Atop mounting piles of smoldering rubble, crimson-robed monks with white surgical masks dotted the landscape of China's Qinghai province. There a 6.9-magnitude earthquake struck the mountainous, remote region of western China on April 14, killing more than 2,000 people.
The Buddhist monks in the Tibetan region carried out grim work: Three days after the quake, the monks burned more than 1,000 bodies in a mass cremation. Though the monks often opt for a "sky burial"-allowing vultures to devour dead bodies-one monk told a reporter that wasn't an option in this catastrophe: "There are not enough vultures for all these bodies."
A week after the quake in China's Yushu county, the most visible volunteers were the Tibetan monks who helped dig for survivors and distribute emergency supplies. They also built a makeshift temple with a cardboard sign inscribed with a central tenet of Buddhism: "Pray for the dead."
Frank Li was praying for the living. Li was born in China's southwestern province of Sichuan, the region devastated by a 2008 earthquake that killed some 80,000 people. Now living in the United States, Li directs Agape Way, a Christian ministry aimed at helping Chinese people through educational and relief projects in China. The group has 20 workers in Sichuan-still building homes for the 2008 earthquake victims.
The organization dispatched two of those workers to Yushu to scout relief efforts after the April quake. Li said the Christian group has prayed for a way to "reach this area with practical work." He explains: "Not just to go there to talk, but to really do work, and let people see who we are. Then we earn the opportunity to tell them why we do it."
Yushu needs practical work: The earthquake devastated the town of Jiegu, Yushu's main population center, flattening some 85 percent of the town's homes. Officials estimated at least 12,000 people were injured, some critically, though rescuers pulled thousands of survivors from the rubble.
The early morning quake rocked a poverty-stricken region that's hard to reach on a plateau 13,000 feet above sea level. The high altitude complicated early relief efforts, with rescue workers sending home at least 200 rescuers suffering from altitude sickness. For the tens of thousands of people left homeless by the quake, the towering heights mean bone-chilling nights spent outside in below-freezing conditions.
Though the region has been a hotbed for tension between its Tibetan inhabitants and China's Communist government, Chinese officials said they deployed some 15,000 rescue workers to the scene and promised villagers they would help re-build homes and schools.
So far, Li says Chinese authorities have allowed his group's work to go forward, though they often ask questions. "We tell them we do not have a political agenda," said Li. "We have a heavenly agenda."
That agenda will mean hard work in a new region: The two workers from Agape Way drove more than 27 hours without stopping to Yushu in a van loaded with blankets, winter clothes, and dry food for quake victims. After a brief stop, and a bout with altitude sickness, the pair pressed on to Yushu and reported "terrible" conditions, said Li.
Li is hopeful about the opportunity to work in the Buddhist region and hopes American churches will support their efforts. In time, he hopes to take volunteers to help with rebuilding efforts. "But we aren't just building houses," he said. "We try to reach a whole community with God's love."