HONG KONG (BP) — Months of unrest and protests have transformed Hong Kong from a hub of global finance to an unpredictable place of upheaval. Butch Tanner, pastor of Kowloon International Baptist Church (KIBC), sees the wear and tear from the last six months in the faces of his congregation.
Three years ago, Tanner and his wife Carole arrived from Longview, Texas, where he had served at Oakland Heights Baptist Church. There’s no doubt Hong Kong life has changed since they arrived. The pastor sees his friends and neighbors struggling financially. He sees the strain between family members who pick different sides of the protested issues. Most importantly, though, he sees people searching for hope in the midst of uncertainty and crisis.
“We’ve been praying for years that Hong Kong would see its brokenness and boy do they ever now,” Tanner says, noting that an overwhelming sense of defeatism envelops the city with every new protest.
When the protests began in June the issues were about the government’s plans to allow extradition to mainland China. Under the “one country, two systems” arrangement from 1997, Hong Kong maintains some autonomy from China, and its people enjoy certain rights. The extradition bill was withdrawn in September yet protests continued. Now, protestors demand full democracy and an inquiry into actions taken by the police.
Thousands marched on New Year’s Day in what was supposed to be a peaceful protest authorized by the police. It ended in violent clashes and vandalism, tear gas, water cannons and pepper spray. It’s unclear how long the city itself can endure a movement that has resulted in 6,000 arrests and an economic recession. Tanner explains that most people doubt anything will change.
“People have lost faith in the government and even the movement. In the middle of this crisis, some people are looking for answers that they’ve never looked for before,” Tanner says. In the mostly Buddhist and Taoist city, more people have asked him questions about his faith in recent months than in the last few years combined. “If we, in the midst of chaos, can show how you stand firm in your faith, then it helps people see Jesus.”
KIBC chose not to take a side — of the protesters, the government or the police — but to minister, encourage and love. The church, though located near a university where several protests have taken place, has become a refuge from the chaos. It hosts special prayer nights for the congregation’s beloved city. In the pews each week sit people from all three sides, worshiping together.
Many in the congregation are first-generation Christians and the only ones in their families. They are growing in how they pray, Tanner says, especially during the crisis.
“They spent a lifetime offering fruit or incense to a series of gods, pleading for something they wanted. As a follower of Christ, we go to God and say, ‘God, make me like you. Help me to understand and give me wisdom,'” Tanner explains. “That’s a totally different approach. Praying like this puts our focus on God and not our own demands.”
One man says the church is the only thing that gets him centered for the chaos of the week. There, he remembers that what’s going on around him is beyond his control but not beyond God.
Tanner says there is a great desire for people to be free. He’s not talking about free of the government, the new financial woes or even free of the protests.
“The desire is to be truly free. We’ve got the answer. We just have to be real clear with it,” Tanner explains. “The only way that can truly happen is through Jesus.”
KIBC reports an unusually high number of baptisms in the last six months since the protests started. Several are waiting to be baptized, with even more interested in talking about a relationship with Christ.
“That seems to be a huge plus in the middle of all this,” Tanner adds.
No one knows how long the protests will last but one thing is certain: the effects are far from over. KIBC will continue to minister, encourage and pray for their city. The need is great. The place to start is in prayer.
KIBC invites you to join them in praying for Hong Kong:
— Pray for wisdom as KIBC walks through how they can help people focus on Christ in this crisis.
— Pray that people who have realized the hopelessness would be open to the Gospel.