My husband Lucas and I moved to Hong Kong in June 2019 for him to take up a post as pastor of an English-speaking Anglican church here. Coincidentally, we arrived the same week that protests erupted in the territory. As much as locals and long-termers feel obliged to apologise and tell us that “Hong Kong isn’t usually like this”, turbulence has been the norm for us since we arrived. In January this year, protests took a back seat to news of the Coronavirus spreading over the border.
Hard decisions, and disagreement
All kinds institutions here are having to make hard decisions, including churches like ours. We opted to keep operating as normal, until told otherwise by the Anglican Province. Since 13th February, we have been ordered to suspend all services and meetings.
Our church, mostly composed of immigrants, did not seem to fear the virus as much as the local population at large, or local-majority churches. Perhaps because many had not lived through the SARS epidemic of 2003, which I understand had a large effect on the Hong Kong psyche. When services were cancelled, this caused some upset. I also feared having to stop meeting just as it felt momentum was building on a focus on evangelism and outreach. Even so, I am aware of others who felt services should have been stopped much sooner. These decisions are inevitably divisive, but they are also an opportunity to model good disagreement and respect for authority. Our church leaders everywhere are in an unenviable position, and no decision would have pleased everyone. No one wants to be accused of acting out of fear, but no one wants to be like the South Korean sect responsible for hundreds of infections either!
This has been a time marked by isolation, mostly enforced but some self-enforced as people feel obliged to stay in when they have even a slight cold. Even when with others, the mask-wearing creates a dehumanisation which further separates us. And as a couple, we have really felt the loss of both sets of our parents having to cancel their visits.
It’s been important to recognise that church closures have a much higher cost for some. While some can fly out of the territory to their home countries to wait it out, a third of our congregation are live-in helpers (nannies and maids) who are given only Sundays off and have lost one of their few places of social gathering.
Personally, I have tried to use this time as an opportunity to pursue deeper relationship building via one-on-one meetings, or smaller informal socials. It is my hope and prayer that others are motivated to do the same, rather than “check-out” spiritually and relationally. It is a time where I have been really forced to trust God with the health and future of our church.
In theory technology plays an important role in keeping us connected, but surprisingly people have been less keen to take advantage of these tools when it comes to church, even while increasingly tech-savvy in every other sphere of life. While discouraging it’s maybe not a bad thing that technology is revealed to be a truly unsatisfying replacement to in-person interaction. “Online church” can’t fully replace Sunday attendance, and a remote meeting can’t replace the warmth of a shared meal. In our wider community of neighbours and colleagues, there is a tangible sense of hunger and desperation for relationship that was perhaps taken for granted before, as life today conspires to keep us at home with our devices and nuclear families. We can only hope this hunger remains as the virus recedes.
There is plenty of discouraging news of toilet paper heists, mask hoarding, xenophobia, and nimbyism. The government placed a couple of quarantine centres near where we live as it is more rural and undeveloped than much of Hong Kong, and this caused bigger protests in our sleepy former fishing village than anything else in the previous year. As depressing as all that is, we have seen amazing opportunities for Christians to show counter-cultural love and generosity that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.
Our church had a weekly mission to send homemade cookies to the quarantine site, with an accompanying message of encouragement from us. It must be such a change from others reacting to the modern-day leper colony with resentment and fear. Outside church I am involved in an outreach to sex workers, and even while the streets are unnervingly quiet, this keeps going without fail, showing in an obvious way that Christians are less fearful of death than the world around us. And because customers are few, we have had amazing breakthroughs of long conversations, and unprecedented access from pimps to previously hidden workers. Thanks to the generosity of other Christians, we were able to distribute free masks to all who needed them; it felt amazing to give away for free something of such precious value, a small picture of the unmerited grace that Jesus offers us.
I hope that the Coronavirus will not affect UK churches to such a severe extent, but whether or not it does, I hope you will also be encouraged in seeing the new gospel opportunities that are presented, and the new things that God teaches you during this challenging time.