DARK CLOUDS ROLLED over Hong Kong on Sunday, Aug. 18, as thousands upon thousands of people dressed in black streamed into Victoria Park for a demonstration organized by the Civil Human Rights Front. As rain began pouring down in torrents, umbrellas popped open, transforming the park and the surrounding streets into a patchwork of color.
Hong Kong’s protests originally centered on a proposed extradition law that would see Hong Kong citizens sent to China to face trial. Today, protesters have five demands: the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill (Lam only suspended it), the withdrawal of the “riot” label for the June 12 protests, the release of all arrested protesters, an independent investigation into police actions, and universal suffrage.
The Hong Kong government has responded to the protests with heavy-handedness rather than dialogue, propelling even more people to take to the streets. Police have fired 1,800 rounds of tear gas and beaten unarmed protesters. One officer shot a beanbag round that severely injured a woman’s right eye. Protesters have also escalated the violence, throwing bricks and gasoline bombs and setting fires outside police stations.
The Aug. 18 march remained peaceful, however. Protesters of all ages marched through the wet streets chanting, “Five demands, not one less!” and “Hong Kong people, add oil!” (The latter phrase is an idiom that means, “Keep going!”) Organizers estimated 1.7 million people turned out to the march.
Along the protest route about a mile from Victoria Park stood Chinese Methodist Church, a large, triangular building whose doors were open to allow protesters a respite from the rain. The building buzzed with activity: Volunteers ushered people upstairs to use restrooms, and protesters sat on benches or on the floor, sometimes taking off their wet shoes to dry their feet. First aid medics set up a station at a table.
Yuen Tin-Yau, the church’s former pastor, said that for the past 15 years the church has opened its doors during large protests. He first got the idea in 2003 when he participated in a protest against a controversial anti-subversion law. The protesters came unprepared, and many hadn’t brought water, underestimating how long it would take for 500,000 people to exit Victoria Park. As Yuen marched past the Methodist church, he wished he could unlock the building and provide a place of rest for the protesters.
So at the next protest in 2004, Yuen was ready. The church started opening its doors to let protesters use the restroom, drink water, or just sit inside the air-conditioned building. The church held prayer meetings and provided spiritual care for protesters who came in. When police fired tear gas during the 2014 demonstrations known as the Umbrella Movement, Yuen opened the church and invited in first aid medics, who helped protesters wash the chemicals out of their eyes. Other times, the church provided sanctuary for protesters at pro-government marches.
Now about 50 other churches in Hong Kong are also opening their doors. On Facebook pages and WhatsApp group chats before protests, activists share lists of churches that plan to be open.