Ross Perlin has a fascinating “postcard from Tibet” at Harper’s in which he discovers a mountain village with both culturally integrated Catholicism and good red wine:
When I showed up in the village of Dimaluo, one valley over from the Trung, I was hoping to find a guide for the nearby mountains and a place to spend the night. I met Aluo, a young Tibetan who offered just those things. Then he took me to see the two village landmarks: a dusty, much-loved basketball court and an unusual wooden church with delicately painted panels, Tibetan and Chinese characters above the lintel. Recent evangelism I could recognize, but here was evidence of a well-worn faith, easy and open by Chinese standards, though isolated by sheer distance and by the world’s most intractable political feud: the Holy See versus the People’s Republic.
In the homes of Dimaluo I saw old prints of Jesus and the Virgin, not prayer flags; I saw Catholic calendars with the saints’ days marked, brought by visitors all the way from Hong Kong.
How did this happen? Although Robert Louis Wilken’s recent history of early Christianity, The First Thousand Years, notes that there were Christian missionaries in Tibet as early as the second century (the Church of the East even consecrated a bishop for the region), this particular place was evangelized by French missionaries in the mid-nineteenth. Though the foreigners were expelled by the Communists in 1949, the faith lives on, alongside a varietal of grape that has since disappeared in France.
What inroads they made proved to be intensely local—family by family, village by village—and Tibetan Catholicism never extended beyond a few valleys, a few thousand souls. The Trung—many of whom are now converting to a kind of indigenous evangelical Protestantism—were never “reached,” but some of their Nu cousins were. After eighty years of this unimaginably difficult and controversial work, the missionaries were sent packing by the party after 1949.
The most revered and best-remembered of the fathers, Père Genestier, lies buried in a Bingzhongluo churchyard, which I visited one Christmas as the bells were ringing and the Tibetan dancers were starting to form their circles. [. . . ]
As for the wine, it’s a Cabernet Sauvignon varietal, a rose honey strain, which the missionary fathers first brought as seedlings from France, along with cultivation and wine-making techniques still maintained to this day. The grape was lost in France, decimated by a blight, but survives in Yunnan.
A reminder that the faith is not Europe, though as Wilken also notes in his book, taking this global view comes with a melancholy caveat: Christ’s promise about the gates of hell is no guarantee that Christianity cannot disappear, even entirely, from lands in which it once had a significant presence. Indeed, this has been demonstrated repeatedly by history (e.g., the Islamic conquest of Northern Africa). Yet the very existence of these tiny outposts is remarkably and strangely hopeful.