It Wasn’t the Tear Gas that Surprised Me

Hong Kong
22.3193° N, 114.1694° E
How Pastoring in the Midst of Protests Changed One Man's Perspective
By Anonymous

t the end of my street, just a few yards beyond my apartment building, a wisp of tear gas curled around the corner of the road. Hundreds of protesters were fleeing in the other direction, doing their best to seek cover from the unseen clash just beyond my view.

Despite the desperation of the scene, it wasn’t the tear gas that surprised me. After three months of weekly clashes between protesters and police in my neighborhood, the acrid stinging in my eyes had become a familiar experience. What surprised me was a person.

My eyes were drawn to him immediately. He was not dressed like the other protesters, adorned with the masks and umbrellas of the city’s front-liners. He had nothing on him to protect himself from the chemical onslaught. He stood still, facing against the rushing tide of people. While everyone else fled in the other direction, he stood rooted in place.

At first I thought this was an act of defiance—a brave display of nonviolent resistance. But as I stood watching, I noticed his mouth was moving as his head shifted from side to side. The expression on his face was not fear or anger, but concern. He was speaking to the fleeing protesters, but he wasn’t trying to get them to stand their ground and fight back. Instead, he seemed concerned for their well-being and care. He stood against the tide, at the cost of his own safety, to offer some kind of calming presence. His posture was not provocative. It was pastoral. 

As I watched this all unfold, I felt an uncomfortable move of the Holy Spirit inside me. I have been a pastor in Hong Kong for 20 years, but this man embodied the power of the church more in that moment than I ever have. Like Caleb and Joshua standing before the majority opinion of the returning spies, this man carried with him a different spirit. I realized, soberly, that I did not. 

The church in Hong Kong is at an inflection point for the gospel. Alongside a global pandemic, our city has experienced a complete social and political upheaval in the past three years as a result of the protests and China’s response in its attempt to restore order. Many have welcomed the return of peace and calm to the streets, while many others have been left bruised and conflicted. And the church must now decide how to respond.

Will we become a bold and central voice of hope, faith, and identity in the years ahead, courageously rooting ourselves in the fertile soil of the gospel? Or will we feebly shrink into the shadows of our own self-concerns and self-preservation? Will the church reach out to a divided city, willing to plant our pastoral presence within the hardest of circumstances? Or will we settle for a comfortable gospel that keeps the lights on in our church buildings but extinguishes our prophetic light in the public square?

In my local community in Hong Kong, the kind of halfhearted cultural Christianity that seeks God’s favor—minus the sacrificial obedience needed to follow Jesus—is no longer an option. Perhaps it never was. If the church in our city has any future, it must shift from the pursuit of relevance to the pursuit of a fresh kind of gospel resilience that is forged in the fires of dramatic societal change. And we need pastors, like that man standing before the tear gas at the end of my street, who are able to offer brave pastoral hope in fearful political times. 

John Chan is one such pastor who has bent his knee to this call. Born and raised in Hong Kong in the ’80s, he studied Karl Barth in Germany before returning to Hong Kong to pursue a pastoral and academic career. Now in his early 40s, Chan is smart, engaging, deeply theological, and courageously able to connect Scripture and social change together in a way that invites people to process their traumatic experiences. He is willing to stand at the end of the proverbial street as the political tear gas creeps around the corner. He there offers a stable presence of hope.

“I grew up in a time of Hong Kong that was fabulous,” John says as we sit together over coffee. “A time when the culture was strong, when we all dreamed of a good future, when the youth of this city had hope and expectation. So much has now changed.”

Chan’s pastoral concerns for Hong Kong are centered around the young adults of the city, a generation caught between the affluent success of the over-40s and the relative innocence of the under-20s. “My generation grew up focused on making money and were mostly politically neutral. But the current generation is much more politically engaged and concerned. Which presents an important but challenging environment for the church.”

This was especially apparent in 2014, the year Occupy Central began. Signaling the first political student protest movement, the key leaders confessed publicly to their Christian faith. As an academic at the time, Chan noticed how his students were looking toward the Christian institutions in the city to offer guidance. “Our seminaries needed to quickly shift from teaching political theology to teaching political ethics. We suddenly needed a praxis more than a theory.”

This need for praxis in a time of rapid social change had to flow eventually from the halls of academia to the pulpits of the local churches, but such a shift was slow to come. Many pastors were not equipped to deal with the issues that the political upheaval was creating. As Chan observes, “Very few pastors felt able to address the major issues impacting their congregants, often from fear of being labeled too political. So at the time something significant happened, the pulpit slowly became disconnected from the people.” 

This sense of disconnection raised its head again in the summer of 2019, about the time that tear gas crept around the corner of my street. “With the second wave of student protests in 2019,” Chan says, “the church seemed to have learned little from last time, and many of the same mistakes were made. And this led to a lot of young people leaving the church. Not leaving Jesus, just leaving the church.”

This exodus led Chan to plant a new church that would be flexible enough to embrace a new generation of Christians who wanted Jesus and social justice to sit side by side, while continuing to deepen the gospel through sacrificial discipleship. He called it Flow Church, and within just a few years it has grown to more than 400 people, most of them young adults.

“Flow Church exists because Hong Kong Christians have a unique challenge different to the west,” he says. “Our issue is not one of the relationship between church and state. Our issue is how to live in a society with a disproportional imbalance of power.”

This imbalance of power is more than just a postcolonial hangover. As Chan puts it, “We have a unique situation because our empire is our motherland.” It is this unchangeable situation that has caused some to give up hope for their future, with a growing number choosing to emigrate from Hong Kong. But for Chan, he stands rooted to a particular passage that has become the foundation of his renewed pastoral ministry. “John 10:10 promises us that Jesus came so we can have abundant life. This is not conditional on a particular place or time, or a particular station in life. Despite how hard things appear for Hong Kong right now, I believe our people can know the fullness of life and joy.”

It is this vision of a full life that drives Chan’s ministry. He and his church are digging deeper roots in the soil of the city. His church desires to be a stable and sure presence of pastoral care in the wild rush of change around them. And this will require no small amount of courage, sacrifice, and strength. 

As a pastor alongside Chan in the ministry of this city, I find myself reinvigorated by his bravery. I don’t want to remain down the street, a distant observer to the spiritual courage of others. Like Chan, I want to be able to stand amongst those who are hurting with a resolve in my heart despite the stinging in my eyes.

This different spirit—as seen in Caleb and Joshua and my friend John—is defined by a wholeheartedness toward God. This sobers me, for I sense my own heart is divided, torn apart by fear, self-preservation, and institutional concerns. I need a new heart for this new calling. A new wineskin, if you will. And that is always a move of God’s spirit.

As a friend recently put it, “The hardest calling is our first one: death to self.” Like that man at the end of that street, staring down the tear gas and offering comfort to others, may we take the dying side so others can take the living side.

Cover Photograph by Thomas Chan

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