The Khadij family were an absolute pleasure to have met. Maround and Noha have four beautiful children, Joseph the Accountant, Fedi the Pharmacist, Charlie the Engineer and Georgette the Midwife. I enjoyed my conversations with the whole family, but Georgette captured my heart. At 20 years old, this young woman is what gives me faith in humanity. We discussed at length the social issues arising from nearly two million refugees in an already resource-poor country, we discussed the differences but also the similarities between faiths. Most incredibly we discussed the human reflex to judge. Certain cultures have certain characteristics. As a majority, the Aussies drink beer, the Spanish drink lots of red wine, and the Americans do everything BIG. But what we tend to do is stereotype or generalise people because of their faith. We chatted about this in relation to a program she was involved in and little did I know she contemplated our thoughts for days. When I left, she said, “You’re right, we should not generalise and we should accept each person as an individual,” and she thanked me for helping her realise that. What? I thought this woman had broadened my eyes with her open heart and honest and frank views on life. It just goes to show that real conversations with people, where you’re honest and true, can have an impact on you or on them. I am thankful to have met this wise young woman whose contribution to her country and this world I’m sure will not go unnoticed as the compassion in her heart can only be a blessing for all humanity.
Lebanon! What an incredible country. My first few days in Beirut was spent enjoying the famous Lebanese hospitality, exploring the historical sites and eating! I’m beginning to think this project should be called ‘The Gluttonous Pilgrim’. I’m enjoying the food and people just as much as the religious contexts that I find in every destination. There goes the yoga body! It is a Middle Eastern country with a European vibe. They say it is the Paris of the east. Walking through downtown Beirut, I can see why.
History is everywhere you turn in Lebanon, from the Garden of Forgiveness in Beirut sandwiched between the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque and the St George Maronite Church ruins that are centuries old. The history is also evident at the sites in Jbeil (also known as Byblos) and Baalbek – the place of one of the world’s largest Roman ruins.
Down in the valley near the Syrian border is Baalbek, an almighty display of Roman grandeur, layers upon layers of civilisations, religion and faith threaded through each one. Here the Romans built temples dedicate to Venus – God of Love, Bacchus – God of Wine and Jupiter -God of Sky. A Triad of Gods at that time. Three – there’s that number again, so prevalent in so many faiths. I’ll be investigating that further. The temple of Bacchus was recently restored and is host to opera festivals. The expansive interior was once used for ceremony: a reminder of the rituals of the day. Then when the Byzantines moved in the temples were converted to cathedrals and churches for prayer and finally the Omayadd Empire converted sites to mosques and citadels.
Byblos and Anjar are also steeped in religious history. Wherever ruins are found, whether they be theatres, houses, stables, stores or fortresses, always close by is the house of worship, the temples of Gods and Goddesses, cathedrals or mosques. In Anjar there is evidence of a private mosque for the prince who came to Lebanon during the Omayyad era, the first Islamic rulers. Even in Byblos that dates back six thousand years to the Phoenicians, Temples for the God of War, the God of Love and Dance, among others.
If you want to explore the historical sites in Lebanon I highly recommend it. I was blown away by the construction and intricate details in the stone and marble buildings here. Our guide Natasha, an archaeologist, brought the stories to life through her passion for the past and jovial commentary on the quality of restoration works.
In modern times religion is highly debated; part of the reason I’m on this trip is to understand organised religions’ role in this modern world. One thing that has struck me about my trip to Lebanon is that all religions are here to stay. The sustainability of faith through war, evolution, progress and everything else the world throws at us is undeniable. Religion and faith survives. It is the centre of our ancestry and it shapes our future, whether we like it or not.
