As the environment changes and restrictions loosen, many Chinese Christians are turning their attention to the issue of how to be salt and light in their communities. This article, published on the popular Christian site Kuanye Zhi Sheng ("Voice in the Wilderness") is about a local ministry in southern China that is reaching out to care for some of China's "left-behind children," children who are left behind in villages and small towns when their parents go to the cities to work.
The full title of the article is Being Salt and Light in the World: A Visit to the "Little Lamb Children's Home." The author is Luo Boxue.
While I was in Wenzhou, I got to know a brother named Wu. We ended up talking about how the huge group of left-behind children in China, at least 58 million, has already become a major social problem. Left-behind children, according to psychologists, are the most vulnerable members of society, yet they haven't received enough attention from society. Is there something we, as young Christians called by God, can do to help them? How many churches and Christians can claim to be really walking the walk, doing something about it, and giving attention to this powerless group of people?
Dwelling on this question for the next few days we learned about the situation of left-behind children by talking to Christian peasants who had come to Wenzhou to work. As soon as we mentioned those children who had been left behind to take care of the home, we could literally see the angst in their hearts and the helpless expressions on their faces. One Christian peasant worker, with tears in his eyes, talked about the son he had left behind in his hometown for an extended period of time. Since he had seldom known the company of his parents, he developed psychological problems and ran away from home. I can still picture that man's glistening teardrops. The way I see it, each of those children is just one of countless lost lambs who cannot find their shepherd.
"How are the children? Is everything well with them? On this long road, who is there to keep them company?" I can still hear this song, written by Sister Xiao Min, in my ears.
When we left, all of the brothers prayed together. I truly believe that God gave us love and put this burden on our hearts.A year later, I received a message from Brother Wu. He had moved to a remote village on Hainan Island to become a teacher at the "Little Lamb Home for Children," a school for left-behind children. I talked to Brother Wu via QQ video chat. Behind him, I saw dozens of little children sleeping, children who been left-behind children when their parents went to the city to find work. Brother Wu connected me with Ms. Sun, the founder of the school. Below is my interview with her.
Note: Luo is the interviewer, Sun is the interviewee.
Luo: What idea, vision, or call, led you to invest yourself in the education of left-behind children?
Sun: I am deeply convinced that quality education can change a person's life and instill a sense of value. In China, these left-behind children have already become a major social problem, yet they haven't received enough attention from society and parents. People often say that children are like flowers, representing the hope of a nation, and they're also the future of the church. These flowers, without the love and protection of their parents, have withered before their time. When Christians invest in children, they're doing tomorrow's work today. I've always had a great love for children, and I've been involved in education for more than 10 years, since 1995. So, you could say that education is what I enjoy most, and it is also the responsibility God has given me.
After [the Sichuan earthquake on] May 12, 2008, watching the news, seeing the children who had been injured, I cried a lot, and felt an urge to go help those needy children. So I travelled from Guangzhou to Sichuan. On June 1, the first "tent kindergarten" was established, "Little Lamb Home for Children," in the town of Leigu, Beichuan County. It could be considered "educational rescue" for the kids. This continued until July 2011, when the contract with the local government expired. The teaching team had no choice but to leave the disaster zone, leaving behind a married couple to continue leading the "Little Lamb Church" established after the earthquake.
Having been shaped by the three years working in the disaster zone, the team of "Little Lamb Home for Children" Christian volunteer teachers, coming from more than 20 campus groups all over China, had already become a very cohesive group. Many of them didn't want the team to break up, and didn't want to part ways. So we moved to Hainan Island, home of picturesque landscapes but also an extremely neglected educational system. We started educating the left-behind children in the rural areas, opening a school in the remote countryside, loving the left-behind children with Christian love. We hope that more churches and Christian college graduates will turn their attention to the large numbers of long-overlooked children.
Luo: In your own experience, what problems exist among China's left-behind children?
