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Houses divided

Hong Kong pastors walk a fine line between members who support protests and members who support police

Houses divided

Police stand guard after clearing a barricade set up by protesters in the Mong Kok district in Hong Kong. (Dale de la Rey/AFP via Getty Images)

Outside the Mong Kok police station, the exit of the Prince Edward Station had transformed into a memorial, with hundreds of white flowers stuck into a fence and colorful Post-it notes covering a telephone booth.

Posters and graffiti question what happened on the night of Aug. 31, when police stormed into the subway station and onto the trains pepper-spraying and beating black-clad protesters as well as commuters.

Rumors have swirled that police killed people that night, although no evidence has arisen to prove it. MTR Corp., the subway operator, refused to release the CCTV video of that night.

On one September night, a large group of people milled around the memorial. Some burned gold paper folded into the shape of ingots, a Chinese tradition to bring wealth to the dead. Others left food by the memorial and burned incense. On the other side of the memorial, about 100 people sang the hymn “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” as a young man with his face covered by a black T-shirt waved a retractable walking stick like a conductor’s baton. Candles spelled out the Chinese characters for “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.”

Kiran Ridley

Christians gather outside Prince Edward Station to light candles in a vigil to honor those injured in the Prince Edward MTR attack.  (Kiran Ridley)

In the front row, a woman wearing a face mask and a shirt that read, “Keep Calm and Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” lifted her hands as she sang. Florence Leung said she came to attend the Monday night gathering of Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians because her own church doesn’t talk about social issues surrounding the current protests. “I feel lonely because so many brothers and sisters in Christ don’t have the courage to speak out,” Leung said.

Leung isn’t the only Christian who thinks the Hong Kong church isn’t doing enough as Hong Kong approaches its sixth month of protests that have grown increasingly violent. Other Christians—many of them young—also expressed disappointment with their churches’ muted response.

At the same time, Christians who are more pro-government complain of pastors who they feel have mixed church and politics and are too openly supportive of the protests. Some have changed churches because of political differences.

The divisions in society have entered the halls of the church, putting pastors in a difficult position of how to minister to both the protester and the police officer sitting in their pews, both those who read the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily as well as those who read the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao.

I spoke to 10 Hong Kong church leaders about what it’s been like pastoring during such tumultuous times: Some avoid all discussion about politics inside the church, while others bring up current events in their sermons despite pushback. They all described the difficulty in finding unity among the Christian community at this time.

Handout

Johnson Ho (Handout)

ON A LEAFY HILL IN the Sham Shui Po neighborhood of Kowloon sits a large church with a cross on its façade next to a six-story Christian kindergarten and elementary school. Missionaries from Switzerland first founded Tsung Tsin Mission of Hong Kong Sham Shui Po Church 120 years ago, and today the church has about 500 members and runs a kindergarten, an elementary school, and three high schools.

Dressed in a light blue button-up and a clerical collar, Pastor Johnson Ho speaks in a calm, steady cadence even as he describes the great turmoil he faces within. His church skews older and represents the gamut of professions—including police officers and government workers—as well as different political views.

Most supporters of the protests—known in Hong Kong as “yellow ribbons”—in his congregation are younger and some have asked the church to release a statement condemning police brutality. They’ve also asked Ho to hold special prayer meetings for the protests and open the church as a place of rest when people hold demonstrations in the Sham Shui Po neighborhood.

But the “blue ribbons,” or those who support the police and the establishment, want the church to stay away from politics and focus on worship. They see protesters as wreaking havoc on the peaceful and prosperous city.

“I face quite a bit of pressure because the yellow ribbons and blue ribbons both have a lot of expectations of me; they want me to be on their side,” Ho said. “But what really matters is a position of faith, whether you are telling the truth or not. But there’s a lot of nontruth out there.”

