Mei-Ling Blackstone, 16, of Macungie, Pa., returns this weekend from visiting nearly three weeks in her native land of China, where she joined other youth from around the Northeastern Jurisdiction (NEJ) on a Mission of Peace (MOP). When she shares the many discoveries of her journey with others this year, she will likely take a cue from her beloved grandmother and share not so much about the fascinating places she visited but more about the people she met.
“What we look for are young people who already have a passion for peace and an interest in exploring other cultures,” explained the Rev. Ted Anderson of the Upper New York Conference, who organizes MOP trips on behalf of the NEJ Council on Youth Ministries. Mei-Ling, a junior at Emmaus High School, fits that description, influenced largely by her mother, Carlen Blackstone, and her late grandmother, a missionary who delighted in talking about the people she met and helped overseas.
Mei-Ling was one of 14 youth and five adults who left for Beijing, China’s capital city, Dec. 28, 2015. They are scheduled to leave Jan. 15 to return home–a bit weary perhaps but more worldly wise from their encounters with adults and youth residents of this incredibly diverse, both ancient and modern, most populous nation on earth.
Among their many stops, they visited Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and other famed landmarks, including the Great Wall, where they welcomed in the New Year under a hazy, full moon. Chaperone/ scribe Tom Schmidt has posted several updates and prayer requests on the NEJ MOP Facebook page, although limited by time and wireless connections.
At one place this week, he reported, they attended an overcrowded church service. While faith practices are restricted in Communist China, he witnessed worshipers “not afraid to sing out, as the place just fills with voices, as the people sing the hymns.” The youth were able to join in singing hymns in English to two familiar tunes and also say the Lord’s Prayer.
Their journey ends Friday in Shanghai, where they have visited the main offices of the Christian Church and a seminary, enjoyed meals, fellowship and a cruise on the Huagpu River, toured the city, shopped, held regular family group meetings, and engaged in a full, final day of debriefings.
“There are mixed feelings about getting ready to leave,” Schmidt writes. “There’s excitement to come home and see family again but also a feeling of sadness to leave something which we all have been a part of for almost 3 weeks.”
The tour group met with youth in various communities and experienced Christian worship and education there. As usual, the trip was not about sight-seeing but rather bridge-building. “Their goal is to foster communication and cross-cultural understanding among the next generation of Christians and youth leaders,” according to one account. The annual Mission of Peace trips also are a means of deepening the faith of participants through what inevitably become life-changing experiences.
Mission of Peace began in the mid-1980s after a group of Methodist youth were challenged by their elders to find a means of promoting peace through outreach to Christians in cultures far removed from the United States. The first trips ventured into the then-Soviet Union starting in 1986, during the Cold War. More than 550 teenagers have taken part in Mission of Peace trips since then, traveling to India, China, Eastern Europe, Zimbabwe, Nicaragua, Brazil, South Africa, Cuba and Guyana. The latest trip is the sixth to China since 1989.
Mission of Peace participants, who were joined by Bishop Peggy Johnson the last two years in visits to South Africa and India, undergo a rigorous selection process and must raise the $4,800 cost of their trip. Mei-Ling raised more than that mostly through e-mailed appeals and speaking about the trip and her faith at various churches, including her own, Asbury UMC in Allentown. She planned to donate the excess funds to churches in China.
She was born in Guangzjhou, formerly Canton, the capital of Guangdong province in South China. But at 13 months old, Carlen Blackstone and her mother brought Mei-Ling home to Western Pennsylvania. This is her first visit back.
Active at church, she sings in the choir, plays piano and bells, serves Communion and works on the worship multi-media team. She also serves on the Eastern PA Conference Council on Youth Ministries. But the joy of her life is camping, a lifelong passion she inherited from her mom. She has experienced that joy at all four of the Conference camp and retreat sites, plus others in Western PA.
Mei-Ling wants to attend college in Pennsylvania and major in business, perhaps to one day become an event planner who travels and works with people to organize activities and create satisfying experiences.
One rare experience she was looking forward to in this journey back to her native land was to feel what it’s like to be of the majority race and to see so many people who look like her. While she knows only a few words in Mandarin, she will likely return home knowing much more about the languages, cultures, faith practices and socio-economic concerns of Chinese peoples.
That’s what Ted Anderson wants to see in all the youth who experience the MOP adventure. “It’s a perspective on the world that changes the way they think,” he says. “When they come back from Mission of Peace, they think ‘How am I going to live my life now that I’ve seen this?’ “
By John Coleman, EPA Conference Communications Director
John Coleman photos