On May 12, the 7.9-magnitude earthquake in China killed 100,000, dwarfing the carnage of 9/11 by 30-fold and approximating the U.S. body-bag count in World War I. Tremors were detected as far away as Vietnam, 500 miles distant.
The seismic shift rocked more than soil. Souls move too, even in Chengdu, the literal and figurative heart of China. The capital city of the affected region, Sichuan Province, is 50 miles from the quake's epicenter and is home to one of the world's 100 busiest airports, $25 billion in foreign investments, and 16 colleges.
In unprecedented response, a high-ranking Chinese official appointed Robert Yeung, a counseling educator and the only Christian among 10 colleagues, to organize psychological recovery efforts. He is the academic dean at the Hong Kong Institute of Christian Counselors (HKICC), the city's only faith-based institute for psychological care.
Three months after the quake, I sat cramped in Yeung's 8-by-6-foot office, dripping sweat in record heat while Yeung recalled the historic day.
"Two mountains collapsed and buried some towns," he said. "It was devastating. I smelled a dead body, saw broken buildings, a school collapsed, people sleeping on the sidewalk. I never saw anything like that before. People were crying. They lost spirit. No hope for them. And anger."
Since June, Yeung has stood under relief tents and inside remote clinics with groups of 20 to 500, educating doctors, teachers, and other community leaders about post-traumatic stress disorder. Assisting him are some of the 100 students enrolled in Hong Kong's only graduate program in Christian counseling, offered by Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois.
Yeung's unique assignment began at China's own Ground Zero with a chance meeting with Wenzhong Wang, director of the Intervention Center at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. The center is a government-funded enterprise to evaluate the psychological impact of tragedies in the world's largest nation. Wang reports to Chinese president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao.
While Yeung trains community leaders, Wang is surveying 100,000 people to develop a crisis-counseling model for China. One does not yet exist. This places Yeung's faith-based approach in the DNA of the model, sure to reach China's traumatized masses long into the future. Yeung traveled to Beijing in late September to introduce faith-based counseling to the president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and all members of China's Congress.
Yeung and I huddled around a speakerphone to explore the role of faith-based counseling with Wang. About 20 percent of the interview required English translation. But one answer in particular demanded interpretation—cultural, religious, and political.
"Why use Robert?" I asked Wang. "Does it matter that he is Christian?"
Wang paused. I leaned. Soon I learned to decipher what he meant from what he said.
From Atheism to Secularism
Wang stands in a threatening intersection. Barreling one direction is the Communist Party's officially atheist stance. Storming the other way is the well-documented notion among counselors and researchers that "spirituality" can play an important role in healing psychological distress. For example, researchers James Kennedy, Robert Davis, and Bruce Taylor reported in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion a 60 percent increase in spiritual participation following an ordeal. "A traumatic event," the authors say, "causes reduced well being, which causes increased spirituality, which then helps restore well being to pre-event levels."