CHONGQING, China (Mennonite Mission Network/Mennonite Church Canada Witness) – When traveling on a bus in rush hour, one may expect overcrowding, discomfort, and perhaps a wad of chewing gum stuck beneath the seat. Philip and Julie Bender found the making of a friendship that touches and enriches lives.
In the process, they took part in a celebration many Westerners never approach – a Chinese wedding.
In August 2005, the Benders, former co-pastors of Hamilton (Ont.) Mennonite Church serving through Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness with China Educational Exchange, were on their way to the Chongqing University of Medical Sciences where they teach English.
Standing in the aisle and clutching an overhead balance bar, they were surprised when a young Chinese woman beside them rose and offered her seat to Julie. After several polite refusals, Julie accepted the offer on the kind insistence of the stranger. When the adjacent seat became available, the woman remained standing and insisted that Philip sit down.
The couple began chatting with the caring stranger. Through her broken English and their fractured Chinese, they learned that her name was Helen. As the Benders reached their stop, Helen remarked that perhaps they could all become friends. The couple gave Helen a contact card and requested she keep in touch.
A few weeks later the couple received an invitation to join Helen and her husband Huber for dinner. Though communication was a challenge, the two couples learned a great deal about each other. Helen and Huber talked about their work, and the Benders shared that they were English teachers in China with their church.
"So you are Christians," Helen said.
During their conversation, the Chinese couple revealed that they would soon be celebrating one year of marriage.
Soon after, an invitation to Helen and Huber's wedding party arrived. Under the assumption that this party was in celebration of their new friends' first anniversary, the couple readily accepted.
On arriving at the hotel, they were greeted by Helen and Huber, fully gowned in red, and proceeded to the festive and decorative banquet room. As traditional Chinese musical instruments played, Huber entered the room. Helen followed, face veiled in red satin, seated in a red-curtained box borne on the shoulders of four men. Huber lifted her veil, and the couple embraced, first touching forehead, then nose, then lips.
The event was not a anniversary celebration, but the actual wedding ceremony.
Modern Chinese weddings often occur in two stages. First is the legal registration, which Helen and Huber acquired one year ago. Later comes the formal celebration.
The ceremony was very traditional, a rarity, Philip Bender said, and the couple -- the only Westerners in a room of 100 guests -- was lucky to see it.
"That is how we felt," said Philip Bender. "Lucky and grateful, and amazed at how a chance meeting on a bus has led to friendship with Helen and Huber."
Bender said cross-cultural friendships break down stereotypes and build trust between people divided by language and nation. He called them the seed-bed for faith.
The Benders' friendship with the Chinese couple continues to develop. At Christmas, the two couples met in the Bender home for a festive meal. In late February they met again at a restaurant. Smiles and laughter fill in the gaps when the couples' English and Chinese run thin.
"You make me want to learn English!" Helen said.
"Helen makes us want to learn Chinese," replied the Benders.
It is a Chinese virtue to give up your seat on the bus to someone who is elderly or weak. The Benders are neither of these, but Helen still insisted they take her place. Sometimes virtue exceeds expectations.
"[Helen's] kindness in giving up her seat is nudging us to be kinder to the strangers we meet," Philip Bender said. "And getting to know Helen and Huber makes us eager for other new friendships with our Chinese hosts that God's Spirit might bring."