Sunday, 14 October 2018

Tai Tam

Crossing the Line - part 26

The house at Tai Tam was an old colonial relic.  It was built as a small family house for the manager of the reservoir system which dominates that area of Hong Kong Island – a series of dam walls, reservoirs and catchment channels which provided water for the island before the population explosion after the Second World War.  The house was beautifully situated by the sea with its own small shingle beach.  On the other sides it was surrounded by semi-jungle on steep banks which led up from the shoreline towards the main road to Stanley.

By the 1980s it was well past its former colonial glory and the Hong Kong Government offered it to Jackie on a peppercorn rent, as a First Stage House for heroin addicts.

Downstairs there was a lounge which acted as our meeting room, a dining room, small kitchen, and a tiny office.  Upstairs, all the internal doors had been removed along with some of the stud walls to cram in as many bunk beds as possible forming a dormitory.  It was here that all the men at Tai Tam slept, recent ex-addicts and helpers alike.  Each of us had a top or bottom bunk bed, a small cupboard for clothes, and fan to keep us cool at night.  There was no air-conditioning, except in the office downstairs (and that was rarely used) and we slept with the windows open every night – even in winter!

There were also some outbuildings, which provided a small dormitory for our female helpers, along with a shower & toilet block and our ‘new boy room’.   This was where new brothers spent their first 10 days with us, withdrawing from heroin, methadone, opium, and whatever else they were addicted to.

When I arrived from Walled City it was late in the evening and everyone was already asleep apart from the single figure on night duty, sat at the top of the stairs.  I was told to leave anything valuable in the office and shown to the first empty bed upstairs to get some sleep.  I remember lying there thinking that I was sleeping in a room with around 15 ex-triads who had probably committed more violent crimes that I could imagine, but I was so tired that I soon went to sleep anyway.

Next morning the daily routine at Tai Tam started early.  Wake up was at 6:45am each day and everyone gathered in the lounge by 7:30 for Quiet Time – an hour for individual prayer and Bible study.  The beginning of this Quiet Time was anything but quiet though, beginning with 10 minutes praying out loud in tongues – the prayer language which everyone there had received.  It was a strangely harmonious cacophony of sounds as we all prayed out loud at the same time, but not unpleasant.  In time I learnt to value this as a time when I abandoned all my own thoughts and agendas, learning to turn myself over to God’s agenda for the day.  For me it became a kind of corporate meditation which enabled me to attune myself to God for the day ahead.  I don’t think I was alone in that.  After about ten minutes, the audible gaggle of prayer would gradually fade out and there would be quiet as we read out Bibles, prayed for our families and each other, and listened for anything which God might want to say to each of us.

Then it was breakfast.  It would be fair to say that this never became my favourite meal of the day.  Overall, I loved the food there.  We lived as any Chinese family did.  Fresh food for the day was bought cheaply from the open market in Chai Wan early every morning and we ate rice three times a day.  Lunch and dinner were fine with freshly boiled rice and a variety of meat & vegetable dishes to tuck into.  But breakfast was usually congee which I never became accustomed to.  For those who don’t know, congee is yesterday’s left over rice left in a slow cooker overnight until it turns into a kind of glutinous white soup.  There would be a small amount of finely chopped meat (a little like spam) sprinkled onto it and a super-hot chilli sauce available for the brave to take the taste away, but I hated it!  Occasionally, if there wasn’t enough left over rice from the day before, we would get fried noodles instead and these were red letter days in my book to be enjoyed to the full!

After breakfast, there would be some free time to chat and ‘drink tea’ (yam-cha) before work at 9:30 which consisted of household chores, painting & decorating, general maintenance, and keeping the grounds around the house clean and tidy.  For many of our brothers, this was the first ‘work’ they had done in years and was not universally popular.  For most addicts in the Triads, work used to be dealing or transporting drugs, beating up your opposition, or standing guard at the entrance to some illicit premises.  Picking up a paint brush, a rake or a vacuum cleaner was a whole new experience.

Then there was lunch which I always enjoyed.  That is, I always enjoyed it once I knew how to recognise the dishes I liked and the dishes I didn’t.  There was always a whole fish or two which was good as long as you managed to avoid the honour of eating the eyes or the challenge of eating the head!  Things I was less keen on included deep fried chicken feet which were both cheap and plentiful; cow’s stomach which was so rubbery that it often had to be swallowed whole; and cubes of congealed blood, which (even though I love black pudding in England) never quite managed to win me over.  Alongside these delicacies however, there was always food I loved.  Prawns and spring onions, beef or pork in oyster sauce, pak choy and nuts were just a few.

