Just recently I spent a week in China’s Hunan province, meeting Christians and visiting different churches. Very near the start of the trip, something happened that got me thinking about generosity. (Listen to a radio interview about my visit to China.)
We had briefly stopped in at one church, which was in the midst of a ‘revival meeting’. As we left the crowded church, one smiling woman made her way towards me, pushed something small into my hands and retreated. It was only once we’d got outside and back into our bus that I was able to see what it was: a simple but pretty pair of earrings, hastily wrapped in tissue.
I was so touched. I wanted to jump off the moving bus and search for her. I wondered why she had given me a gift. She didn’t know me and knew she’d never see me again. She also knew I’d never be able to thank her properly or repay her kindness in any way.
Throughout the week, we experienced similar instances of spontaneous generosity. Although they were poor, rural Christians would present us with bags bursting with freshly picked fruits and nuts from their fields. We were even given a live chicken in a box! Accepting these gifts was non negotiable, we were told by our guide: they were given from the heart, to make us feel welcome.
It worked. We felt warmly embraced. Not only did people give us gifts, but they generously, unreservedly shared their time and stories with us. And with generosity now on my radar, as I listened to their stories I noticed that it was generosity of one form or another that had brought many of them to faith, or that they were giving generously of themselves in their service to God.
Meng Xiu Ying told us that that when she fell very ill 20 years ago, she made the difficult journey on foot to reach a mountain church because she’d heard that Christians helped those in need of healing. She did, indeed, find warmth and friendship there, and people who prayed for her. She got better and very soon became a Christian. But that’s not where the story ended. She said that she felt such joy in her new faith that she couldn’t bear to keep it to herself! When she was well enough, this simple farmer started spending every spare minute of her time walking from house to house to share the Gospel. Today, thanks to this generous outpouring of her faith, there are 1,000 Christians and several churches in the valley.
There are so many stories like this in China. I remember hearing similar ones during a previous visit to several provinces four years ago. Someone is healed through prayer and in time there is a thriving community of Christians actively sharing their faith with others. It’s almost like a ‘pay it forward’ system. Without a doubt, these acts of care and generosity are changing people’s lives and helping to grow the Church in China, person by person.
I returned home to the UK feeling personally challenged. The trip has prompted me to ask myself the question: How can I live my life more generously in order to serve God and draw people in our increasingly cynical culture to him?
I believe that in the midst of growing secularisation and an overwhelming consumerism, people are still searching for authentic connections, for relationships that offer genuine warmth and love. If we can surprise people with spontaneous, unexpected acts of generosity, or be attentive and ready to give our time to serve those who need help, I believe that it will open the door for God to do amazing things.
I’ll end by sharing this powerful Prayer for Generosity by St Ignatius of Loyola:
Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.