As anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong enter their sixth month, local pastors and Christians continue to debate and refine their responses. The increasingly violent protests, sparked by a controversial extradition bill, have spurred many believers to action while dividing some congregations.
Ordinary citizens have sustained the pro-democracy movement in the territory of 7.5 million, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997. About 11 percent of Hong Kong’s population is Christian, and church leaders have maintained a visible presence during the protests. Pastors, identified by special vests and helmets, hand out water bottles, provide medical aid, act as intermediaries, and even photograph the demonstrations. Churches have opened their doors to protesters—and police—who need refuge.
When protests began in June, the hymn “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” became an unofficial anthem of the movement. Some demonstrators marched with crosses and church banners as they sang.
Actions Show ‘companionship’ With Participants, Say Pastors
Alan Keung, a 28-year-old pastor, prays with protesters and serves as a medic, squirting saline solution into eyes aflame with tear gas. He also aids injured police officers and has shielded them from angry demonstrators. “My mission is to bring God’s love to the crowd,” he says, and “to let them know that there’s a pastor who is willing to be together with all of them.”
Being involved feels like a mission to Keung. “I am not someone who merely stays in the church and talks about humanity, justice and morality, and ignores what’s going on at the frontline,” he says. “I want to show my companionship at the frontline and to be in the crowd when I’m needed.”
Pastor Ka-Kit Ao, 34, admits it’s tough to tell whether he’s making a difference. “But we can’t just sit at home,” he says. The pastor and his team of volunteers urge both sides—protesters and authorities—to back off and remain polite. “They might call us cockroaches,” he tells demonstrators, “but we should refer to them as police officers.”
Allegations of police brutality have led some Christians to take and post visual evidence. The Rev. Yeung Kwan, 50, runs a Facebook page with pictures from the frontlines. “Keeping a record is so important,” he says. Without documentation and media coverage, “Hong Kong will be in a chilly winter.”
Groups and Churches Also Play Key Roles
Protect the Children, a largely Christian group with about 200 members, works to safeguard protesters, who are mostly youth and young adults. Pastor Roy Chan, one of its founders, says, “The more the government suppresses this movement and tries to scare people, the more people will step out and stand up.”
Though he started as a protester, Pastor Joe Pao, 29, later joined Protect the Children to try to make peace. “I realized I could do something more useful than throwing bricks,” he says. Serving as a mediator is frustrating, he admits, and “the impact is definitely small.”
Church buildings have become places of refuge for protesters and police, no matter their faith. Chinese Methodist Church, located in a district near the main demonstrations, opens its doors to provide shelter, bathrooms, food, first aid, and comfort. “Our church is becoming a church without barriers,” says the Rev. Yuen Tin-yau, 68. “Some people have told us when they come in here they feel peace, even people who are not Christians.”
The church offered its basement to police officers after a flu outbreak forced them to evacuate a nearby hotel. “No matter what kind of person you are, we welcome you,” says Yuen. “Because this is to fulfill our faith. We are willing to love everyone with the love of Jesus Christ.”
Do Politics Belong in the Pulpit?
Some congregations, however, have been split between pro-democracy and pro-government factions. Traditionally, churches in Hong Kong have focused on meeting people’s religious, social, and educational needs, but that’s been shifting. “People are getting richer, and they don’t just want services,” says Yuen. “They want to build a fair and righteous society, and this is particularly what the young generation wants.” Churches tend to respond to those needs “very slowly,” he admits.