One theme that appeared at every site was cemented when I visited Tyre in the south where the necropolis of hundreds of people was discovered. And that is the acceptance of different religions is the centre of Lebanon’s culture. In Tyre, there is a Christian cemetery next door to a Muslim burial site, separated by a dividing wall. The echo of the call to prayer sounds, as the Maronite Church bell’s chime. My Muslim driver holds my hand through the ice so I can reach the hermitage of St Charbel to pray. The doors are open to their neighbours in Palestine and Syria, regardless of religion. Sure that situation brings its challenges for society and resources but the ‘honour thy neighbour’ principal is there. Pope John Paul II said, “Lebanon is more than a country. It is a message of freedom and an example of pluralism for the East and West”. I think he’s right .
Yours in Faith,
The Unlikely Pilgrim
I’m left feeling a little confused. I’ve travelled the north and south of China and chatted to anyone who would listen and I’ve found three conflicting arguments.
- Yes, of course you can practice religion in China. It’s just not encouraged. And if you are a communist party member you can’t.
- No. You are not allowed to practice religion in China unless you have a foreign passport.
- You can practice religion but a lot of Chinese people don’t really believe; they just go for luck. Like the temple at New Year. What?
There is a rich history of diverse religion in China. I have explored mosques, churches, temples and synagogues. But if I’m honest most were somewhat lacking in that feeling of closeness to God that I usually find in places of worship. For the most part they were beautiful buildings filled with people. But they were tourists, not faithfuls. Historical buildings to be admired for their architecture, not houses of God. Restored and respected, but not revered. Some of which you can’t even enter. Empty, dormant, just a shell of a past time gone by.
In Harbin the soullessness of a gorgeous historical Russian church broke my heart. The only association with God in this incredible place was an extraordinary last supper painting at the front, where I imagine the altar lay many years ago. Not a pew in sight; a history of Harbin adorned the walls and that’s all. It was filled to the brim with Chinese tourists taking selfies and skimming past the information on the walls. It was a tick in the box sight to see whilst in town for the annual ice festival. At least that’s what it felt like. Also in Harbin I found a spectacular refurbished synagogue which is now a Jewish museum, here at least relics of the faith that should be running through the halls could be found.
Although, the most perplexing church was the fabulous Gothic Cathedral in Shanghai. There was a Christian book store at the side but the building is a not allowed to be entered and the annex is a restaurant and function centre. The ladies in the book store selling bibles said there is no service here… ever. Odd, so no service, but come and buy a bible?
With a population of over 1.4 billion people the 50-odd locals I spoke to in two weeks is hardly an accurate representation, but I get the feeling there is two camps. The faithful who find a way, and the others who see religion as a history lesson or something the west does, not a reality in China. Let’s ignore the fact that it’s a Buddhist nation for now and that temples filled with monks and worshippers are plentiful.
China. It’s a strange place and the mystery of religion continues as I attended Chinese New Year celebrations in the Jina’ng Temple. To be by my side at midnight in the temple you would be rest assured faith is alive and well in this great land. A sea of thousands of heads bowed, hands in prayer, awaiting the New Year to commence. On the other hand if you walked the empty halls of churches in Beijing you’d perhaps find yourself saddened by the gaping hole of faith in such iconic buildings.
To me places of worship of any denomination command a certain respect. They provide a community vibe, one of inclusion, sanctuary and service. It is with dedication and devotion that people invest time, money and effort into these places. They are holy buildings of faith where the people can gather, united and give thanks to the Lord or pray for others, the world, and for peace.
I did find mosques, churches and temples with active services of not only expats but of real locals and was invited to tea by a Daoist leader in Harbin. In saying that, I pray more often than not in my house or my head, or when I’m walking I chat to God. So it begs the question. Is religion really reliant on a building? I know faith is not. Faith is in the heart of everyone. There is definitely faith in the hearts and minds of the Chinese. How many and how true, who knows?
Yet, I still find myself called to pray for China. Is that arrogant of me? Is it superior to feel sad for people who are restricted in faith? I claim to be all accepting but to be hidden or confused about whether or not you can choose and practice a faith whichever you like, to me is disappointing.
So that was China. Back to the Middle East – Lebanon here I come!