Sun: We know that having parents around is very important for a child's development. A child's process of development can't be reversed. If a parent doesn't have time to be with his child until the child is already grown up, it's already too late; they don't need their parents then. The tragic thing is that the need to survive drives many Chinese peasant parents to the cities to find work. In addition, since they aren't registered residents of the cities, and they can't afford expensive tuition for the city schools, they're forced to cruelly leave their children behind in the countryside. These children are separated from their parents for extended periods of time, cared for by their grandparents or other relatives. This is the origin of the problem of left-behind children. Being raised by their grandparents, they don't get enough affection or the love and care they need. This bothers the children deep down, and causes serious problems as they grow up.
Since these children aren't supervised by or cared for by their parents for long periods of time, some of them become incompetent "problem teenagers." Some of them have fragile psyches and either commit suicide or engage in criminal activity. Others just never feel safe - boys are often abducted and sold; girls are sexually violated. Still others are injured in accidents. According to statistics, of the more than 80,000 children, ages 14 and under, who die each year in China due to accidental causes, 80% of them are left-behind children in the countryside. This is very shocking!
An even bigger problem is that these children have never received enough love, and have gradually been contaminated by the philosophy of struggle and the wolf culture so highly esteemed in China. Once they eventually enter society, they encounter many hidden dangers. Therefore, the care of left-behind children must be superior to the current Chinese educational model. The atheist educational model must be abandoned, and we should help the children develop accurate worldviews and attitudes toward life, building upon the value system of the Bible. In this way, we can completely change the value orientation of the left-behind children. This is a mission of utmost importance to the church.
Luo: What pressures were there in the establishment of your school for left-behind children? For example, how did you find qualified teachers, equipment, funding, and venues?
Sun: Of course, our school for left-behind children faces many challenges. The biggest challenge is the extreme lack of Christian teachers who have the vision and burden to teach left-behind children. We also have many financial needs. These children don't receive any financial subsidies, and their families are very poor. Although the tuition is only 300+ RMB per semester (extremely inexpensive compared with city schools), it is still a huge financial commitment for parents who work temporary jobs in cities and have extremely low incomes.
Furthermore, since these left-behind children haven't experienced their parents' love or care for a long time, they haven't developed good study or life habits. They require several times the amount of love and patience that normal children need. Teachers inevitably begin to feel overworked. So we often feel like we don't have enough staff. Futhermore, since the school is in a remote village with limited access to information or transportation the teachers must live in the village long-term. As a result, they start to feel culturally out-of-touch, which is disturbing to young teachers. Finally, because the school's income is so low, it has trouble making ends meet; this means it can't provide the teachers with higher salaries. The reality is a far-cry from the ideal situation, and teachers' family members often don't support or understand the teachers' decision to work there. These challenges combine to make a very transient team of teachers at our school for left-behind children.
Of course, in order to make up for these weaknesses, we try to give the teachers opportunities to enrich their cultural lives in their spare time. We encourage them, enhance the communication of the vision, do team training, and care for the marriage of the older teachers. We also often invite outside professionals to come and give the teachers professional training, spiritual training, and counseling. All in all, there are many challenges and difficulties, but we believe God will continue to guide us step by step.
Luo: You just mentioned that most of these children, being raised by their grandparents, have a different psychological state, making them either very self-centered or hard to discipline. How do you guide and help these children? Can you give us some specific examples, and talk about the stories of some typical children?
Sun: Sure. The most important element of education is love. What these children are lacking is love, and what they need most is also love. Education is essentially one life influencing another, educating through love.
What we emphasize most in our education is the molding of a child's character. Liu Zhixiong once said, "Excellence is developed through training." Because these children's parents havent fulfilled their roles, our teachers must have the hearts of mothers and fathers, being both teachers and parents. To young teachers born in the 80s and 90s, this is very difficult!
In addition, we use mass education concepts in every part of daily life, teaching students how to perform all sorts of small tasks, learning how to take care of themselves and others, learning how to survive, and instilling in them the idea that work can be fun. They must learn how to be a person before they can learn academic subjects.
