Chapter 1, A Compilation Of Memories, excerpt from The Memories I Made Up 

Prescott Valley, Arizona, 1998

It was the strangest thing. Most people around me could not relate, and probably got tired of my constant conversations about them. But whatever I would do, from the simplest thing to the most complex, and wherever I would go, either to church or the grocery store, I could not get their faces out of my head. They were with me browsing books in the Prescott library on Goodwin Street, and while busting my back building houses at the construction sites I worked at.

Some I had only seen in two-dimensional form in the pages of National Geographic magazine, others in person when I was actually in their country. Most of the time I could not recall their features and the distinct characteristics of what made them different from another. I could not tell you what color eyes they had, or how their smiles looked when they laughed, or where exactly their wrinkles were etched into their forehead. All those things were vague. But for some reason I could not get the impressions of them out of my head.

I think I may have even invented most of them. My favorite was the Chinese farmer walking barefoot along the rows of rice patties. His toes squished in the mud under the weight of the bamboo pole balanced across his shoulders where two water buckets hung. A few beads of sweat were suspended on his brow, and the village behind him was veiled in a translucent gray mist. The red sun set behind his shoulder as he looked up at me from his rice fields. That credulous stare. His image always froze there in my memory.

I think I made him up, but because I have actually seen him so many times in China, I cannot be too sure.

* * *

When I was young I had a globe in my bedroom with brown for the continents and cream color for the oceans. I would spin it, see where my finger landed, and try to memorize the selected country and its capitals.

I was always intrigued by the names of a few countries and their cities. I liked the way they sounded when I said them aloud:

“Trinidad and Tobago.”
“Sierra Leone.”
“Andhra Pradesh.”

Each of them evoked vivid images that I imagined coincided with their names:

Azerbaijan: dirty white turbans.
Trinidad and Tobago: dark skin, grass skirts and islands.
Sierra Leone: diamonds.
Bhutan: elephants and green mountains enveloped in mist.
Tomsk: snow and goosebumps. Hot chocolate.
Andhra Pradesh: smiles, snakes and dust.

I daydreamed about what it would be like to go there someday.

* * *

I had kept a journal for years. The pages were filled with word pictures of people I had met in Sochi, Russia in 1994 on my first mission trip with Teen Mania Ministries. Others were from Shenzhen, China, and Hyderabad, India among other lesser known places.

In Russia:
There was a group of men crowding around me as I shared the gospel with them via Olga, my translator. They kept crowding closer and closer to me, until I was backed up against a cement wall with no room to move. It was intimidating because Americans did not converse with each other in such close proximity as the Russians. But for some strange reason I felt like I was a part of them then. I was a young man from Prescott Valley, a city of less than 50,000 people, who had somehow managed to partake in the intimate conversations of people on the other side of the globe.

Vladimir was a man who I shared the gospel with in a public park. He smiled a lot, had bright teeth and bushy black hair. I led him in a prayer of salvation on the grass in a public park.

Then there was what we affectionately dubbed the “beached whales” on the Black sea: a small group of large men in Speedos and larger women in bikinis, bathing on the rocky beach. That was an image I tried to get out of my head for years.

I spun the globe and my forefinger scratched Asia.

Summer 1995 was my second overseas mission trip. I went to Hong Kong for two months, smuggling Bibles across the border into China on numerous occasions.

In Hong Kong:
My gray drama t-shirt was so smelly I could barely stand it. I was the “Miracle Man” in the Teen Mania drama, being kicked around the hot sidewalks. The first thing I noticed about the people I would later share the gospel with when the drama was over was their shoes as they crowded around watching us perform.

The KCR and MTR subway stations hired “pushers” at rush hour. There was such an excess amount of Chinese people taking the trains that the white-gloved employees would press us into the train cabins. At least it was air-conditioned.

Jimmy Tsang was a shy teenager who traveled with our team to drama sites, preaching the gospel. We communicated in broken English, and became best friends.

In China:
I was crossing the Lowu border into Shenzhen with a backpack full of Bibles and Christian tracts. The communist customs officials were calling to me, “Hello! Hello!” but I walked faster, turned a corner past the x-ray machines, and hid behind a crowd of Chinese.

The rain was pouring over gray Shenzhen, and the sewers began overflowing onto the sidewalks. I was wading knee-deep in the murky water, walking along back alleyways, dodging police officers. I squeezed the handle of my black umbrella as I passed out wet tracts to the people I came across.

A skinny man crouching underneath his umbrella bumped into me. I quickly grabbed a tract from my bag, “Help From Above”, and passed it to him. His umbrella tilted slightly upwards until a sheet of rain flowed between us. Cautious eyes looked at me, speaking volumes.

He nodded.

I nodded back.

His eyes said, “Life is meaningless.”

They said, “I am searching for something bigger than me or China or communism, something that will bring purpose and meaning to my heart. I am searching for life.”

Then they said, “Thank you.”

I stood in the rain and listened to God whisper to me about His love for the Chinese. I stood in the rain and cried.

* * *

It was midday at the square, downtown Prescott. The sky was clear, and my heart was cluttered with emotions as I prepared to leave home again, this time for good. I was sitting on the grass writing in my journal.