Yours in faith,
The Unlikely Pilgrim
Harbin is a town in the Heilongjiang province in China all the way north, bordering Mongolia and Russia. A place I had never heard of until I came to China and the uni girls in Shanghai suggested I check out the annual ice festival. Every year thousands of domestic and international tourists flock to see the spectacular Harbin International Ice & Snow Festival. Where entire roundabouts are converted to ice brick palaces complete with lights and the footpaths in the main square have ice sculptures and snow creations. Even hotel lobbies have incredible creations on display.
There are several venues hosting the festival activities and I decided to head to the biggest and best on offer at Ice and Snow World. As the name suggests, it’s freezing! I had pocket warmers in my shoes, gloves and even on the back of my phone to stop it from shutting down. My fellow ‘single rider’ Da Win Sho wandered the park with me, sipping tea and admiring ballerinas carved from ice, castles, a giant snow rooster on the hill and even ice slides (which I skipped as I already couldn’t feel my legs). This is definitely worth a look if you are in this part of the world in January or February, but rug up as minus 20 is not for the feint hearted and this Aussie certainly was feeling it. In fact the flu set in pretty soon after I arrived and lingered until I hit the moderate temperatures of Hong Kong almost a week later.
Of course, this trip was not about sightseeing and tourist spots so unless there was an interesting religious history it was a no go. Well I don’t think I could have found a more religiously diverse history in all of China. Being so close to Russia the people of Harbin have Jewish and Russian Orthodox history, combined with the Temples for Confucius, Daoism and Buddhism. They also have some of the most beautiful church buildings I’ve seen in China. The food is also worth a mention. Russian sausage on a stick sold next to dumplings and non-alcoholic German beer anyone ?
I set out to explore these places; to talk to the people and discover the religious tapestry. What I found was perplexing and disheartening for a faithful like me. Churches, built with devotion and dedication to the Lord, were empty shells. A magnificent synagogue stood proudly in the city centre which was converted to a museum. There were café lined streets and restaurants with the Star of David in the windows; the only marking reminiscent of the rich Jewish community that used to call this place home. The architecture and grand design of these buildings were there to be appreciated and admired, for a price, with your tourist tickets. Many buildings seemed to be visited to snap a selfie in between trips to the ice displays. I guess a tourist at the Vatican or York Minster is the same. It’s not necessarily a pilgrimage for everyone. Maybe it’s just pretty to see if you’re in town, yet it left me heavy hearted.
What happened here? Clearly the limitations put in place by the regime affected these organisations, but I was surprised to see the soullessness echoing still today. I did find an operational mosque which was grand and beautiful. I was not able to go in but I was told that the Islamic community is alive and well in Harbin. My hosts and I continued to visit empty temples, boarded up churches and just when I thought all was lost we stumbled across the Harbin Nanang Christian Church and a service was getting ready to begin. Thank the Lord! A church full of locals, who were devoted and practicing their faith. The ladies chatted to us and remined me that Jesus loves me, the only English sentence they knew. Cute!
In this church the service was not due to start for another hour yet the congregation arrived early to interact with each other, read the bible quietly and then out loud in a chorus prior to the service. I noticed it was a very female led congregation with the odd scattering of a husband or son among the pews.
We also dropped into a Daoist temple not on the list but a must see, said my host. This small unassuming local temple housed a small shrine, three prayer stools, a table with information and incense. The Daoshi was happy to chat to me and gave me a gift to remember my time there. He explained to me Ying and Yang, reminding me of the importance of balance in my life and therefore the world.
Three days in Harbin – seven churches, four temples two mosques and a synagogue. Not to mention the Confucius temples that are supported by the government but not on the list of sanctioned religions. Harbin, rich in history but is it rich in faith? I’m not sure. China continues to confuse me as to whether religion is free or merely present? I’m not an investigative journalist, but what I do know is that people of all faiths have embraced me in China, so that has to stand for something.