Kiran Ridley

Florence Leung (center, white shirt) and others raise their right hands to indicate the protesters’ five demands. (Kiran Ridley)

The church is part of the Tsung Tsin Mission of Hong Kong (TTM), a Lutheran body that operates more than 20 schools in the city. Ho fears that by speaking out against the government the church could face difficulties in purchasing land should the schools decide to expand or even face cuts in government subsidies. Only two of the 27 churches in the TTM have opened up their buildings during the protests. The church is also very conservative and rarely issues public statements.

In July when the protests came to Sham Shui Po, young members urged Ho to open the church’s doors. The deacons refused, so Ho asked to use a building the church rents out to TTM for social services. The compromise seemed to work for both sides: About 30 people gathered that day for an open prayer meeting for the neighborhood, while the event didn’t upset those in the blue camp because it wasn’t held in the church.

Ho has found the divide between the yellow and blue camps inside the church extremely difficult to bridge, as they read different media outlets, create echo chambers, and view the ongoing protests through different lenses.

“Sometimes I feel if I express myself, it’s wrong, but if I don’t express myself, it’s also wrong,” Ho said.

Regardless of his congregants’ political views, Ho tries to show he cares about them by sending them Bible verses and hymns or chatting with them one-on-one. Some ask how Christians should relate to authorities. The church has also provided sessions on how to handle the stress and trauma caused by the protests.

“I pray every night, but sometimes I don’t know how to continue my prayers,” Ho said. “Even though [the protests] have gone on a long time, there has to be a way out. I try to keep myself as calm as possible so that I can think about how to lead the church and what the way out is.”

Kiran Ridley

Choi Yeung-mee (Kiran Ridley)

ON THE SURFACE, Pastor Choi Yeung-mee’s church seems quite different from Ho’s: Chun Lei Christian Mission Heep Ying Church is a nondenominational church with about 100 congregants that meets inside an office building in Mong Kok. About three-fourths of the members are yellow ribbons, and Choi is known for speaking openly about the protests and even standing with a group of pastors at the front lines during the June 12 protests to calm both protesters and police.

Yet Choi faces the same tensions as Ho in her church, as both the yellow and blue ribbons in her congregation put pressure on her. Choi was involved in the Umbrella Movement in 2014, attending protests to provide counseling and care for the protesters. At the time, Choi said, her church didn’t mind her involvement because she was going in a neutral capacity.

Yet by the end of the 79-day protest, a few of the church members had become angry at the movement and started to see Choi as too radical. Those tensions calmed after the protests, but the problem arose again during the recent anti-extradition law bill protests.

“This time the Hong Kong church faces a more difficult situation not because of this movement but because for the past five years some people have accumulated a lot of this anger,” Choi said. “I think they were not able to integrate their faith with what is happening outside the church. They don’t want the intense political situation to enter into the church.”

Choi says she and other preachers are very cautious about discussing the protests from the pulpit, and some yellow ribbons complain that she doesn’t preach enough about how Christians should respond to the current social context. But, then, some congregants complain that she talks too much about politics in her sermons.

June Cheng

Ray Wong (June Cheng)

“I want the message to be prophetic, but at the same time, I need to be pastoral,” Choi said. “To be prophetic means sometimes we need to criticize and sometimes we need to comfort … but it’s not easy.”

Even the church’s prayer meetings have devolved into quarrels as members cast blame for Hong Kong’s woes on the other side in their prayers. So Choi decided to change the format of the meetings: Members would begin by meditating on a certain Bible passage, silently praying, and then sharing their thoughts with the group. Choi has found that by asking them not to voice their prayers out loud, it helps church members focus on God rather than their political views.

Another problem Choi and other pastors face is the shrinking of their congregations as more Hong Kongers migrate to other countries. Those with dual citizenship, family members living overseas, or young children are looking to leave, having lost hope in Hong Kong’s future.

Pastor Ray Wong of Leung Faat Memorial Church, Church of Christ in China, said that about 10 percent of his 700-person congregation is considering migrating. He’s concerned about pastors migrating or retiring and who will pastor churches five or 10 years from now. He called on Christians to be prepared, to invest in Hong Kong, and to study theology.