During holidays, we will invite college student volunteers to come to the school to hold various kinds of camps. During this past winter, we invited Christian students from the Chengdu Institute of Physical Education to hold a camp entitled, "I'm very unique." Through playing games and learning stories, they taught the children about the uniqueness of each individual - each person is God's masterpiece. The children started to gain some self-confidence, overcoming their feelings of inferiority, and learn to appreciate and accept themselves.
In God's eyes, every child is one-of-a-kind. These left-behind children have faced one problem after another, and they often require a lot of love, patience, wisdom, and self-sacrifice. But they also need proper guidance, along with time and space to mature. This is something valuable and worth doing.
Last semester, the school took in a boy. When he arrived at the school, he completely ignored what the teachers said, and he often got into fights. He was one of the older boys in his class, and he often bullied other students. He was very rebellious, wouldn't listen to the teacher, misbehaved, and was often disciplined by the teachers. Afterwards, the teacher discovered that the boy would sometimes hide in a corner and cry. The teacher had a heart-to-heart talk with him, became his friend, comforted him, and gave him hugs. The teacher slowly learned the rest of the story: the boy's parents work in Zhuhai, and only come home for Chinese New Year. Since they were never around, he really missed them. He was raised by some relatives, but was often ignored by the adults. On the outside, he looked like a rebellious kid; in the inside, he was very weak, just wanting to be cared for and loved. He was a very emotional boy, with a high level of emotional intelligence. Very soon, he began to willingly share his heart with his teacher, and he became a much better student. The teacher taught him how to make friends with the other students, helping him pass along the love he received from his teacher to others. Now he is a cheerful child, and he is getting much better at relating to other people. His family is thrilled by his transformation. His family even called the school to express their gratitude to the teacher.
And there's another girl, who begged her parents to send her to our school after attending our summer camp in August 2011. We later realized that her personality was more like a boy's; she often contradicted the teacher quarreled with her grandparents while at home. When the head teacher had a talk with her, bringing up this problem, she was so upset that she cried. The teacher told her that she needed to obey people who are older than her, since this is God's command. She became more and more gentle, and began to behave more and more like a girl.
Below are excerpts from two journal entries written by this teacher:
- Two nights ago, I had the night shift after Sunday school. After everyone fell asleep, one girl said she had a stomachache. Actually, she just wanted attention from her teacher. Almost every day, if it isn't a headache or a stomachache, it's something else. If we don't pay attention to her, she'll sob all night! So, I had no choice but to massage her stomach, rub a bit of medicinal oil on her, and tuck her in; then she went to sleep obediently. Another little girl didnt pay attention to hygiene, so she got lice. I had to help her wash her hair with vinegar to get rid of the lice every day. These trivial jobs make me really exhausted. How I wish I could have a long vacation, to enjoy a wonderful night of sleep. How wonderful that would be!
- Tonight I taught a second grade lesson called "The little deer and the rose." I used a withering rose as a prop, one that the school had given the female teachers for Valentines Day. The leaves and some petals looked like they were almost dried-up. I had considered for a long time whether or not I should make a new rose out of paper. I never expected that when I brought the rose out from behind the book, the children would all excitedly cry out, "Wow!" They even began to chatter about whether it was a real rose or not. I was shocked by their enthusiastic reaction - it was just a withering rose! After class, they all rushed to be first to the teaching podium. I gave each kid a petal, and each one treated the petal like a treasure, carrying it in his/her hands
Because I'd always lived in a city, the materialistic world had already made me numb. A rose couldn't excite me. I even wanted to throw away the withering rose. Yet what I would throw away, the village children regarded as priceless. The pure, innocent looks in their eyes and their unpolluted spirits were more beautiful than even fresh roses! I have been too polluted by the world, and my heart is extremely deficient. But in the hearts of these children, I'm as precious as that withering rose. Our Lord Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it" (Mark 10:15).
So, I want to plant this rose, and make a garden in the beautiful hearts of these children..
Luo: So, how exactly do you help families in need? In other words, what types of families are you willing to help?Sun: We have established an educational fund, encouraging willing Christians to give money to poor and large families for tuition and living expenses. Recently, we've begun to help some minority children in Yunnan Province, covering all of their tuition and living expenses.
