighborhood gather in the winter in these rooms to talk and warm up after farming. We had breakfast in one of these rooms and it felt great to get warm.
Early Sunday morning church members arrived to mop the sanctuary floor or to clean the restrooms. There is no janitor, so folks rotate keeping the church clean. It was the first time that I began an indoor worship service wearing gloves. We sang the hymns in the tribal language and we prayed together out loud for the presidential and congressional elections that will be held next Saturday. We prayed for a family whose 45-year-old mother had just died leaving four young children. We gave thanks for a beautiful clear day.
I preached, but as happens so many times, I always leave these visits to the aboriginal villages encouraged by the faith of these mountain dwellers. Their lives are hard, but they live with an abiding joy that is not changed by the difficulties they encounter. After worship we gathered again on the basketball court to share lunch together. There were plates of flying squirrel meat, fresh vegetables from their farms, and hot chicken soup.
On the ride back down the mountain the pastor shared with me some of the challenges and joys of serving this congregation. It is always a privilege to come aside, to listen, to encourage, and to say, “I am proud of you!” His two junior high–aged sons were sleeping in the backseat. As they dropped me off at the station, I told the boys I would see them in three weeks when I speak at a tribal presbytery event for youth at the end of the month.
As I arrived back in the busy city of Taipei with folks jostling to get a seat on the subway, I smiled to think that just a few hours earlier I had been walking along a mountain road.
God is at work here, and it is a privilege to be a part of that work. I want to thank you for your part in being partners in mission.