Yours in Faith,
The Unlikely Pilgrim
Courageous, determined, faithful and strong. That is Nikki! I met this incredible woman as she led us in prayer at the Abundant Grace International Fellowship (AGIF) women’s fellowship group in Shanghai last month. She was sharing with us her journey of discovering that she had the cursed BRCA gene. She described the torment she experienced with treatment, feelings of isolation, fear and how through her faith she survived a double mastectomy, full hysterectomy, chemotherapy and everything that the medical world could throw at her and this awful genetic mutation. Her words were so sincere and true as a she explained her resolve to see this knowledge as a gift and not a curse. Not only did it test her health, her commitment to God, but it tested her marriage, her womanhood and sometimes what felt like her sanity. The room was full of tearful ladies hanging onto her every word and rightly so. Through adversity we either cling to our faith or feel abandoned by it. I was so thankful to be in this room hearing the testimony flow from Nikki’s heart and soul. Her words were shared to offer hope, encouragement and faith to the sisters in the room, of which I had politely gate crashed. Nikki, you are amazing and I’m so blessed to have met you. God, bless you and your heart.
China is historically a Buddhist nation with thousands of temples, some dating back more than 1700 years. Buddhism is a practice in which the follower observes a series of teachings of Buddha, not a God but a man who lived. Buddhists do not believe in a divine God or Supreme Being, although it has been said that as Buddhism is a practice you can be a follower of Christ or God (or whoever) and still be a Buddhist . I like this about Buddhism, the openness and acceptance of all religions and inclusion of humanity and its right to choose. Globally, there are more than 480 million followers, predominantly in Asia. Buddhist centres, principals and congregations can be found all over the world, making Buddhism the fourth largest religion in the world, after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism .
Check out Core of Buddhism from religioustolerance.org. This is one of my favourite references of Buddhism, of course there are so many out there, but this one is so simple. (The full link is below.)
- Sila: Virtue, good conduct, morality. This is based on two fundamental principles:
- The principle of equality: that all living entities are equal.
- The principle of reciprocity: This is the Golden Rule in Christianity – to do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you. It is found in all major religions.
- Samadhi: Concentration, meditation, mental development. Developing one’s mind is the path to wisdom which in turn leads to personal freedom. Mental development also strengthens and controls our mind; this helps us maintain good conduct.
- Prajna: Discernment, insight, wisdom, enlightenment. This is the real heart of Buddhism. Wisdom will emerge if your mind is pure and calm.
Here in China I am confused with the terminology used by the Chinese people I meet. They come in droves to the temples to pay their respects and wish for good luck. Is that not the same as honouring God, and praying for blessings? The word luck and wish are used a lot in my conversations with the locals. I spoke to a lady in the Hanshan temple in Suzhou and asked if the people who were praying were all Buddhists. Her reply surprised me, “Probably not. They are just here for good luck because it is the New Year.” Interesting. So, it begs the question – who is granting the good luck? Or who are they asking?
LUCK – a force that brings good fortune or adversity
BLESSING – a beneficial thing for which one is grateful
WISH – a desire or hope for something to happen
PRAYER – an earnest hope or wish
I have visited 17 temples in China: in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Harbin, Suzhou and Beijing. The theme is the same. A symbolic brazier is located in the courtyard, with a bell tower and drum tower normally opposite each other. Large gorgeous gold Buddhas are housed in a series of halls throughout the often-expansive grounds and incense is everywhere you turn. People come and kneel before the statues and three seems to be the magic number. Three bows of the head, three sticks of incense, and three times raising your hands in prayer. I got chatting with a monk at the magnificent Lin Ying temple in Hangzhou. Through his Mandarin, my Aussie English and Google translate, we discussed the crowded forecourt and masses of people pouring in and out of the temple walls in a constant stream, in the half hour we sat and chatted. His view as well, is that not everyone is a Buddhist. This illusion of luck if you attend the temple at New Year and pay your respects, and then your year will be filled with happiness (blessings?). He had been a monk for 15 years and was committed to his faith, but reminded me that the teachings of Buddha do not include the reverence of a Supreme Being. I asked again, who is supplying the luck? He smiled and said that our actions supply our own luck . If you act with kindness and goodwill, then that is what you will receive in return. So is Buddhism ‘The Secret’?