I quickly learned the art of eating quickly with chopsticks.  While in polite company you leave your rice bowl on the table and delicately lift the chopsticks to your mouth, in a family setting you pick up your bowl and put it to your mouth to shovel in the rice at speed!  Essential knowledge if you didn’t want the food to disappear in front of you.

The afternoon would be spent getting lots of fresh air and exercise.  In the cooler months, that meant walking the trails around the reservoirs, up into the mountains.  In the summer, we would swim each day from our little beach or go kayaking in the inlet.

After our evening meal, we would meet for worship and ministry.  For an hour or so each evening, we would sing songs of worship, share something from the Bible, and pray & minister to each other with gentle words of prophecy, healing and care.  These were often wonderful times with songs being sung with heart and soul, God tangibly present and tears of joy from hardened men whose hearts were being melted by the love of God.

Then after some more free time for showers, yam-cha and relaxing, we would all gather for brief Night Prayers in the dormitory before lights out and sleep at 9:45pm.

All of this sounds idyllic, and many aspects of being at Tai Tam were, but that is only half the story. 

The other side of our day to day life was extremely challenging.  Anyone who has lived in close community with others will know just how challenging that can be.  Different people, with different norms, different priorities, different likes and dislikes, different cultures and assumptions can be a powder keg even among people who choose to live together in community.  At Tai Tam we were a community of very recent ex-heroin addicts, triad members, older brothers and western helpers.  In one sense, helping them physically withdraw from heroin was the easy part.  It was learning to live a new life together which was the real challenge.

Many had been on drugs since they were 10 or 11 years old.  They had never experienced adolescence.  Now, free from a drug induced haze for the first time, we would see and experience middle aged men going through the tantrums of adolescence for the first time, having to come to terms with raw emotions and how to live with them.

Almost all of our brothers had spent time in prison and many of them had bounced in and out of prison for years.  They were skilled in the tools of manipulation to get their way from those in authority.

When we were out walking, we had to be vigilant for what was being picked up from the pathways. In coming to a First Stage House, it wasn’t just heroin which our brothers were expected to give up.  It was everything addictive, including alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee.  This was going ‘cold turkey’ on a grand scale and while the physical withdrawal through prayer was often miraculous, old habits die hard. Scanning the public pathways for discarded half smoked cigarettes, or cans of beer with a little left in the bottom were common place for our eagle-eyed brothers.  If they found something, it wasn’t the quantity which was important, it was the temptation to stray from the new life they were trying to commit to, and temptation always starts small.  If we give into it, it then grows and grows until even the occasional shot of heroin would be ok, wouldn’t it?

Then there was trust.  Sleeping as we did, alongside the brothers required trust.  Almost all had a violent past and some would have killed for their Triad ‘di-loh’ (Big Brother).  If a confrontation had occurred during the day with a particular brother, we knew that we would be sleeping in the same room as them that night. There were a number of occasions when I faced aggression and threats during my time there after having to challenge a brother about his behaviour or attitude.  We all had to trust that this would not lead to revenge in the small hours of the night.  Ironically, living so closely together in community actually helped in this.  It begged the question among the brothers, why would the helpers make themselves so vulnerable?  The only answer was because we loved and cared for them with the love of God who was even willing to go to the cross for us all.  That love kept us safe, but it didn’t eliminate the stress in difficult times.

In the office we had a Garfield postcard pinned up on the noticeboard.  It read “One day I will look back on all this and laugh!” At times we all drew inspiration from that postcard.  Each helper got one day off (24 hours) each week with an overnight stay back at Hang Fook Camp if we wanted it. We also attended the weekly helpers meeting each Thursday morning and went to the Church service every other Sunday, but apart from that we were there at Tai Tam 24/7.  It was very demanding and led most helpers to conclude that a month in a first stage house is like a year anywhere else!

And all that fails to mention the other core business of a First Stage House – helping our new brothers withdraw from heroin in the first place.  Jackie Pullinger was famous all over the Christian world for praying addicts off heroin without the kind of withdrawal pains and sickness which normally accompany going ‘cold turkey’.  As her ministry grew, this part of the ministry became the role of the First Stage Houses.  We would get a new brother almost every week, and for 10 days someone would be with them, praying with them, 24 hours a day, in four hour shifts.  The ‘someone’ would be a Western or Chinese Helper, or one of the brothers who was ready to move on to Hang Fook Camp.

This was the part of being in a First Stage House which terrified me.  I had visions of starting my first 4 hour shift with our new brother happy and pain free, only to find that by half way through he was writhing around in agony!  After all, I had never done this before.  I didn’t know how.  Why would God answer my prayers?  I was no expert.

