Eia, Echo, and Emmy seemed pleased to accept the invitation to accompany the Hills to church. However, they lost a few minutes waiting for Evan to return from his job. He, too, agreed to attend church and expressed his enthusiasm by saying, “In the door and right back out again. We haven’t been to a church in so long.”
Mr. Hill sped to the restaurant shop. With the Suns following close behind in their own vehicle, they all arrived minutes before the doors were to be locked.
“Hello! Hello!” a small man with smiling eyes greeted them from behind the fancy counter. He introduced himself as Kya Ray. It was evident that he was the owner of the shop. “You two are the Americans Pastor Manchu told me would be coming, yes?”
“Indeed,” Mr. Hill confirmed. “We took the liberty to bring some friends as well.”
Ray beamed. “Bless you,” he said. “You haven’t even been to one of our services, yet you are already inviting others!”
“It wasn’t me exactly,” Mr. Hill said crediting Lilly.
By now quite a few members had left their lukewarm cups of java and tea and sweet cakes to greet the newcomers. Although some could not speak English very well, love abounded.
“Are you sure this is a real church?” Emmy whispered to Lilly after receiving a warm hug from a great grandfather in a wheelchair. She eyed the swivel chairs reserved for customers and the pretty trinkets on sale in the other side of the shop.
“Um, yeah,” Lilly whispered back. “There’s a verse in Ephesians which says that we are members of His body. That means that a church isn’t really a building. It’s the people inside; they’re the church.”
“Oh,” Emmy replied. “I never thought of it that way. That makes sense. Totally.”
“Can I get any of you something to drink? Eat?” Ray asked them. “On Wednesday nights, everything’s free. My order!”
Mr. Hill thanked him for the free food and drink, but still gave him a tip. “I’ll take some tea,” he said. “That will suffice.”
Lilly ordered the same. “With sugar,” she said.
Out of politeness, the Suns ordered drinks also. At the end of their feasting and fellowshipping, Ray put the ‘closed’ sign in the shop window and dimmed the restaurant lights. Pulling back a sliding panel in the back wall, he led everyone into a storage room no bigger than a medium-sized garage. The congregants took their seats swiftly. It was so crowded that some people had to sit on the floor. Lilly took a spot on the floor near the front with the twins.
Everyone participated in singing a few lively hymns under the direction of Sarah. Halfway through “Jesus Loves Me”, a look of excitement flashed across her face. “My baby! It’s kicking!” she exclaimed.
“I think it’s trying to sing,” Manchu joked.
“Or dance,” Lilly added.
Joyful laughter ensued. A time of prayer followed a solo sung in Chinese by a young man with his sister playing a flute. Despite not having any of the trappings of the fine church buildings across the ocean, worship poured from each person’s heart. Manchu’s message was moving. He spoke of God’s everlasting love and encouraged everyone to cling to their faith in the face of tribulation.
“Trials are just tests. They cannot compare to the brilliance awaiting us in Heaven,” he said.
The great grandfather still in his wheelchair, cried out as he witnessed his grand-daughter’s hard heart melt at the hearing of God’s Word. Using his trembling hands, he explained that he had invited her to church many times, only to be rebuffed as she refused in anger — thanks to mistreatment she endured at the hands of her ‘religious’ stepmother. Now, after attending church for the fourth time, she was coming to Jesus.
With full hearts and each other’s blessings, everyone dispersed into the smog-filled night. Wrapped in her black trench coat, Lilly excitedly spoke of the evening’s events with Mr. Hill as they trailed the Suns’ back to their home. Once again, he agreed that a great work was being done through the efforts of Manchu and Sarah Carrig.
Unable to keep up with Emmy’s incessant chattering, sweet sleep came swiftly for Lilly after she climbed into the bunk and pulled the blanket — decorated with its mass of curls and twists — up and over her head.
The sun rose the next morning with a seemingly new-found determination to make its presence known over Beijing like an electric mohawk on a bald man’s head. Lilly looked out the window as the sun’s rays sliced through the smog. Dust particles floated past. For some reason, the whole sky scene reminded her of a dessert.
“The smog is a huge chocolate cake. The sun’s rays are butterscotch icing drizzling down its sides and the dust bits are sprinkles. What a polluted junky cake,” Lilly muttered before closing the window to dress in privacy without the attention of the wispy clouds sailing by surveying everything and everyone up in the sky.
When Marco was seven, he had told Lilly a story. (Well, he called it a theory. Lilly called it a story.) He said that the clouds were silent soldiers of the sky. They watched everyone from on high and stored up a huge amount of spy film. That’s why they became so fat. Clouds were jealous things, mad that they could not partake in people’s joyous events. So they did only what they could—watch. And sometimes one or two would ‘speak’ by striking some poor human with lightning. Then, the clouds would roar cruelly about it, and their laughter would produce thunder. Of course, Lilly tried to tell Marco the science behind the formation of clouds and lightning bolts, but Marco would have none of it.
Lilly laughed then, and she laughed now even harder upon remembering it. “I’ll have to call Mama and Marco again,” she told herself.
At the moment, this was the only thing Lilly was sure she was going to do that day, besides eating with chopsticks and having devotions. Emmy and Echo had already slipped out of the apartment for school, and would be gone until evening.
“Perhaps we can visit part of the Great Wall. It would be a dream come true if Dad and I could camp out there before heading back home,” Lilly mused. “One thing’s for sure. This marvelous day will not go to waste!” she resolved.
After dressing, Lilly stretched before brushing her hair as she pattered about the room. In a few minutes, a firm knock came on the outside of the door.
“Lilly, are you up in there? Dressed?” It was Mr. Hill’s voice.
“Double yes!” Lilly answered. “I was just waiting on you.”
Mr. Hill opened the door. “Good morning, Lilly! Looks like an emergency has come up. Sarah just called and notified me that Manchu is missing! I hope you have a triple ‘yes’ for this question: Ready to go?”