Bobby Baines is Maryknoll's priest here in Zhanjiang. His is seventy-four years old, an aggressive chain smoker, and in his long career as a priest, he has found himself kicked out of various countries, preaching in a Filipino maximum-security prison, and presiding over various revolutions, elections, and changing-of-hands in Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia. He's a friendly guy who curses more in one homily than most priests do in their entire lives, he can talk for hours about the fascinating experiences that have comprised his life, and in little more than a week, he will be kicked out of this university and then out of China.
Bobby's in pretty good health for a man his age, but more importantly, he can do his job just fine. But he's passed some arbitrary line that says he is too old (and thus incapable) of teaching, and so he can't renew his visa, and the school is sending him packing. Never mind the success he's had with his students. Never mind the fact that never once has anyone from Zhanjiang's joke of a business school passed the much-coveted BEC exam (Business English ... Competency?), but Bobby was able to work with five students for a few months and they all passed. Never mind the desperate need for competent teachers in a place like this, as they toss one of their best out of the country while he's perfectly capable of doing his job.
So I guess this idea of China having great respect for their elders is just so much more crumbling veneer. The more time you spend here, the more you realize this place is just the same as anywhere else in the world, that the myths and differences of "The East" are simply a different take on the same old familiar, human nature. For all the lip service about honesty, respect, and tradition I hear, there's twice as many examples that tell me all that talk doesn't mean shit. It's enough to stomp the naïve idea of this place being Different, I mean Really Different, out of ya for good.
For the past few weeks we've been having a quiet, informal mass in Bobby's apartment on Sunday morning. Nothing big, usually just Bobby and his bible, with Nicki, Liam, and I in attendance. We do the readings together, we chat about the gospel in genuine dialog, and we create a humanity and relevance to this dusty old institution called Catholicism that I haven't felt in years. Then we make pancakes.
I'm not gonna lie: I think I go there as much for the breakfast and the company as I do the mass. Should I make pancakes or French toast this morning, I think, as the mass goes on; do we have enough bacon? These are the important theological questions I ponder as we all instinctively (mechanically) repeat the Nicene Creed.
But there is something unique in these breakfasts, something genuine about them that has been absent in religion for me for quite some time. There's something trite and hypocritical about Lexus-driving suburban priests that get all fire-and-brimstone on you. And there's something especially wrong with all the people that do the weekly religious lip service and then are just evil rotten bastards the rest of the week. Politicians, yeah, but also the petty and vindictive people that go to church every Sunday in Anytown, USA. These meals bring Bobby's life experiences as a priest (that has seen more of the world than most could imagine) together with Liam's life as an Irish-Canadian father-of-three, Nicki's time in Minnesota and South Africa, and my, um, my aura. Talking to these people about faith and life and the world is as insightful as it is entertaining.
Next Sunday will be our last breakfast mass with Bobby before he leaves the Mainland. It's a small and minor thing, I guess, meaningful to only a small handful, but it is the end of something special.