A Call to Serve China’s Children

Gwen Moore with students in China.

It was a seemingly mundane activity—the reading of a newspaper—which moved Gwen Moore, MDiv ’00, to make a fundamental shift in her life. In December 1995, Moore scanned The New York Times and noticed a cover story about economic development in China. The piece showed that the great economic gains on China’s coast were far from the grasp of impoverished peasants in the country’s heartland.

This article could have been just a sad reminder of the poverty in our world for Moore, a successful management consultant. Instead, it inspired her to leave her partnership at a major consulting firm, attend Harvard Divinity School, and create the Gwen Moore Children of China Fund to support literacy and self-sufficiency in China.

The Times article, by Patrick Tyler, profiled a man named Chen Xianhe and his family, who were living in Luodian County, Guizhou Province, in southwestern China. Chen was raising two young daughters alone, after his wife deserted them to seek an escape from poverty. They lived in an open-air hut through freezing cold winters. There were too few resources for the children to go to school. A picture of the family accompanied the story.

The day after seeing that, Moore faxed Tyler, who was also the Times’s bureau chief in Beijing. She asked how she could help. Tyler offered to serve as a mediator between Moore and the village, connecting her to a local schoolteacher. Communicating with the teacher took weeks at a time, but Moore learned from the letters what was needed. Many children did not have basic necessities such as boots to keep their feet dry, or sweaters for unheated schools, and they certainly could not afford pens, paper, and other school supplies.

Moore decided to send money that would enable 50 children to go to school in the fall. During the summer, teachers looked for candidates. They needed to persuade parents to release their children from farm labor during school days. The recruitment was successful.

“I have a picture of the 50 children that day, squatting and standing in rows, proudly holding their new treasures—two pencils and one notepad. A sign in front of them, roughly translated, says “Nice American lady makes it possible for these 50 children to go to school.” Thus began Moore’s commitment to the people of Guizhou Province.

From a young age, Moore had been drawn to China. She and her parents had belonged to a Presbyterian Church that sponsored a missionary in China. During her teens, Moore moved away from the Presbyterian tradition after her mother died. In her twenties, Moore was drawn to Buddhism’s philosophy of suffering.

Around the time of this spiritual awakening, Moore was forging ahead on her career path. She received an MEd and an MBA in the late 1970s. Soon after, she cofounded a firm that studied how new ideas are created and utilized. She joined a niche information technology firm, and later was hired by Andersen Consulting, becoming one of the company’s first women partners. She enjoyed her work.

Nevertheless, when she came across the Times article, she realized it was time for a change. “As I looked into the huge eyes of these strangers (in the photo), my heart broke . . . and opened . . . simultaneously.”

Her intense professional life no longer was sufficiently meaningful. “It kind of shook me and reminded me that there were other things to be countenanced.”

At a friend’s encouragement, she pursued a Master of Divinity degree at Harvard Divinity School.

“My time at HDS gave me a new language for both speaking and understanding matters of the heart. It gave me permission to do what my heart wanted to do, and the time to read and reflect gave me a new vocabulary.”

She learned another useful language as well, Mandarin.

“If I had known then what I know now, I probably would have been more afraid to act,” Moore says, reflecting on the overwhelming need and the arduous journeys she has undertaken in China. “I came to understand that my giving felt so worthwhile because it was just the children and me. The children taught me how much this scale mattered. I knew that I wasn’t trying to solve the problems of economic disparity or educational inequity in China. I was simply helping that one child to go to school.”

In summer 2002 she founded the Gwen Moore Children of China Fund. From the beginning, Moore’s heartfelt commitment was to the welfare of children in Guizhou.

But she came to realize that educating adults in China was a crucial avenue toward fulfilling that desire. “Educating students won’t change the realities of kids in this generation, educating their parents does,” she says.

The adult literacy work only came to life during a trip in 2005. In Beijing, Moore met with the Beijing Cultural Development Center for Rural Women, which manages adult literacy programs.

They traveled with Moore to the tiny village of Mo Yang, where they visited a “classroom,” which was simply the storeroom of a student’s house. Here the local women, after long days working in rice fields, gathered to study Mandarin at night. Moore asked them, “You work in the field all day and come to class, what difference does it make?” Their reasons were various but crucial: to know which bus to take, to read labels for medicine, to add and subtract when selling things at the marketplace.

Gwen’s knowledge of Mandarin has also been beneficial. “A girl said to me, ‘I want to thank you for your help,’ and then burst into tears. I walked around the table and took her in my arms. The child, still crying, said ‘Thank you, thank you.’ I was able to say directly, ‘I’m so glad that I can help.’ ”

The travel for Moore is grueling and unpredictable. Often the villages are inaccessible to vehicles and she must make long excursions by foot to reach the people her fund supports. “The terrain and weather have a dramatic effect upon what you do. . . .You go with an itinerary and you get there and it all changes.”

Nevertheless, she remains committed.

“I have a hunger to do more in China and I’m not sure what it is yet, but I’ll find it,” Moore says. “The last 10 years have been shaped like that. They’ve grown and developed in their own time.”