In the name of the Father

IT IS not often in Hong Kong that you meet someone who believes in miracles, unless of course they are of the economic variety. So Pastor Charles McKnelly expects a degree of scepticism when he recalls the many instances of divine intervention that have punctuated his 36 years in the territory. 'You may find this hard to believe but it's true,' he insists as he describes how a handicapped child was cured overnight, how he himself recovered within hours of being near to death and how help often expediently arrived in times of great need.

Given that McKnelly's life has been devoted to caring for the needy, the hard times have been many. Even at the point of exhaustion, as he was a few days ago when he retreated to Cheung Chau for a brief respite, the 57-year-old pastor won't rest for long. He has too much on his mind, particularly now when he is about to lose the sanctuary for homeless Filipinas for which he campaigned so vigorously.

The shelter, part of the Hing Tin Transit Centre in Tuen Mun which accommodates up to 70 people, was provided by the Government in 1994 after years of petitioning by McKnelly for a suitable hostel. Now the Housing Department wants to move Chinese families in and the Filipinas out. It looks as though nothing short of a miracle will prevent homeless Filipinas from ending up back on the streets.

'How can they move? They have nowhere to go. I cannot put these women on the streets, I will go to prison first,' vows McKnelly, and there can be no doubt he means it. But the powers-that-be in this case are adamant that the women must leave. Senior housing manager of the Tuen Mun (East) Housing Department, Chan Wing-cheong, was not unsympathetic to the Filipinas' plight but stressed the shelter had been granted on a temporary basis, initially only for three months. 'The women have already been there a long time. We now require the space to be vacated as it is needed for those affected by clearance of temporary housing or in case of natural disasters. Of course, we will not force the women out ... we will persuade them to go.' There are around 30 Filipinas currently staying at Hing Tin, some have been sacked by their employers, some have walked out after being subjected to abuse or violence, some are pregnant - all have nowhere to go and no money to support themselves. Human rights campaigner Anne Smyth, a long-time friend of Knelly's who also helps Filipinas, says that sometimes the women are in a desperate state. 'We have picked up vastly pregnant women sleeping in subways and parks. There was one woman who had been at Kai Tak for days, when anyone asked her what she was doing there she'd say that she had just missed a flight and was waiting to get on another one.

'The Filipinas make up the largest expatriate community in Hong Kong, yet there is no support for them. They are considered insignificant in the scheme of things. They are a tranquil people and they seem to accept the most awful treatment. The abuse has to be terrible before they will willingly walk out on to the street.' Prejudice against the Filipino community in Hong Kong appalls McKnelly, who was horrified when pornographic pictures were mysteriously stuck up on walls at the Hing Tin shelter several days ago. Who could have been responsible? 'I don't know, but someone obviously doesn't want us here,' says McKnelly. Meanwhile he is actively seeking an alternative shelter. 'I cannot believe that there is not somewhere we could use. Most of the transit camps in Hong Kong are empty - why should it be so difficult to find room for us?' THERE are those in Hong Kong who regard McKnelly as nothing less than a saint. R.J, a now-unemployed Filipino domestic worker, is one of them. 'I was in hospital and my family terminated my contract. I had nowhere to go. Pastor McKnelly took care of me,' she explains.

One of the many children whom McKnelly has adopted over the years, Chan Chung-wai, still sees his 'father' regularly. Now 32 and working for a fibreglass company, he says: 'I don't know what I'd have done without him. He has helped me tremendously and taught me right from wrong. He is such a good person, always willing to help anyone in need, whether they are Chinese, English or any other nationality.' Anne Smyth even goes so far as to describe McKnelly as 'Christ-like'. 'He is the single most unselfish person I have ever met. He is totally fearless. I feel ashamed at how little I do when it is stacked against what he does.' Praise indeed. But looking back at the pastor's charitable career, perhaps such reverence is not out of context.

That McKnelly forgot our appointment for this interview at least makes him human. A phone call and profuse apology later, we arranged to meet at his church, the Glorious Praise Christian Centre in Tai Wo Hau. A little drop of succour in the midst of the industrial ocean that is Kwok Shui Road, this cheery blue and white building provides a refuge for several homeless people, of all nationalities, most of whom sleep on the floor. Church literature dotted about the room and pinned to the noticeboard, describes the centre as 'the place where people get their hurts healed'.

Sitting at the centre's well-worn table, McKnelly, born in Missouri, describes how he became a Methodist pastor at 17. His first congregation numbered 10 until, he says, 'I had a bit of miracle.' More and more people started turning up at his church and within two years his flock had swollen to 250.

He came to Hong Kong with the Oriental Missionary Society in 1960, after being moved to act by a magazine article about refugees in Asia. He spent eight hours a day studying Cantonese, founded a kindergarten near Yuen Long, established two churches in the Kam Tin area and heard about a Chinese woman who was also spreading the word of Christianity in local villages. McKnelly went to investigate. Over her door were the words 'Canaan House Of Prayer', inside and in the surrounding wooden shacks he found some 45 refugees, children, prostitutes and vagrants whom she had taken under her wing.