I’m left intrigued to this faith and its followers. I will journey to Tibet, Burma, Thailand and Japan to further explore this ancient tradition. As far as China is concerned, religion may be restricted but Buddhism is everywhere you turn; there are street sellers offering Buddhas and incense on every corner. There is a multitude of temples in their grandeur on offer in every town and a history dating back centuries.
Peace to all creatures – what could possibly be wrong with that?
Yours in Faith,
The Unlikely Pilgrim
I’ve arrived. It was a rather chilly reception when I landed in China. With two degrees flashing on my watch I set off to the AirBnB, with my backpack strapped on. Another warm welcome greeted me and a delicious dinner was prepared by my hosts, Sophia and Haoran. I was so curious about the government restrictions, my hosts happily explained their view on religion in China over dinner. This couple of self-confessed ‘culturally Buddhists’ explained that religion is possible in Shanghai and their mother dutifully attended temple regularly. It’s no problem to attend church, they said. Okay, I thought, this will be easy.
So I set off to explore. I had two agendas in Shanghai. Operation Brazilian Visa (a whole separate post needed for that), and find people of faith in Shanghai, without getting into trouble. My trip was very loosely planned; mostly just to fly by the seat of my pants was the plan. Which was actually how I ended up in Shanghai. My sister-in-law’s Finnish cousin, Emma , who I only met on Christmas Day, is studying there so she offered a bed in her university dorms. Why not?
So using Sanda University Halls of Residence as a base, and after getting past the very staunch and uncooperative guard that is, I explored that massive metropolis, and in my Googling I discovered an InterNations event. It was there I met Flora. Flora was a gorgeous Chinese woman who had lived in the US for many years. We shared our stories and she told me how she had come to know Jesus through her friends in the US and that through a difficult time in her life she decided to see what all the fuss was about. She candidly relayed the intimate details of her life’s trials and nonchalantly mentioned how kind church people were. A notion I’m pleased to agree with, reminding me of a comment made by one of my mates in Bali who I took to a church event once. “Christians. Always so bloody nice aren’t they.” (Yes Matt, they are!). What was interesting about Flora was that she was desperate to find a church but had been deterred by all the regulations stating as a Chinese passport holder she could not attend. What? So rightfully or not I invited her to the church I had attended earlier in the week. She went and has found home there, one email is all it took. I wondered how long she had been searching for a church family?
I explored temples and churches mainly in Shanghai and attended an incredible ‘women in faith’ fellowship group. Women from all over the world met to discuss God and share their faith. I was welcomed with open arms and the host Carolina from Costa Rica sparked my interest in the turtle program there. (I might just do that, it’s been nagging on my heart for over a decade). About 20 women huddled in and we were led by a wonderful woman whose testimony was inspiring and of course there was cake. I questioned the restrictions on Chinese participation and one lady said, “I heard that if the government came you better have a foreign passport, but I don’t ask questions and there are definitely Chinese locals in the congregation.” Confusing. The women prayed for my journey and gave me encouragement and wisdom. I was so happy to have met these ladies and will be sure to drop in on some more fellowship groups.
Lastly was Moses, now he never said he was faithful and he may not be. But, his name was why I picked his AirBnB for New Year. What I liked about Moses was his open attitude, we discussed religion and he was in the conservative camp. Maybe if you want to pray you can but it’s not encouraged. He did mention with the beauty of VPN in China now the access to ‘real’ information is easier. I asked him how he got his name and he said in English class in high school they chose English names. He had heard the story of Exodus and thought, “I want to be a leader and with a name like Moses maybe I will be.” A simple idea and maybe it just made sense to a 14 year old boy. Or maybe it is like the story of Abraham – Genesis 17:5. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.
Moses certainly had the presence of a leader in my eyes.
I’m yet to discuss the ins and outs of Buddhism with a monk but I’m heading to a town with a famous temple so that might be my chance.
Yours in Faith,
The Unlikely Pilgrim