Briton John Snelgrove lopes across the coffee shop floor of Pacific Coffee in the ground-floor lobby of The Vine in Wan Chai loudly calling my name. “Ah, there you are,” he says, before enveloping me in a hug.
Snelgrove, 60, senior pastor at The Vine Church, likes to hug. Friends tease him that he is trying to change the world one hug at a time, but it’s a point of great sadness for him that some of the teenaged Hongkongers he sees at church activities become emotional after a hug, saying it’s the first one they’ve ever had, and one area where he is very critical of parenting here.
Snelgrove is tall and lanky – “I’ve just lost some weight, so only have these trousers and one other, so green and cream.” Perhaps in a nod to some of the younger clientele the church ministers to Snelgrove is quite a trendsetter – with Beckhamesque mid-crown quiff. But he’s never been conventional. As an actuary early on in his working life, he says he had a red suit, long hair and platform boots – and since “actuaries make accountants look interesting” one must conclude he was the only follower of fashion.
Snelgrove, a father of two sons and a grandfather of four with one more on the way, came to Hong Kong 26 years ago. Born in East London to a cleaning lady and lift repairman, Snelgrove began working in insurance at age 17 and by age 21 was married.
The Vine provides a centre in Wan Chai that took a whole team, including Snelgrove, around 10 years to bring about. It was an impossible dream, one that involved them raising HK$65 million, and he still can’t quite believe his luck that it came about.
There are three services on a Sunday, and one of them has plenty of modern music to keep the young people happy in a state of the art auditorium. The Vine also has many African and South Asian asylum seekers among its congregation, who also come during the week for gatherings or days when they can cook their native food in the kitchen. Recently the African asylum seekers created a highly successful musical, which received good reviews.
Snelgrove recognises that Hong Kong is the international gateway to China, where Christianity is a fast-growing religion, but at the same time he emphasises that The Vine is not about its services but also how it serves the community.
“The church is not about the number of bums on seats at a service on a Sunday, but how many people we serve. For me, it’s all about the people. I get paid in the currency of changed lives. I love my job. I have the best job in the world.”
Snelgrove decided at 50 to leave his executive job as General Manager for Employee Benefits and Corporate Affairs at National Mutual Insurance or AXA to pursue life as a senior pastor. “I wasn’t trained as a pastor, I was an insurance man.” The church community now known as the Vine was previously meeting at South Island School and needed to find a new venue, so Snelgrove and others started plans – dreams at the time – for The Vine. In 1984, Snelgrove received a strong Christian calling, and he and is wife, Sandra, who is also very active in the church, were both confirmed.
Snelgrove says the church should be about encouragement. “The gift of encouragement – it’s the biggest gift that is missing from the wider church. There are enough people telling you what you are doing wrong. It’s very important to encourage people. In this city there are a lot of people hurting. I think actually the ones who are sometimes hurting the most are the most successful.”
Snelgrove, who describes himself as a “Caucasian Asian”, is quick to point out the team of staff members and volunteers that make running The Vine possible. The article should be about the team, not him he says. Perhaps. But the reader who put forward this senior pastor said that he himself was not religious, but he could see how Snelgrove gave to those around him and is simply a “good man”.