Monday, May 21, 2012

Dispatch from China: Homecoming

Professor Patrick S. Cheng at the former campus of
St. John's University.
By The Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng

I had a powerful homecoming experience in Shanghai on Monday afternoon when the EDS China travel seminar visited the former campus of St. John's University.  During that visit, I made a connection with my late father and his beloved alma mater in a way that I had never expected.

St. John's was a university founded in 1879 by the missionary bishops of the Episcopal Church in China.  In its heyday, St. John's was one of the most prominent universities in China, and many political and economic leaders during the first half of the 20th century were graduates of that institution.  St. John's was closed in 1952, and today its former campus houses the East China University of Political Science and Law.

My dad, who passed away in 2007, was a proud alumnus of the St. John's University class of 1946.  In general, he never talked a lot with my brother or me about his childhood growing up in China.  I suspect that was due in part to the trauma of fleeing from Shanghai to Hong Kong in the late 1940s.  After leaving China, he lost contact with his family in mainland China for decades and never saw some of them again.

My dad did, however, speak fondly about St. John's University.  He would talk about his dorm life and how he was one of their star soccer players.  Our family would attend periodic reunions of the St. John's alumni in the San Francisco Bay Area at Grace Cathedral in downtown San Francisco.  And my dad's diploma from St. John's -- which included a vintage black and white photo of him affixed to the document -- always hung proudly over his desk at home.

I regret that I never had more of a chance to talk with my dad about his life growing up in China.  He died before I finished my PhD, and he never saw me become a theologian or join the faculty of EDS.  But as I stood in the middle of the courtyard of the former Schereschewsky Hall on Monday afternoon, I couldn't help but feel his presence on that campus over 65 years ago.  And I was very moved when all of my EDS colleagues took a moment to honor his memory and recognize what that moment meant to me.

My dad's diploma still hangs on the wall of his former study in my mom's house.  St. John's University no longer exists, and my dad is no longer with us.  But thanks to the EDS China travel seminar, I was able to make a powerful connection with both my dad and St. John's on Monday afternoon.  I was transformed by my homecoming experience in Shanghai, and for that I am grateful.

The Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng is the Assistant Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Episcopal Divinity School.


  1. Thank you, Patrick, for sharing a piece of a very powerful experience for you. I am glad your/our EDS colleagues were there to bear witness with you.
    Lucretia Mann

  2. What an amazing moment and what a beautiful picture. Hoping many other good things will unfold as you travel through China.
    Joan Saniuk

  3. I am uplifted by reading this story of a true-life father-son connection over the years and across the globe. Thank you.