Top Hong Kong Christian leader urges tolerance and respect as city’s political divisions continue

Eric So Shing-yit, described as less outspoken than his predecessor, shares his vision in the early days of his two-year term as Christian Council chairman

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 January, 2016, 5:22pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 January, 2016, 5:37pm

What role should Christian churches play in Hong Kong? This is a question asked by many Hongkongers in recent years, regardless of their faith and political beliefs.

As Christians played a leading part in the pro-democracy Occupy movement that emerged in 2014, some argued that the city’s 500,000 Protestants should speak up against injustice, while some believed that promoting harmony was more important. Still others saw followers of Jesus Christ as God’s servants – especially in the city’s education and welfare services.

However, for Hong Kong Christian Council chairman Reverend Eric So Shing-yit, churches should combine the three objectives.

READ MORE: One cleric’s view: religious bodies should give up role in Hong Kong leadership election

“In the past, I’ve heard relatively more often that churches should be like a prophet ... speaking up on social issues, criticising unfair systems, autocracies and suppression,” So told the Post in a rare and exclusive interview last week. “But is that all we should do?”

He said churches should be a servant and a priest “who prays and brings reconciliation” for people while bringing them nearer to God.

The 58-year-old pastor was elected the council’s chairman in October last year, taking over from the outspoken Methodist pastor Reverend Yuen Tin-yau.

Founded in 1954 for churches to unite and reach out to society, the council is one of Hong Kong’s most iconic religious organisations. Its members include 22 denominations and societies such as the Hong Kong YMCA, the Anglican churches, as well as the Hong Kong Council of the Church of Christ in China, of which So has been general secretary since 2005.

The Christian Council and five other religious bodies hold 10 seats each in the 1,200-strong Election Committee that selects the city’s chief executive.

As Hong Kong has been deeply divided in recent years over issues such as political reform, gay rights, and the city’s relationship with the mainland, So predicted that there would be “great challenges” during his two-year term.

“Hong Kong is very divided and polarised, and we need to learn to lay ourselves down and love each other,” he said.

So questioned the equality watchdog’s call for a public consultation on legislation to protect sexual minorities from discrimination.

READ MORE: Christian groups hope for shift to the right as search for new Hong Kong equality watchdog chief begins

And one of his first tests would be to reach a decision on whether to give up the council’s 10 seats on the 1,200-strong Election Committee, which was to decide whether beleaguered Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying would carry on for another term next year – should he decide to run.

Yuen, So’s predecessor, had suggested that the 10 seats “could be scrapped”, contending that the electorates of the committee’s subsectors were “imbalanced” and gave rise to social injustice.

But So said the council’s executive committee would reach a decision on the matter by mid-year.

“I haven’t made any personal decisions,” he said. “Some suggested giving them up, while some others suggested keeping them.”

So was not an election committee member when Leung was elected with 689 votes in 2012. But he suggested that if he could meet the chief executive face to face, he would tell him that Hong Kong needs a leader with a servant’s heart.

“Society needs tolerance and respect,” So explained. “As a servant, it is crucial to think about how to set aside personal interest and dedicate yourself. This is what I tell everyone about leadership.”

The pastor declined to say if Leung was such a leader. But he said that from a meeting between the chief executive and a group of Christian leaders about two years ago, he felt that Leung was a person who listened, which was “different from the image portrayed in the media”.

In September last year, it was So, not Yuen, who joined a 287-strong delegation led by Leung who visited Beijing to witness the military parade marking the 70th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in the second world war.

So’s impression of the chief executive contrasted with Yuen’s. Last year, the 65-year-old Methodist advised Leung to “tolerate different opinions in society” as many of the chief executive’s remarks “made the social atmosphere more disharmonious”.

Pastor Wu Chi-wai, general secretary of Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, told the Post that he felt that So “was less outspoken or bold than Yuen”.

“He has been very low-profile ... but I hope that as a leader of churches, he can speak up when he needs to,” Wu said. His group was not affiliated with the council.

However, So said people should not compare him with Yuen and pass judgment.

Describing Yuen as his “good friend”, So said: “Reverend Yuen and my predecessors are all members of the council, and we read the same Bible.”

He added that it was not a matter of being liberal or conservative, but “how we apply biblical truth and walk in our faith, which varies among followers and churches.”

So hoped that instead of making the comparison, people could gain insight from his personal story.

Prior to a career in the church, he had a fledgling career at a Japanese company’s Hong Kong branch.

READ MORE: Handle with care: Pastor says proper debate can heal Hong Kong’s political divide

But in 1979, So heard a sermon delivered to a youth gathering at his church and was inspired to embark on a new journey.

Referring to the Hong Kong Council of the Church of Christ in China’s general secretary at the time, So said: “Pastor Peter Wong encouraged young people to dedicate their life to serving God ... so after much praying and advice-seeking from pastors and tutors, I started studying for a divinity degree at the Chinese University.”

Two years after being ordained a pastor in 1988, So faced one of the most challenging times in his career when he was tasked with simultaneously starting a kindergarten and a church in Tsing Yi.

“It was a very demanding job, but looking back, it was also a great time when I learnt to take new steps without really seeing what the future is like,” he said. “I think we must not be afraid of failure, because every setback could turn out to be a precious experience.”

So once served as the Christian Council’s general secretary from 1999 to 2005, when the council joined with Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the Roman Catholic bishop at the time, in opposing a contentious bill that proposed handing responsibilities for running government-subsidised schools to committees on which parents, teachers and community figures were represented.

Since 2005, So has been his church’s general secretary, overseeing the operation of more than 50 branch churches, about 40 primary and secondary schools, and at least five kindergartens.