“Traditionally Hong Kong churches have a strong opinion on the separation of church and state … but we have to stress that as Christians, we are also citizens,” said Wong, who is also the director of the pastoral program at the divinity school at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “When injustice happens in our political system, we should speak up. … We have freedom of speech, and if we don’t stand up now, then we soon won’t have a choice.”

Kiran Ridley

Hui Shuk-fun (Kiran Ridley)

A BLOCK FROM the Prince Edward Station memorial stands an office building where Enoch Christian Fellowship, a group ministering to Hong Kong police officers, is located. During the Oct. 1 protest, multiple protesters congregated at the building’s front door, noting that Enoch was affiliated with the police, said Pastor Hui Shuk-fun. The protesters eventually left peacefully, but Hui worries about the safety of her family as she’s seen people snooping around the building.

Much of the protesters’ vitriol has been directed at the Hong Kong Police Force, as videos circulate of police beating protesters and shoving their faces into the ground. Since the protests began, police have fired rubber bullets, sponge grenades, water cannons, several live rounds, and nearly 5,000 tear gas canisters at the protesters.

A poll conducted by the Center for Communication and Public Opinion Survey at the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that 70 percent of respondents did not trust the police to some degree, with 52 percent saying they had zero trust in the police.

Hui said the breakdown of trust has been extremely difficult on the police officers she ministers to as they feel “no one accepts or appreciates” the police anymore. Once known as “Asia’s finest,” Hong Kong police officers now face death threats and are met with shouts of “Corrupt cops!” and “Triad members!” as they approach.

Some protesters hurl Molotov cocktails, bricks, and corrosive liquids at the police, and at times gang up to attack them. On Oct. 13, police said protesters remotely detonated a homemade explosive on a road near where police were clearing roadblocks. None were injured.

The spouses and children of police officers are also receiving threats: Some find their personal information posted online, while others say their children face discrimination at schools. Some officers have left their churches, Hui said, sometimes because of the church’s stance on the protests but sometimes because fellow congregants view them differently and call them corrupt.

Enoch Christian Fellowship has about 400-500 members, including active police officers, trainees, retired police, and family members of the police. Hui says she often receives calls from police wives asking for prayer because they’re afraid of what will happen to their husbands at work. Other police officers call her to discuss work pressures, emotional troubles, and relationship problems.

As a chaplain of the police department, she’s able to accompany the department’s psychologist to visit police officers—many of whom are non-Christians—and pray with them and invite them to the fellowship. She found that some police officers are more resistant to the gospel because they view Christians as siding with the “rioters” and allowing them to take shelter in churches. “We encourage them to look at the Bible itself, not how others interpret the Bible,” Hui said. “Don’t look to people, look to God.”

Starting in July, Hui started listing evidences of God’s grace through the protests: She noted moments God protected members of the fellowship from harm, times when police arrested protesters with dangerous materials in their homes, and the fact that the 18-year-old protester who was shot in the chest by police on Oct. 1 was in a stable condition. Each night at 10 p.m. she sends out a list of prayer requests through WhatsApp and prays with others in the fellowship.

Hui knows that many Christians disagree with her pro-police and pro-government views, as she receives nasty feedback to her posts on Enoch’s websites, but she knows her writing has brought encouragement to police who feel they’re finally understood. Hui’s college-aged children also disagree with her political stance, but at home Hui doesn’t engage in discussions because she doesn’t feel she can speak for the police.

Recently, some churches began holding discussions with Christian police officers, pastors, and young people in an effort for different sides to better understand each other. Rather than discuss politics, they talk about how they’re feeling on a personal level and how to care for one another.

“I think if Christians can put down their views and only discuss their mission, I think it’s possible to reconcile,” Hui said, pointing to Jesus’ call to love one another and the Great Commission to make disciples of all men. “But if it’s about who’s right and wrong, we’ll never come together.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.