By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published May 26, 2016
ATLANTA—The well-appointed chapel at Holy Spirit Prep School is where Junhan “Tom” Yao to his own surprise proclaimed his Catholic faith and received baptism, confirmation and holy Communion.
Yao grew up in China, officially an atheistic country. Where he comes from, he said, the idea of serving others without reward or caring for a stranger isn’t done. He found that spirit intriguing when at 15 he arrived on the Holy Spirit campus, a stranger with only basic knowledge of the language.
“When I just came here, I could barely speak English. A lot of time I had a dictionary in my hand; a lot of time, I needed to use hand gestures,” Yao said.
People he didn’t know “loved me like my parents,” he said. “I don’t understand why they are doing that.”
“Just using my old secular mind, I couldn’t understand because it doesn’t really make sense because you can’t get any benefit from doing all the sacrifice. That’s the reason why I started to think about coming to the church,” he continued.
Students and faculty willing to share their faith spurred him to ask more questions, he said. “With a lot of doubt, I started to pray.”
Outside St. Joseph Oratory, it’s noisy, but inside the school chapel it’s focused on God, he said, with a “feeling of great peace.”
He said people he respected shared both faith and a peaceful nature.
“I know that’s a good character, but I don’t know how to acquire it,” he said. “I don’t know how to get it. The peace really attracted me to try to discover what’s behind the peace.”
“When I came here, I changed a lot. Both the school and the church changed me,” said Yao, looking at the baptismal font where he was baptized. His parents were happy for him, but questioned whether he was going through a phase, he said. In the spring of 2015, his mother made her only trip to the United States to be with him as he entered the church.
He came to this country because his parents, Chuanmei Xu, a businesswoman, and Changde Yao, a TV reporter, wanted a good education for him. He found Holy Spirit Prep by attending a school fair of American private high schools. He is one of 10 international students there, one from Russia, the others from China.
Yao said he is grateful to have spent the years on campus. “People would help strangers unconditionally, love them unconditionally. I was really lucky that I came here to Holy Spirit, such a great community.”
He said high school underclassman would do well to embrace their faith, praying and attending Mass, and in the classroom, he suggested students ask more questions and rely on teachers to help them learn.
Kim Woolson served as Yao’s godmother for his baptism. They became friends when her family hosted another Chinese student.
She said for two years Yao paid attention to what made the school community joyful and helpful. He saw this elusive concept of faith—and he wanted it, she said in an email.
“Tom brought a real story of hope to Holy Spirit Prep. His conversion to Christianity is a testament to the importance of living an example of witness in our daily lives,” she said.
Yao graduates from Holy Spirit Prep with a desire to use his artistic talent to share God’s message. He developed his gift while participating in the advanced placement art program at the school, culminating in a senior portfolio of 24 works of art. He chose to concentrate in pen drawings on Catholic themes. However, his first-place drawing of Steve Jobs was the cover of the annual school magazine showcasing visual art and creative writing in 2015. His drawing of the oratory won second place in 2016.
He plans to enroll in the Savannah College of Art and Design in the fall. He admires the work of Michelangelo, especially the marble masterpiece “The Pieta,” Mary cradling the body of Jesus. Yao said he identifies with the story of how the artist carved his name across the sculpture when people identified it as the work of another artist. Michelangelo came to regret it and never signed another piece of his work.
“As an artist, I definitely need a lot of humility and need to calm down,” he said.
His love of art, he said, would be part of a future dream job. “God gave me a talent, and I don’t want to waste it.”