'I asked how she was looking after all these people - in those days there was no social welfare - and she said, 'Every day I pray and somehow God brings us someone who provides us with money or food.' She made a huge impression on me. This woman was using every cent she had to care for suffering people and I thought why can't I do the same?' Some weeks later a fellow pastor knocked on McKnelly's door. 'He was crying. He had 15 children he'd found on the streets but he already had seven himself and could not take them in.' Nor could McKnelly turn them away, and so he adopted the first of his 135 children. He found a cheap flat to rent and began teaching English to help pay for the cost of their upbringing. Over the years many more waifs and strays were given shelter in his home: either McKnelly would stumble upon them sleeping rough on the streets or the police would bring them to his door.

'I used to walk the streets at night and see so many children sleeping rough, many of them sick. Child labour was a big problem in those days, whole villages in China would send their children to find jobs in Hong Kong and many of them would end up working in garages for $1 a day and sleeping in the back of the cars they had been repairing. It was like something out of the Dark Ages. I once found 20 homeless children on Kwun Tong ferry pier, most of them were runaways. Then I took in four children whose mother was a prostitute and drug addict. Over the time I knew her she had 11 children. The other seven died from drug addiction.

'Lots of the children had emotional problems: their parents were often drug addicts or alcoholics. Many of them recovered, some continued to have problems,' says McKnelly. The story of Leung Kam-hai is one that McKnelly obviously finds painful to tell. Leung's brother and step-brother, both drug addicts, had locked him up and injected him with heroin to get him to work as a drug pusher. He was 18 years old. 'He came to me crying, and I tried to help him get off drugs,' says McKnelly. But over the years, Leung's struggle with the addiction proved too much to bear.

When he was admitted to hospital after drinking weed killer, McKnelly was at his bedside. 'He said to me, 'You are the best father I could ever have had.' He was shouting that there was a bright light in the room and that he saw Jesus standing in the corner. The next day he died.' But if McKnelly has many sad memories, he says he has 'many pleasant and happy ones too'. Such as when his 'family' had grown to around 30, and he simply had no room to take more. Then another miracle occurred. 'A lady knocked on my door and offered me a house in Sai Kung with an acre of land. So I took all the children and moved there.' Soon he had 40 youngsters but no kitchen and no laundry, which he 'desperately needed'. Then another benefactor came forward with a gift of $70,000 and lo, the laundry was built.

On another occasion, recalls McKnelly, there was nothing to feed the children. They sat down at midday and prayed to God for lunch. One o'clock came and went, then at 2 pm there was a knock at the door. 'It was a group from St Andrew's Church in Tsim Sha Tsui, their cars filled with frozen chickens, canned foods, rice, vegetables ...' Then there was the five-year-old handicapped girl. 'Her mother did not want her. Both her eyes were crossed. I felt such compassion ... I prayed for her eyes to be healed. The next morning when she woke up, her eyes were straight. All the other children were so shocked they made her sit in the living room and would not let her move while they sat and watched her for two hours.' In between miracles, children came and went, some staying for 10 to 15 years, others for a shorter term. But by 1982, McKnelly was ill with exhaustion.

'I was burned out. Most of the children had grown up and I gave up. I had been looking after children for 20 years and thought it was time I got some money for my old age. I also wanted to train some of the older boys, so I started a computer company in Shamshuipo. For the first three years, Megabyte Computers was extremely successful. But as McKnelly's health failed, he was able to work only a few hours a day. Severe stomach and heart problems meant he was averaging six stays a year in hospital.

Then, a month after Leung Kam-hai died after drinking weed killer, McKnelly had a heart attack. 'I had been grieving so hard. I knew I was going to die. Business was failing, I was in debt. I knew I'd been doing the wrong thing. I said, 'God, I will go back to taking care of children, anything you want me to do, just don't let me die.' It was a miracle. Three hours later I sat up in bed. I had a new heart. They did tests at the hospital and could find nothing wrong.' True to his word, McKnelly has gone back to helping those in need. This time they include Filipino domestic workers, Hong Kong's ex-convicts and drug addicts as well as children. He turned an abandoned church owned by the Canadian Asssembly of God into the Glorious Praise Christian Centre for displaced people. But the hostel is only small, says McKnelly, and the Tuen Mun centre only temporary. He eyes a vacant building through the window of the centre. It is Kwai Chung transit camp. 'Most of it is empty. You could accommodate 250 people in there. I think we could maintain it a lot better than the Government could,' he says.

Another piece of church literature catches my eye. It reads: 'Psalms 66:1-2 Make His Praise Glorious. Awesome are His deeds'.