By Michael Benigno
Fr. Terrence Curry, SJ, knows about the experience of being a foreigner.
It’s the feeling of being powerless and being entirely outside of your comfort zone each day. It’s occasionally encountering people who resent the fact you don’t speak their language. It’s having doubts about making friends and rarely being able to contact your family members.
It can also mean being surprised by acts of kindness and genuine affection and experiencing God’s love in places far from home.
In 2008, when Fr. Curry was asked to work in China, he knew the experience would be an exercise in vulnerability. That was the idea—to develop a dependence on God and a deep sense of devotion by choosing to be vulnerable. Still, he was apprehensive.
Jesuits have been going to China for more than 400 years. These days, foreign Jesuits in China lead a complicated existence. Several serve as staff members at the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies (TBC), which hosts U.S. students and is an academic institute in its own right. All are immersed in a culture entirely different than their own.
Though the free and open practice of religion is generally allowed in China, all priests who engage in public ministry must serve under the authority of a Communist Party approved bishop. Foreign Jesuits, in turn, can work in the country as long as they are respectful of this policy and recognize that they are invited guests in a foreign country.
Fr. Curry had previously spent many years in Hungary, where he founded the Szent Jozsef Studio Kollegium, a school that pairs architectural design students with community service organizations. Upon being assigned to China, he wrote to the deans of various Beijing universities, desiring to work directly with Chinese students, even though he did not speak Chinese. It was the same mission, he realized, that St. Ignatius wanted the early Jesuits to embrace: to find God in even the farthest places.
After some difficulty, he secured a visiting professor position at Tsinghua University, one of China’s most selective universities.
In the first few months, he encountered disconnection in every facet of life. His on-campus residence was far from the Jesuits living in community at the Beijing Center. At the university, lengthy meetings often went untranslated, and he felt isolated from his colleagues. He had to learn to say his Chinese name and navigate the ins and outs of a new workplace.
He invited his new coworkers out for a beer after work, but they all declined. Someone eventually suggested that it was more acceptable to invite a colleague to a meal. After that bit of advice, Fr. Curry offered to have lunch with his fellow professors instead, and they accepted.
“When you’re living in a different culture, where everything is new, you’re in a state of heightened awareness for extended periods of time, and that can be exhausting,” Fr. Curry said.
Slowly, however, he realized he was learning some very important lessons – lessons on friendship and even truths about God’s love.
Chinese students call their teachers laoshi. Since the time of Confucius the term has implied a deeply personal, paternal relationship. “In Chinese culture, while all teachers are called laoshi, some students develop close relationships and choose their own laoshi. These are often life-long relationships,” Fr. Curry said. “Confucius, like St. Ignatius, believed that the primary role of a teacher isn’t simply to pass along information, but instead to form the whole person and engage that person from the heart.”
After some time, several students began to address Fr. Curry as laoshi, and their friendships started bridging the cultural challenges he faced. They were engaged by his teaching, design theories and insistence that they discover ways to give back to their communities. They took a noticeable interest in his presence, his commitment, and paternal affection for them, and wondered about American customs and traditions as well.
One student invited Fr. Curry to accompany him on a visit to his family’s home in a rural village 1,000 miles from Beijing. Fr. Curry accepted and made the trip; he was later told that he was the first non-Chinese person ever to spend a night in the village. Another student and the student’s girlfriend informed Fr. Curry that they had already met with their family members, but wanted his permission before getting married.
When Fr. David Ciancimino, SJ, (then New York provincial) visited Beijing three years into Fr. Curry’s time there, Fr. Curry did his best to explain the role of the Jesuit provincial to his colleagues and planned a dinner to introduce Fr. Ciancimino to the university dean. He made a reservation at a nearby restaurant, but when he arrived the dean was already there and, in a gesture of generosity, the dean had ordered the food. “He had also invited five assistant deans and the school chairman. I was deeply touched by the gesture that my colleagues made to show my provincial that I was one of them, and that I was valued.”
Just prior to his interview for this story, Fr. Curry had spent several hours visiting design students who were working late into the evening, making architectural models in the university workshop. He left the building, covered in sawdust, just as one of his students from Japan was leaving. The student said, “I’ve been meaning to have a chat with you” and spoke in detail about the research he was doing, and of the hardships of being far away from his friends, family and loved ones.
Fr. Curry sensed that student knew he could relate all too well.
“It is very hard for me to be here,” Fr. Curry admits. “But, on the other hand, I am surrounded by good people, an ancient culture and an amazing place. The students are extraordinary, generous and kind. I depend on them for so many things. When you voluntarily put yourself in a position of dependency and powerlessness, and desire to encounter the fullness of God’s love, the grace is extraordinary and God does not fail. As long as I keep my heart open, I will be continually touched by God’s presence in China.”
Fr. Terrence Curry, SJ, is currently the first and only non-Chinese, full-time architecture professor at Tsinghua University.
Adapted from JESUITS magazine, Summer 2014. To read the full magazine online, click here.