Christian and gay: LGBT church group first to worship at Hong Kong Pride Parade
- Pastors from Blessed Ministry Community Church in Sheung Wan want less struggle for those caught between their sexuality and faith
- Move is part of wider push for gay rights and aims to give alternative voices to those silenced by religion
When Joe Pang, a young Malaysian-Chinese pastor, told the leader of his Kuala Lumpur-based church that he was gay, his senior pastor had one response: write your resignation letter and pack your bags.
A few hours later, Pang walked away from a congregation he had considered home and family for 12 years.
“I lost my whole world, all my friends, but I am so thankful now because I am honest to myself,” says Pang, who now leads an LGBT-inclusive Christian church in Sheung Wan, Hong Kong.
Recalling his time at the previous church, he says: “Every day I would go to work and I needed to pretend, because I knew what their answer would be once they knew who I am.”
Since walking away, Pang has been focused on being a pastor for Christians in the LGBT community – individuals whose sexual identities are often at odds with the teachings of the mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches.
He moved to Hong Kong after establishing an LGBT-inclusive church in Malaysia. In the city, he became a senior reverend at the 26-year-old Blessed Ministry Community Church, one of Asia’s oldest churches open to the LGBT community.
Pang has since become an advocate of the gay Christian movement in Asia: last month he joined a dozen pastors advocating same-sex marriage in a march in Taiwan. Taking inspiration from the long-standing presence of religion in that parade, he fashioned an oversized rainbow cross to march with at the Hong Kong Pride Parade.
At Saturday’s Pride Parade, he will lead the event’s first worship service and holy communion in its 10-year history.
“All the voices against [LGBT people], they come from religion, they come from the Christian religion. We are the gay Christians, we know how to respond to them and we know why they are so loud,” Pang says. “That’s why we need to be there.”
Hong Kong has no anti-discrimination law for sexual minorities, and conservative Christian groups have led the push-back against calls for such legislation and for legalising same-sex marriage.
The conservative stance is enshrined in the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, which recognises marriage between a man and woman. Conservative Christian groups often urge the courts to honour this definition, as in a case this summer, where a ruling denied giving spousal benefits to civil servants in same-sex marriages which were registered overseas.
The largest show against gay rights came in 2013, when a Legislative Council proposal to discuss an anti-discrimination law was met with opposition from tens of thousands of Christians who gathered outside government buildings in Tamar Park.
Protest organisers from a local evangelical Christian church said the law would limit their right to speak against homosexuality. The consultation on the proposed law was never held.
That movement was a catalyst for the formation of Covenant of the Rainbow, a Christian coalition that supports such rights and inclusion in the church.
Now comprising 11 Christian organisations and churches, the covenant’s goal is to show that Christians differed on opinions of homosexuality, according to group representative Jason Ho.
“Not all Christians are like that, that’s why the LGBT-inclusive and affirming groups of Christians must come out and balance [the conservative] voice – because their voice is not the only attitude, their voice is not the only voice of Christians,” Ho says.
Balancing this voice matters as it not only influences public opinion in Hong Kong but also members of Christian churches who quietly conceal their sexual identities out of fear they may be ostracised, Ho says. His views are echoed by covenant co-representative Shirley Lam.
Both Ho and Lam are pastors at the Blessed Ministry Community Church alongside Pang.
“When we were growing up, we stayed in the church and we knew we were LGBT people, but part of us was invisible to others,” Ho says. “We know there are many believers in Christian churches who are discovering their sexual orientation, or facing personal identity issues.”
Both Lam and Ho experienced this in different ways in their Hong Kong-based churches. For Lam, her coming out to her religious mentor was met with silence. Ho, formerly a Jehovah’s Witness, was forced to sever all ties with his church. While Ho says his case was extreme, their experiences highlight the kinds of dilemma that LGBT Christians face.
“Being openly rejected or quietly withering away from the church – it creates a severe mental stress,” says Lam, who went on to receive her seminary training at Chinese University.
All three pastors say they have seen a trend in local churches toward acceptance or at least more interest in better understanding the LGBT experience.
“Every year you have more churches and more seminaries and pastors come to listen to our story, I think this is a good sign. I will continue to open myself and let people know our story,” Pang says.
He adds that he was surprised when he received an invitation to take the stage for 30 minutes before the start of this year’s pride parade, alongside Reverend Grace Bok Sha-lun of the One Body in Christ church to lead a worship ceremony. He says gay rights opposition from Christian groups and the pain endured by LGBT members of churches has made organisers wary of including religion in the past.
Pang sees this invitation as part of a greater trend that could boost the LGBT movement and openness to LGBT Christians in churches throughout Asia, as Hong Kong Christians follow Taiwan’s lead and Malaysia’s community looks to Hong Kong.
“In 10, 20 years, we will have success,” Pang said.
But the impact of the worship service and “open-table” communion to all on Saturday may be more immediate for LGBT Christians in Hong Kong, Lam says.
“If they feel the openness of this, that they are finally accepted, that they finally can take communion, I expect some fundamental things can change,” she says.
“Some people are really struggling, asking if they have to give up their Christian faith to be gay, and we want to say, ‘it’s OK, you can be both.’”