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Goodbye My Nanjing
“Our Dear heavenly Father, thank you for our great service today and please watch over all of us as we start another week. Bring us back safely next week to worship you and to accompany us safely as we cross the threshold to a new mission, Amen.”
Reverend Joseph Reeds finished the prayers and sat back to survey the crowd. Sitting in the front left, John Magby, a college graduate from the Language Institute of Illinois knew what the preacher meant, for they were to go on an exciting trip to Nanjing, China as missionaries. John had agreed to translate for the behalf of the other churchgoers.
Sitting near the windows, Minnie Vautrin, a former high school teacher was eager to know what the elusive words meant.
“We are starting on a new missionary trip…” Rev. Reeds started. “To Nanjing, China to help the locals better their lives and to spread the gospel of Christ. One of our strapping young lads, John Magby, has been taking Chinese at college and he has agreed to translate for us.” Rev. Reeds explained, pulling John out to thunderous applause from the crowd.
“Son, I cannot thank you enough for agreeing to this offer.” Rev. Reeds thanked John as they walked out to their cars in the parking lot of New Faith Christian Church. The October breeze felt cool and refreshing and the sun shone with the intensity of a kerosene lamp.
“Don’t mention it, Rev. Reeds.” John answered easily as he swiped at a stubborn strand of dirty blond hair as they reached their cars. He gave up fixing the offending piece of fuzz and began digging through his coat pocket for the keys to his dark blue Chevy with the huge dent in the back bumper, put in by his crazy little brother, who was a senior in high school. “Hey, Rev, when are the release forms going to go out?”
“I will try my hardest to get them to you guys by next Sunday, but I might be bogged down with writing the new sermon, so tell the others not to get too anxious.” They each said their goodbyes and drove out of the parking lot, heading for home.
In another part of the large parking lot, Minnie was feeling giddy over the prospects of returning to Nanjing. She had gone there for the first time in 1912 as a teacher and missionary and helped start a girls’ school in Luchowfu. Afterwards she helped build and fund Ginling Girls’ College in Nanjing. She loved the teaching the girls, who were so eager to learn and so different from the high school students she had taught in LeRoy, Illinois.
“I can’t wait to see the girls again,” Minnie said to herself as she drove out of the parking lot.
“I wonder what they’re like now,” she mused as she took an exit off the highway.
November 10, 1937
“Flight A0012469 flying from Illinois to Los Angeles is boarding now at Gate A12, all passengers please gather your belongings and have your boarding passes ready for inspection.”
The flight attendant’s annoyingly chipper voice bleated over the intercom of Illinois National Airport.
Michael, one of the men in the ministry, groaned and slammed his pillow in his ear, “Ahhhhh!!!!! It’s way too early for this!!”
The New Faith ministry was already at the boarding gate and ready to board the plane, which will take them to Los Angeles International with a layover in Beijing, and the group will arrive in Nanjing first thing at midnight the second day.
After a few announcements, the plane took off down the runway, and John felt the ground drop away until everything he ever known disappear as the plane soared higher amongst the fluffy cotton-like clouds.
Rev. Reeds lead the missionaries to baggage claim 20, where other fellow travelers were gathering their luggage. One by one, they identified their belongings, but one woman named Lindsey was still without her belongings. Rev. Reeds decided to file a report with the luggage handling office, go to the hotel, get some sleep, and see if they can find it in the morning. The exhausted travelers agreed whole heartedly and trooped on the beat up tour bus, which sputtered and chugged down the road to the Nanjing Hotel
Two days after their arrival, one of the men was sick to their stomach after drinking the the tap water in the bathroom sink, so the missionary work had to be postponed until he felt better. Another problematic aspect of the stay presented a challenge; most of the missionaries have never been anywhere in the far east, the farthest anyone went was down to Argentina and Honduras last summer to rebuild houses destroyed by hurricane Flora, and so the culture shock almost killed the group.
While John proved to be a big help, many people remained confused about a culture where bicycles crowded the streets instead of cars, the students used the age old abacas instead of the calculator, and the simplest everyday tasks, such as asking for the nearest restroom proved to be a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
After a few weeks, Rev. Reeds noticed an obvious improvement in the group. He noticed that they were starting to warm up to the idea of spending Christmas in such a foreign place and were beginning to pinpoint the differences and similarities between celebrating a Chinese Christmas and a traditional Christmas back home. The Chinese always put up huge Christmas trees with all the trimmings and were more about the social aspect than the religious because the government did not allow many Chinese the freedom of religious practices. The base of the tree would be surrounded by a white frothy layer of lace covered with glitter and the branches would be decorated with colorful glass spheres made out of glass, homemade Christmas ornaments and great long lengths of red and gold wreaths wrapped around the branches like a serpent.
