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Students set aside hesitancy and engage in dialogue for study in China

By Heather Kennison

Anthony Clark

Anthony Clark

In a cultural, political, faith and language setting new to 19 Whitworth University students, Anthony Clark led a semester-long study abroad at Minzu University of China in Beijing last fall.

Aware that they might be hesitant to engage in dialogue, he encouraged them to set aside their fears and be open to be enriched in their faith, minds and hearts.

Anthony, who is associate professor of history at Whitworth, taught classes on Chinese culture and religion, and the political history of Beijing.

His wife, Amanda, who went with him as an adjunct faculty member, taught an optional Chinese art class for those who were interested. 

In addition to these classes, the students spent four hours a day immersed in language classes offered by the Chinese institute and taught by local professors.

The program, which is Whitworth’s first study-abroad program in China, is part of its commitment to develop study centers in different areas of the world, like one it has in Costa Rica.  Anthony hopes the semester study will be offered at least every three years.

Students were in classes with people of diverse faiths and nationalities, studying at a university where all 56 of China’s minorities are represented.

Amy Wyatt, Whitworth student

Amy Wyatt meets orphans in China.

Senior cross-cultural studies major Amy Wyatt went on the program as a way to immerse herself in the Chinese culture.

Taking the 17 credits offered, she also made use of a week-long Chinese holiday to volunteer at an orphanage run by the New Hope Foundation.

“That sparked a chain of volunteering, where another student and I were able to volunteer at a school for children with autism,” Amy said.

“Many students study abroad and do their American thing,” she said. “There is nothing bad with that, but I think that if you’re going to go that many miles away, why not be in China, rather than being an American doing the American thing in China?”

Now in his third year of teaching at Whitworth, Anthony had first begun a dialogue with the study abroad department just after his first year, having recognized a growing desire from students who wanted to learn about non-Western subjects on a deeper level.

Asians make up 60 percent of the world population and Whitworth is becoming aware of their influence and the necessity for students to have some awareness of Asia, he said.

“I consider myself a missionary of two things: my faith and Asia,” Anthony said.

Students had opportunities to debate with each other within temples of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism. They also engaged alternative ways of thinking about religion by debating about each point of view.

“Learning about the different religions and lifestyles was a paradox, because I found components of Christianity in each of them,” Amy said.

For example, Confucianism shares the concept of honoring your parents, she said. Buddhism, like Christianity, calls one to take care of the needy.

“Every time I personally go to China, I come back thinking about what it means to believe in a different way and what it means to put that belief into practice. I come back a different Christian,” Anthony said.

The professor’s interest in China began when he was 12 years old after his parents enrolled him in a Tai Chi class to help channel some of his energy. He was later able to think about and incorporate Chinese philosophy into his own life.

After reading Thomas Aquinas’ theory that “from nothing, nothing comes,” he was intrigued that the Chinese belief was almost the complete opposite: that the only thing that can create something is nothing.

“Encountering these Asian ways of thinking that were so opposite from and contradicted Western thought excited me so much that I continued my studies of China and Chinese literature and history,” he said.

Anthony studied Chinese language and literature at the University of Oregon and was an instructor at the university while finishing his doctoral work. He then taught at the University of Alabama before coming to teach at Whitworth.

“What secular universities need is to be more open-minded,” Anthony said. “They boast of being open-minded but in reality are quite limited in raising questions of faith and the existence of God.

“At Whitworth, whether you believe in God, the question of God is open for discussion,” he said.

In this small, private university, he finds it liberating and comforting that he can be a whole person: a scholar, a teacher and a Christian at the same time.

Anthony thinks of his work as a sort of prayer.  Growing up in a family of Irish Catholic roots, he was influenced by such teachings as the Benedictine approach to faith, living and work. According to this point of view, prayer and work are related. However, he said this does not mean there is no doubt or skepticism in one’s relationship with God.

“Prayer doesn’t mean a constant faith, it means a dedication to God,” he said.

With this dedication, Anthony has devoted much of his life to learning about China and Asian cultures.

His next book, for which he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), is looking at Christian missions in North China and the history of conflict and accommodation between non-Christians and Christians.

“I think the NEH has seen recent history of pure human conflict,” he said. “My book seeks to confront questions of conflict, questions of unrepresented voices and questions of gender.”

Other than materialism, Christianity is the largest-growing entity in China, Anthony said.  There are now 60 to 70 million Christians in China, up from about 4 million in 1949. Looking at these statistics, he sees optimism in China.  He said he has experienced a confirmation in his conviction that even outside the church there is goodness and holiness.

Also witnessing this, Amy asked herself, “How do you see God in this culture? Do they have to be wrong if we’re right?”

In his personal faith, Anthony said he also tends to have a Franciscan approach to preaching—that is, “Preach always and when necessary, use words.”

“Who we are and how we behave speaks to a belief in goodness or faith,” he said. “When I’m in China, my approach is to be a good person, to be a caring person. My first voice of dialogue is just goodness.”

For Amy, the program reconfirmed her calling to help in orphanages, but challenged her with questions of faith and society.

“If we’re not challenged in our faith, we become stagnant,” she said.

Anthony considers the China study abroad program as a way of personal enrichment.

 “No truly rich life stops being enriched,” he said. “We have to keep learning.  We have to keep growing.”

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