As Crossing Borders’ missionaries waited in the spacious, Burger King on a busy street corner in Northeast China, their mobile phone buzzed. “SunYoung” was running late. Her apartment had flooded.
SunYoung is an 18-year-old half North Korean girl living in one of the many densely populated cities of China. She does not remember much about her father, who left to work in South Korea and never returned. SunYoung’s mother was arrested and taken away when she was 11-years-old. Since the age of 11, SunYoung has been living between her relatives’ homes during school vacations and an orphanage supported by Crossing Borders. When the Crossing Borders orphanage closed at the end of 2018, SunYoung moved in with her aunt in a small one-bedroom apartment in the city. She is, however, still a recipient of Crossing Borders’ financial scholarships, receives regular counsel from missionaries, and attends small retreats with Crossing Borders staff.
This past summer marks the completion of SunYoung’s first year in a vocational school for future teachers. SunYoung was happy to let the visiting missionaries know that her first year of school had gone very well. It was a major achievement for SunYoung, who has always been anxious about academics.
SunYoung’s scholastic feat is particularly encouraging in light of how difficult this past year has been for her. SunYoung’s aunt, who had taken SunYoung in when the Crossing Borders orphanage closed so that she could continue her studies in the city, passed away only months after bringing SunYoung home. SunYoung’s aunt had been experiencing heart problems, visiting three different hospitals for treatment in the last two years. On the day she passed away, SunYoung’s aunt packed a lunch and sent SunYoung off to school. SunYoung’s aunt passed away while her niece was at school. SunYoung lives alone now in her aunt’s apartment. She tells Crossing Borders’ missionaries that she spends time at night thinking about how she and her aunt used to sleep in the same room. The thought makes her afraid.
After their lunch at Burger King, the missionaries and the young men and women in Crossing Borders’ network visited SunYoung’s apartment. She had cleaned and tidied for their arrival. There were no signs of any flooding or water damage. The small space was immaculate. The group shared about the past few months, their comings and goings, work, school, and life.
A number of the young adults discussed the difficulties of living in China, of feeling like there was no one to lean on when days grew difficult. It is not uncommon for the children in Crossing Borders’ network to feel isolation.
“There’s no one to depend on,” commented one of the young women, sharing her struggles from the past year. “Friends are friends, but in life I feel like just have to get through it by myself.” These half North Korean youth have little to no family. One of the boys shared a story about how, late at night, with no ride home or a bus to take, he sat on a curb and scrolled through the list of contacts on his phone. He realized there was no one he could call for help.
The children’s family members are, for the most part, struggling to make their own ends meet with debilitating illness or disabilities. Some of them shed tears as they shared how much their loved ones struggle to make ends meet. Visiting home is often more of a heartbreaking experience than a heartwarming one. Others have experienced so many moments in life where they felt as if people, sometimes even family members, were simply trying to use them or take advantage of their vulnerability.
The group discussed their hardships. They shared why the hope of prayer and dependence on Christ might give encouragement in trying times. It was a necessary but trying reflection. Hearts needed mending and counsel. The missionaries shared scripture from the Bible.
And then, as the group prepared to leave, a pipe came loose under the sink. Water from the garbage disposal came flooding across the floor.
For a moment, the group of men and women simply watched in a mixture of awe and disgust. The smell was overwhelming. The water was almost black with compost and garbage. It spread across the linoleum matting and pooled beneath it, into layers of newspaper and paste that were hidden beneath the tiles. The flooding did not subside until the bare cement beneath it all was exposed. SunYoung’s effortful cleaning and tidying was washed away in an instant, in the wake of gushing grey water.
As the group stood stunned, SunYoung rolled up her pant legs, picked up a rag, and stepped into the mess. And with her squelching footsteps, the surrounding friends and missionaries snapped out of their trance and began to help in earnest. It took time and effort. The group had to take a break to buy more rags at a local convenience store, squeezing the contents of soaked, blackened cloths into the toilet in SunYoung’s small bathroom. The Crossing Borders missionaries balked at the realization that SunYoung had cleaned away the same stench and muck alone that same morning. It was no wonder that her eyes looked tired, her sprightly energy waned. But now, together, with many blackened hands and smelly, drenched feet, the mess was washed away once more. SunYoung was not alone.
This is the hope of Crossing Borders.
Little can be done to erase the pain and difficulty in the lives of many North Korean children in China. In many ways, their circumstances stand against them. The challenges before them are often gargantuan, overwhelming, hurtful. But in the midst of struggle, the missionaries who serve these young men and women long to share the little compassion they can offer, to step into their lives to share encouragement, prayer and hope. For young adults like SunYoung, life is filled with looming obstacles. The helping hand offered by Crossing Borders, however, will be there nonetheless.
As the group departed, they made promises to meet again for the next two days, sharing prayer, eating meals, and spending their free time together. It was a short three days of ministry for the visiting missionaries.
The apartment did not flood again.