Gunman targets Taiwanese faith with long pro-democracy tie
LOS ANGELES – The recent deadly shooting at the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Irvine, California didn’t just violate sacred space. Taiwanese Americans across the country say it has torn apart their cultural stronghold.
This is where the Laguna Woods congregation worshipped. But it’s also where their native language and support for a democratic Taiwan flourished. Sunday’s mass shooting by a man who officials say was motivated by political hatred of Taiwan has shed light on the Taiwan Presbyterian Church’s close ties to the country’s democracy movement.
Jerry Chen, a church member who dialed 911 after fleeing the shooter, calls himself a ‘proud Presbyterian’ and says the congregation, while avoiding politics in the church, likes to talk about what’s going on in Taiwan.
“We care deeply because we grew up in Taiwan,” he said.
Chen, 72, has been with the congregation since the church was founded 28 years ago. He wonders why a man with no apparent connection to the church would drive from Las Vegas to Laguna Woods, a town of 16,000 populated mostly by retirees, to carry out such an attack.
The members had gathered on Sunday for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic hit for a luncheon in honor of their former pastor, Billy Chang, who was from Taiwan.
Investigators are still gathering information on the shooter, David Chou, 68, who was born in Taiwan after his family was forced out of China when the Communists took over. They said they obtained Chou’s handwritten notes documenting his hatred of Taiwan. In addition to murder and attempted murder, Chou could also face hate crime charges.
The small, tight-knit congregation was a space where older Taiwanese immigrants supported each other, said Sandy Hsu, whose in-laws made the last-minute decision not to attend lunch. The shooting struck fear and anxiety in the Taiwanese community nationwide, she said.
“My in-laws are wondering if it’s safe to reunite in the future,” Hsu said. “We wonder if it is no longer safe to talk about politics or to express our opinions freely.”
Second-generation Taiwanese Americans like Leona Chen say their churches — Presbyterian or any other denomination — have been a “social haven.”
“I have very visceral memories of potlucks where aunts cooked traditional dishes and played matchmaker for young adults,” said Chen, editor of Bay Area-based TaiwaneseAmerican.org, on website and nonprofit serving the Taiwanese American community.
“The uncles who were retired engineers helped the kids with math and SAT prep. The church was also a place where everyone learned about life in a foreign country together – from jury duty to home ownership to their children’s college applications.
But, she also sees the church as “a political space.”
“Particularly in the (Taiwanese) Presbyterian Church, there is a theological commitment to activism, to fight against injustice,” she said. “Churches have become sanctuaries for pro-democracy groups.”
Taiwan is predominantly Buddhist and Taoist; Christians represent only 4% of the population.
The Presbyterian Church carved out a niche and gained political stature in the 1950s after the Kuomintang – or KMT party – came to power in Taiwan, said Christine Lin, who published a book in 1999 on the Presbyterian Church as a Key Defender of Local Self-Government in Taiwan. The party has imposed what many perceive as an oppressive regime and has targeted Presbyterians, even calling them “terrorists”, she said.
On June 28, 1997, three days before Hong Kong returned to China, Lin recalls attending a rally of 60,000 people outside the World Trade Center in Taipei. She said nearly a third of those gathered were Presbyterians who had arrived by bus from across the country.
Lin, who grew up attending a Taiwanese Presbyterian church in St. Louis, saw a Presbyterian minister leading the crowd, chanting Taiwanese phrases like “Make Taiwan Independent” to the tune of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.”
Lin’s uncle and aunt, who both attend church in Laguna Woods, stayed home Sunday, she said. Although she wondered why the attacker chose that particular congregation, Lin said she was not surprised that he chose a Taiwanese Presbyterian church. His undergraduate thesis as an Asian Studies major at Dartmouth College focused on this topic.
“Presbyterians not only succeeded in romanizing the spoken Taiwanese language, but also provided services such as education and health care that other churches did not provide,” she said.
The church distinguished itself as an “indigenous church” that represented Taiwanese, Hakka and indigenous peoples, with a political vision rooted in democracy and self-determination – ideals that many Taiwanese found appealing, Lin said. .
The Presbyterian Church was also instrumental in bringing members of the Democratic Progressive Party to power, said Jufang Tseng, dean of the School of Theology at Charisma University, an online institution based in the Turks Islands. and Caicos.
Tseng worked in the media department of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan from 2001 to 2003. Raised in a family supportive of Taiwan’s reunification with China, Tseng said her mindset later changed thanks to Presbyterians .
“The Presbyterian Church has always been more inclusive,” she said, adding that church leaders were adept at navigating secular spaces without imposing their religious beliefs on others. “Their motivation was based on faith, but they didn’t push Christianity on anyone.”
In the United States, most Taiwanese Presbyterian churches have largely kept out of politics, Lin said.
“The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan has certainly been involved politically, especially from the 1970s,” she said. “But, the churches here, although they have promoted the Taiwanese language and supported self-determination and democracy in Taiwan, have not made outspoken political statements or engaged in activism.”
It’s common to find people with ties to mainland China in many US Taiwanese churches, said Daisy Tsai, associate professor of Old Testament at Logos Evangelical Seminary in El Monte, California.
The two groups may have different political beliefs, but their Christian faith binds them together, she said.
“People generally mix and get along,” said Tsai, who is Taiwanese-American. “In many churches there is an unwritten rule that we don’t discuss politics. But sometimes, these discussions could overflow on social networks and turn into debates.
Al Hsu, a second-generation Taiwanese American who lives in the Chicago area, agrees that the church is not necessarily a place where people talk politics.
“But it’s a place where we foster a sense of our people, our heritage and our national identity,” he said.
Hsu said her mother has dual citizenship and traveled to Taiwan to vote because she cared about the country’s future.
“The church has been a safe place for the older generation to talk with others who share these concerns,” he said. “For someone to enter such a sacred space and target our amahs and agongs (grandmothers and grandfathers) – to attack the elderly we hold in such reverence – is an attack on our entire community.”
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