The Center of Chinatown

by Fr. Michael Lynch, SJ

A first-time visitor to the Spiritual Center in New York might think of the images of silence and stealth in the title of the recent box office hit Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

The center is on the top floor of a nondescript two-story brick building that juts out from St. James Church into a small parking lot of assorted cars and broken concrete. Enter through a faded red metal door next to garbage cans and walk up two narrow flights of winding stairs. The dui lian (Chinese couplets) of gold and red characters on the front door are your first hint of anything Chinese.

Inside is a large room with a conference table and a fish tank (home to such creatures as silver dragons and god of wealth fish). Another room is furnished with lamps and sofas; the third is an office. A kitchen and two baths make up the rest of the apartment. The walls are covered with Chinese and Western pictures, including some crayon masterpieces by younger visitors.

From this small apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side I minister to Catholics from at least five regions of China, some in America for decades, others just off the boat.

Jesuits working in Chinatown

Author Fr. Michael Lynch, SJ, and Fr. Norman Walling, SJ, work with Chinese Catholics in New York, training lay ministers and helping them learn to minister to each other.

I'm just off the boat myself, in a sense. I spent years of study and ministry in the Far East, including six years in Taiwan and four in Hong Kong. I was recruited by Fr. Norman Walling, SJ, a veteran of 50 years among the Chinese, who had come to St. Louis University in the '80s to find Jesuits to work with him in the China Province.

Back in the States in 1998 and wanting to work among Chinese immigrants in New York, I founded the center with the idea of inviting Chinese Catholics to new kinds of ministry. I am working with Fr. Walling, who is stationed at Transfiguration Church, the parish for most Chinese Catholics in the area.

We work to help diverse groups of Chinese Catholics help each other. Many Hong Kong Catholics, for instance, are well educated and financially secure and able to help newly arrived with the often painful process of integrating into American life.

Most of these newly arrived Chinese are illegal, paying up to $60,000 to organized crime syndicates to smuggle them into the country. They suffer in leaving home and face difficult living and working conditions here, but they bring a vibrant faith and the experience of a church under persecution.

Most of the center's work is with small groups of about ten who gather every other week. Meetings, which focus on Scripture study and spirituality, are always accompanied by a meal. A lot of effort is made to help Catholics with their prayer life, and all but one of the groups have done one or more three-day silent retreats.

The groups have begun lectoring, ministry to the dying and the bereaved, and Marriage Encounter; some groups have given day retreats in parishes and now give the presentations at three-day retreats; others teach English to new arrivals; and one group will be giving them a gospel course this fall.

Like the location and layout of the center, much of the work that goes on here is quiet and low key. But the images that come to mind when I think of the center are those of "salt" and "yeast." Humble images perhaps, but images that every Christian knows hold power beyond that of even tigers and dragons. *

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