Back in the states, churches would have been bustling with activities, choirs would go door to door to spread the holiday cheer, families would gather during the holiday dinner to pray for their loved ones and the well being of others less fortunate, and Christmas time bible studies would focus on the birth of Jesus and the nativity scene.
The mission services were going as hoped, although they did hit some miscommunication at the start. The group was finally starting to get to know each other better at the weekly ministry services where they ended the day with prayers. John, being the helpful gentleman he is, knocked himself out helping Rev. Reeds coordinate all the services, making small talk with the locals, helping the missionaries overcome their culture shock, and running to the stores to buy food and daily supplies.
One day, John was scanning a copy of the lessons for the next day when he ran into Minnie, who was busy carrying a heavy brown paper sack of groceries in one hand and fumbling in her bag for the keys assigned to her hotel room with the other. Minnie, being of the petite variety, only reached John’s shoulders, so her head slammed into his chest. John was knocked back a few feet, while Minnie was sent sprawling to the sidewalk; all the chips, soda and junk food went flying and landed in a messy heap next to her.
“Oh, my… I am so terribly sorry, Miss!” John moaned ruefully, slapping the side of his head while scrambling to pick up the ruined groceries. “I don’t know what was wrong with me, trust me, I am usually much more alert than this.”
“It’s ok, besides, I don’t even like half this junk. My roommates, Lindsey and Marina couldn’t decide which one of us should go to the store, so we flipped a coin; heads, one of them, and tails, me…needless to say it landed on tails.” Minnie replied, as she ran a hand through her thick wavy brown hair highlighted with hints of red. She rubbed the side of her oval shaped face, which still hurt at the impact of running into John, who towered over her.
John chuckled and held out his large hand, “Well, despite the circumstances, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss…”
“Just call me Minnie, Minnie Vautrin.” Minnie extended her hand and they shook firmly.
“Well, Minnie, I know it won’t compensate for my rudeness, but would you mind if I walked you to the hotel? I can pay for the groceries tomorrow during the mission services.”
“I’d like that, John, thank you so much,” Minnie replied and they started walking towards the hotel from the church.
It was the morning of December 18. All was quiet, and the people were still in a peaceful slumber when the manager of the hotel threw himself against the doors of the rooms, screaming frantically in broken English,
“Run!!! Japanese attack!!!” Gone was the tranquil peacefulness from before, now replaced with an ominous dread, which seeped through the door cracks and infiltrated the tightly sealed windows to permeate the room with a twisted evilness.
Rev. Reeds jumped from the bed and started waking up everyone with the help of John and a few of the other men, who were still clad in their pajamas.
“Where can we go?” The Reverend was asking the hotel manager, who was a short balding man in his late 40’s, with thick tortoise shell glasses, a neat mustache, and a pencil tucked behind his ear.
“We not know.” He said, “We hide, hope they go away soon.”
And with that, he skittered off, leaving the Reverend by himself. Minnie told him of the Ginling College that she ran and helped him herded the terrified group in the tour bus and drove speedily to the college, which was not that far away. They immediately barricaded themselves in the sprawling schoolyard amidst all the pandemonium. Rev. Reeds hurriedly lit the four oil lamps in one of the airy classrooms and Minnie proceeded to take out blankets and pillows for everyone. They stayed huddled that way, praying and crying for the rest of the day.
The morning light filtered through the huge windows and played with the shadows on the walls as Rev. Reeds gathered the group in a huddle around him. They decided to send one person out to check if the Japanese were still present. They were peering over the cracks in the walls as he cracked the door open a slit. The scene felt something out of a scary movie, the once pristine white bridge was now stained with blood and lifeless corpses stared up at the heavens from the waters, now emanating an overwhelming stench of death and nausea. The Japanese were slaughtering people indiscriminately in the most grotesque manner, raping women and girls as young as 8 and as old as 70, and lining up random people and shooting them execution style.
Michael, the man sent out to investigate turned towards the group with a mask of incomparable disbelief, terror, and anger. No words needed to be said, the group already knew what he’d seen because they saw it also. Michael left the group and sank down in a bench and started to sob. No one knew what to do until Minnie and John escorted the broken man back to the classroom.
As evening fell over the city, the door of the school shook under a barrage of impatient knocking. Before Rev. Reeds could get up to investigate, the door banged open and a group of Japanese soldiers stood in the doorway. “What do you want from us?” the Reverend stood up tall and tried his best to disguise his nervousness.
“We make sure you foreigners don’t make no trouble.” The head of the group sneered, and waved his hand dismissively, as if the group were no more than puny cockroaches scattering beneath his feet.