August 1, 1998:
Not many in this world know of my upcoming departure to China. Fewer still know the depth of my heart’s love for the people there. At the same time, I cannot stop thinking about my family, especially my mom.

Leaving my family was always difficult for me. I was the eldest of eight children, and very close to them. My father and mother were very supportive of me traveling the world and sharing the gospel, but they could also sense the calling that God had placed upon me for the nations. They knew I would soon be leaving for China long-term, and that was a hard fact to swallow.

Whenever I was on an overseas mission trip, I would receive letters from my family. They told me how Matthew, my baby brother, would point up at a passing airplane, and say, “There’s David!” They had seen me off at the Phoenix airport, and envisioned me on a month-long airplane ride.

“David is playing with all the little children in China,” my mother explained. But China was as vague to Matthew as it still is to most Americans. It did not suggest the same mental images in his little mind that were evoked in my mother’s. She had browsed through the stacks of National Geographic magazines now stashed in dusty boxes in the garage. Matthew would stumble upon the boxes many years later.

* * *

China is a vague word for the American. It is understood only in the context of one’s previous experience, if any, with the nation, whether it be in magazine photos or documentaries aired on television or, on extremely rare occasions, travel within the country itself. The definitions change in relation to each circumstance. For example:

While shopping at the local Wal-Mart, pick up any product in the store and turn it over. You will find the Made In China stamp on the bottom. The definition becomes:

China: the shiny red Hotwheels Lamborghini that your son pushes around the living room floor; or the toolbox with all the shiny gadgets; or the bra that you purchased for half price.

When I go back to America and share in churches throughout the States about missions among unreached people groups, I ask people what their perceptions of China are. I say the word China, and have people reply with the image that first comes to mind.

The usual replies are very similar:

“Slanted eyes.”
“Mao Zedong.”
“Lots of people and bicycles.”
“The Tiananmen Square massacre.”

The meanings are vague because we know so little about China, its vagueness prevalent because we have yet to see the weight of its importance.

* * *

The white smoke trail streaming behind the airplane stretched far across the blue Arizona sky, like the Milky Way in daylight.

“There’s David!” my two-year old brother, Matthew, laughed again, and made my mother cry.

August 7, 1998:
Dad and I went on a prayer-walk this morning at 6:30am around the square. After praying for about half an hour, we found a bench, sat down, and tried to choke back the tears. It was good to spend some quality time with each other one last time.

I had been back in America for one year now, and it seemed like nothing had changed. Autumn and winter had come; the leaves had turned from green to orange to red, fell to the sidewalk, and then the trees died. Six inches of snow fell that season, but spring revived the earth, and I could not see the difference from the year before. I was restless being back in America with a heart full of experiences in nations where the gospel was unheard of. I was restless thinking about what might be happening in China at the moment.

China Daily Newspaper
August 12, 1998:
Noise control measures have been used to reduce noise in Yantai, a coastal city in East China’s Shandong Province. Cars are forbidden to blow their horns in the urban districts and no sirens are allowed to sound. Broadcasting music and advertisements outdoors has also been forbidden in commercial areas since June 1.

About 98 per cent of the hourly 3,000 vehicles on the main avenue abide by the ban, and traffic noise has been reduced. Officials of the Yantai environmental protection bureau said that the birds and cicadas can be heard louder than ever in the city.

I listened to the birds chirping in the trees above me, and watched a group of hippies playing hacky sack in the grass to my left. A silver lowrider truck with an intricate green dragon airbrushed on the hood sped down Gurley Street, booming the bass stereo at top volume.

Red Corner News
August 17, 1998:
Several Christian evangelists have been arrested in Tibetan populated areas of Yunnan Province. Some Christians call Tibet “Satan’s fort at the top of the world”. Tibetan Buddhists are staunchly resistant to the message of Christ.

I kept having this reoccurring dream. It started when I was eleven years old, and was still with me at age twenty. It had changed over the years, becoming more brilliantly exaggerated for effect’s sake. But when I awoke I was always moved with a feeling of urgency. It was a mandate of sorts. It scared me.

It’s like I am looking in from a camera a few feet from my face. Beads of sweat stick to my pale forehead. There is a sad, scared look in my eyes as they jolt back and forth, afraid to look down. There is a rumbling sound—thousands upon thousands of voices calling my name.

“David! David! David! David!”

I feel my heart palpitating in my chest. I am breathing heavily.

Suddenly the camera zooms out at lightning speed, and I see myself backed up as far as possible on the narrow trail of the sheer rock cliff I am balancing upon. (At this point it always feels as if I have entered a location that I have read about in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.) The myriad of voices grows louder and chaotic, “David! David! David! David!” and I think my heart might burst.

I wake up abruptly on my sweaty pillow. My head is swarming. My surroundings are blurred. Circular motions. The nations are calling me quietly this morning.

Xinhua News Agency
August 27, 1998
Floods that have devastated central and northeastern China have killed 3,004 people. Vice Premier, Wen Jiabao, said 1,320 of the deaths took place along the Yangtze River. Some areas have been under water for over 60 days. Wen said five million houses had been destroyed and 2 million acres of land flooded.

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