The Chinese church's participation in public charity has been minimal, long influenced by the thinking that stresses the dichotomy between the holy and the secular, thinking that the core of Christian faith is the salvation of individual souls. Concern for the real needs of the suffering masses is seen as the "social Gospel," and has even been labeled "unspiritual." Yet we see in the Bible that Jesus Christ teaches us to be salt and light (see Mt. 5:13-16), using our actions to influence and bless society. This will cause Christ's Gospel to cover all levels of individual existence, preparing people to receive the Gospel.
Luo: What are your expectations for the future? The children at your school are in a transitional stage of development. Are you going to continue to help them in practical ways like helping them get into schools and get jobs?
Sun: We hope that these children will become Christians; that they'll become the Lord's children. We hope that when they grow up, more of them will participate in ministries of education and missions.. Our dream is that our school will become a base for training people to be missionary teachers. Naturally, up to this point, we're still in the beginning stage. Our hope for the current stage is to call upon more churches, evangelistic organizations, and individual Christians to share the burden with us to engage in our work with China's left-behind children through our meager strength.
Luo: What do the children's parents think of your work?
Sun: Parents have been very affirming of our work, and they're happiest about the big changes in their children's characters and behavior. They notice that their children are much more cheerful after having been at our school, and they've learned how to interact with their younger siblings and to be considerate toward their parents. They hope that our school will continue, no matter what difficulties we will face, and that we'll become better and better.
What I didn't expect is that sometimes, when we've been discouraged, it's the parents who have encouraged us. With the parents' trust and support, they've encouraged their other relatives to send their children to our school. In just one year, our school already has 230 students, some students even traveling dozens of kilometers by train from Lingshui County.We were especially touched by our driver, a local man, whom we had hired to drive our school bus. He was originally quite opposed to Christianity, but upon seeing the love that our Christian teachers poured out on our students, he became full of admiration. He went all around advertising on behalf of our school, saying all sorts of good things about Christians, helping a lot of parents get over their opposition to Christians.
Luo: Can we talk about the curriculum you use? How much does religion affect the education you provide?
Sun: We've written our own curriculum, "A Child's Moral Character Curriculum." For Chinese, we use the rhyming method of learning characters. For English, we use phonics to teach pronunciation. We also give the Christian students a daily lesson from the "effective teaching" Bible curriculum. We teach students according to the Christian ideas of education. Our school motto is: "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it" (Prov. 22:6).
The essence of education is life education. Our teachers are Christians. Only Christ's life can influence our lives. Our teachers spread the Gospel through the platform of education, the parents school, and visiting parents in the villages. Our goal is that wherever the influence of our school reaches, the church will spread. We'll use what Dr. Xiaolian Peng called the school and church integration model for running our school.
At the same time, we hope that teachers here wont consider it only a job, but rather see it as a type of ministry; that while theyre serving, theyll also experience spiritual growth; that children at our school wont gain knowledge only, but twill grow in favor with God and men.
(Introduction of the Interviewee)
Angelina Sun is the supervisor of the Wisdom Heart Education Organization and the founder of the Moral Character Institute. She is also the director of the China Home-schooling Alliance.
Ms. Sun has extensive experience in child health care and clinical experience in nursing. She loves preschool education, and began working on the front lines of preschool education in 1995. She is an experienced professional in preschool education. In school and classroom management, she has her unique conception. She also has much experience in working with parents and as a supervisor. She's gifted in kindergarten management and training teachers and parents. Her main focus is in Christian education, marriage and family study, and child character education.
Ms. Sun loves to pioneer new ideas, devoting herself to the development of all types of preschool curriculum, striving to link Chinese education with education around the world. She also helps Christian parents who prefer to home-school their children. She is a person of love, whom all the young children affectionately call "Principal Mama," and the parents all consider her as their "dear older sister."
Original article: 做世上的光与盐——“小羊儿童之家”访谈
Image source: school for migrant children, by Hi Tricia!, via Flickr
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