“We’re not making any trouble, so now can you please leave?” Rev. Reeds asked, trying to keep his voice even. The head didn’t answer, instead he wondered over to the far hall, where an American flag was hung. He was silent for a moment and then to the astonishment of Rev. Reeds and the others, began to pull the flag off the makeshift holder.
“Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” the Reverend could no longer control himself, and flung himself at the man, but was held at bay by the two soldiers holding up bayonets. Rev. Reeds was livid, but had to watch helplessly with the others as the man lit the edge of the flag with a lighter and watched it burn, then sauntered arrogantly out the door.
John and the others hurried to bolt the door shut as Minnie, Lindsey, and the others went to Rev. Reeds just as he sank down in the grass. The normally handsome looking minister was anything but. He ran his hands through his wheat colored hair, which was beginning to thin out, and everyone could see that the dark circles and wrinkles made him look ten times older and more uncertain.
They all retreated back to the classroom where they stayed for the night, trying to process the events of the day. Whenever anyone tried to sleep, they woke to the sound of trucks rumbling past the college with girls crying out for rescue.
It was mid afternoon when the college was flooded with hysterical girls and women seeking refuge. Rev. Reeds and the missionaries took in as much as they possibly can fit into the huge sprawling campus grounds and classrooms. Minnie and the other women soon took charge, teaching the girls English and arithmetic amongst other subjects. That very night, Rev. Reeds decided to teach the whole group of refugees bible verses to regain their shaky foundations with God.
“Genesis 1:1,” Rev. Reeds began to read aloud in his quiet yet powerful voice, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep and the spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning…the first day.” As Rev. Reeds continued with the impromptu bible study, many of the missionaries felt their strength return. Granted, they were still dubious, but this time, they had enough courage to make it through another day.
A few days later, as the group awoke from their slumber, there was a suspiciously deafening silence. Rev. Reeds lead the group to the doorways, and drawing a shaky breath, cracked the door open to peer out. It was eerily similar to the ghost town of the
Wild West. The gigantic crumpled balls of newspapers tumbling around the deserted streets sent creepy chills up everyone’s spines. There was a Chinese flag half ripped off a wall, and the streets were littered with trash, stained with blood. There was a loud rumbling sound, and the group spotted an army tank with the American flag pasted on the front, joined with the whirling noises of the fighter jets, administering aid and food care packages. Rev. Reeds and the others began to stream into the streets as they spotted American GI’s climbing out of the tanks.
5 months after the liberation, John and Minnie, who got married after the ordeal, stayed behind with Rev. Reeds. John has become a public speaker, speaking in both English and Chinese to tourists as well as locals. He often thought back to the whole ordeal and was thankful that his bland looking hair had saved him; when he was little, he often wished he had more interesting hair, but now that he’s been through something like this, he was grateful for his relatively low key hair, which served as camouflage, hiding him from the Japanese soldiers.
Minnie continued teaching at Ginling, and while on the surface, everything seemed fine, John, Minnie, and Rev. Reeds all suffered psychologically and emotionally from the ordeal. John and Rev. Reeds sometimes had flashbacks, hallucinations, and broke out in a cold sweat, but the worst of all was Minnie, who suffered a lack of confidence and began blaming herself for not being able to save more people from the disaster. After Minnie suffered a nervous breakdown at school, John took her and Rev. Reeds home to Illinois.
Back in Illinois, Minnie was admitted into an asylum, where John and the others visited her. After work one evening, John dropped in to the asylum to find Minnie slumped over in a chair. With a strangled cry, he fell upon Minnie’s lifeless body, slapping her hands frantically, falsely hoping that she will wake up. Then did he notice her hands clutching a note. It read:
My beloved John,
After this ordeal that we’ve gone through, it is an understatement to say that none of us will ever be the same again, especially me. Often times, when I am alone, I always think back to all the lives I could have helped saved, if I wasn’t so selfish. I would get so angry at myself for not being able to do more for the victims of this injustice.
Sometimes I can not believe what my eyes have seen; until that day, I never thought such cruel and inhumane actions were even possible. I know that it is beyond me to even try to comprehend what has happened. It will only leave me with more unanswered questions.
I know that you love me, and I love you too. But sometimes, even the greatest love is incomparable to that of God. I am too damaged and too full of scars and old hurts and regrets for you to save me, John, and it would be selfish of you to keep me here with you., Only God can save me now, which is why I am leaving all my pain and anguish behind to forever dwell in the house of my Lord.
May we meet again someday,
After John went home with a box of Minnie’s things, he dug up her journal, and began to read the neat cursive handwriting. After almost 4 hours of reading, John raised his tearstained eyes to the balcony, said a short prayer and hurled himself from the three story tall building.