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Devotion from Tonya Tolson, Diversity Committee Chair (July 28)

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” 2 Corinthians, 3: 17

When I was twenty years old and a junior in college, I won a study-abroad scholarship to learn Mandarin Chinese at the Taiwan Normal University in Taipei.

It was a brave endeavor, because I knew not a stich of Mandarin.  One of the gifts of youth is one’s audacity for risk and adventures.

The journey took 27 hours, flying on a 747 jumbo-jet from Philadelphia to Chicago, Los Angeles, and stopping in Okinawa Japan for a layover, before heading south to Taiwan.

While sitting in the Okinawa airport, a tall Japanese man walked by with an elder, who I assumed was his father.  He stopped suddenly, and asked me in English, “Where are you going?”  Cautious, I said to Taipei to study Mandarin. “By yourself?!” I could see the man and now the elder were genuinely concern for my welfare.  “Ok. Please be careful,” he warned.

After these men left, I thought about their worried expressions and questions, with some dread of what I had gotten myself into to. I looked around, and realized I was sitting isolated in a dark part of the airport.  I gathered up my belongings and headed towards the light, and to my relief, discovered a full airline wing of fellow travelers.

When I arrived in Taipei airport, the panic set in.  A fellow student, who studied in Taiwan the previously year, had arranged for his male friend to pick me up at the airport.  My gut screamed and told me that I couldn’t go with him, so instead I joined a group of young white women students from Georgetown University, who invited me to bunk with them overnight at a hostel.

Miraculously, the next morning I found the university, registered for class, and connected with a Taiwanese family, who wanted to take in an exchange student.  Before I settled in, I had this deep earning to visit a religious place, so asked the family where the nearest Buddhist shrine was located.  (Bias Alert: I assumed there were no Christians churches in Taiwan.  Later, I discovered there were plenty.)

The Buddhist temple was jammed packed with pilgrims. The monks, dressed in vibrant shades of reds, prayed and conducted rituals steeped in incense.  Rather lost and confused, I followed the crowd, which led me to a trail of smaller and private shrines, where people also prayed.

I kept walking, which lead me to an empty concrete room, where people in meditation walked around in circles.  Suddenly, a young man, who was standing by the wall, came up to me and asked me in English if I wanted to meet the Dalai Lama.  Skeptical, I asked, the Dalai Lama, here? Okay, I said.  I would like to meet him.

The young man opened a door and slipped behind it.  Before I could understand what was happening, out comes an elder Chinese man, who was clearly not the Dalai Lama, but a man who looked very much like Gandhi.  Bald, very thin and brown, like the Mahatma Gandhi, this lama was wrapped loosely in a white cloth.

The energy of this man’s presence hit me like a sledgehammer.  All I could do was to back up slow as he gingerly walked to the center of the room and sat cross-legged on the floor.  He said nothing, only looked through me with love.  I fell l to my knees, curled up in his lap, and cried like a baby.

Perhaps, it was the journey, or perhaps it was all the suffering I had been carrying.  But whatever it was, that comfort from this stranger was beyond comparison.  Whoever this holy man was, he seemed to step aside to allow Christ Jesus to hold me and set my burdens free.  I was definitely not expecting that!

How long I cried I am unable to recall.  But, when I could weep no more, I stood up and bowed to the Light in him with deep gratitude for his unconditional love and acceptance.

After receiving such immense kindness and compassion from so many, the man in Okinawa, the young women from Georgetown U., and the holy man at the Buddhist temple, I could journey on, trusting that I could recognize Christ in the hearts and generosity of strangers, no matter their cultural identity.  And they, in turn, could recognize the spiritual Goodness in me.

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.”

Tonya Tolson, Diversity Committee Chair