It was on my second day at Tai Tam that I had to face my fear.  I went to the new brother room to start my 4 hour shift.  The new brother I was going to spend the next four hours with was the same person we had brought back from Walled City when I arrived.  He spoke very little English and I spoke very little Cantonese.  I tried not to look too nervous. He was in good spirits, 48 hours into his withdrawal.  For the next 4 hours, I sat with him while he slept and prayed with him every 15 minutes when he was awake.  I walked with him around the house and garden when he was bored and he showed me how to make Chinese tea.  Despite all my misgivings, he didn’t deteriorate into a sweaty, clammy, gibbering wreck and I discovered something vitally important. 

It wasn’t all about me.

My fears were all about me.  I was frightened that my prayers wouldn’t be good enough; that my faith wasn’t strong enough; that I wasn’t up the task before me.  It was all me, me, me! 

What I had failed to realise was that it was not about me at all.  As I joined this rota of prayer, I became part of something much bigger than me.  I was being swept up into a ministry that had been blessed by God over many years, as was the new brother I was praying with.  As my 4 hours drew to a close, I remembered his words when we left Walled City about why this time would be different: “Before, no Jesus. This time, Jesus.”  Together we were both experiencing the love and grace of God at work – a grace which flows in spite of our own shortcomings because they are God’s riches poured out freely upon us and they are nothing we can earn or deserve.

It wasn’t about me – it was about him and God.

During my time at Tai Tam, I had to remind myself that we were witnessing a miracle almost every day in praying for addicts as they got clean.  Not everyone came off without symptoms of withdrawal.   Generally, most new brothers (around 8/10) did have a little discomfort coming off their drugs, but nothing like the aches, pangs and cravings which they had experienced before, when they had tried to do it on their own.  1 in 10 suffered nothing at all, bouncing with energy and eating normally, and 1 in 10 did go through the pangs of withdrawal.  I never came to any conclusions about why that was, although it did remind us of what we could expect to experience without the blessings of answered prayer!

After 7-10 days as a new brother, they were welcomed fully into the community at Tai Tam with a celebration.  They were now washed clean from the drugs which used to enslave their lives.  We would share celebration cake together and he would be given a bunk bed in the main house.  We would sing songs of praise and the real work begun - the learning of a new pattern of life which would not lead them back into slavery again.

Not everyone made it through and on to Hang Fook Camp, of course.  We had people who ran away as new brothers, or later on when we bumped into some area of their life which they were not willing to open to God.  But most made it through, and for those who didn’t, there was always another chance when they were ready to take it.

I had made it through my first few days at Tai Tam.  Apart from discovering what an egotist I can be, I had come through unscathed.  As I became accustomed to the routine and got to know our brothers and other helpers, Tai Tam became my home.  It would remain so throughout my time in Hong Kong. 

I settled into a top bunk at the far end of the dormitory in what was originally a dressing room.   It now slept ten of us.  From my bed at night, I could often see the mountains silhouetted against the sky by huge but silent thunderstorms in the far distance over China. When I got to bed each night, I was so ready for sleep that I would be well away within minutes.  I didn’t get everything right, and made lots of mistakes, but then getting everything right was not the be all and end all. 

God is bigger than that.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Walled City

Crossing the Line - part 25

Walled City in 1988
Two things strike everyone who went to Walled City.  It is always dark and it always rains. 

One of its nick-names in Cantonese is Haak-nan which means darkness.  It was always dark at ground level because the buildings lean together at the top, allowing no natural light to permeate to the alleys between.  Then just above head height in the alleyways were a mass of tangled pipes; pirated electricity, water, and phone cables.  Pipes leaked, and waste water was thrown out of windows along with bags of rubbish.  The water then dripped its way through the rubbish and cables to the alleys and the open sewers which ran through them.  There was no sanitation system and even in the 1980’s there were only a handful of public standpipes with clean water for a community of 50,000 people. 

Walking through the maze of passageways was always an experience, especially when you add the rats which ran at will around your feet and sewer spiders as big as your hand.  Bobby led me in.  In an instant we went from blue skies and sunshine to a murky underworld past makeshift shops, and units preparing ‘dim sum’ for restaurants in the street around Walled City.  Alongside the drug dens, brothels and gambling houses, there were tens of thousands of residents simply trying to eke a living.  He took me in through the closest entrance to our meeting room and I tried to remember the turnings which led us there.  Right, left, right turns and then a dog leg into the passageway which led to the entrance.  He told me to be careful on the duck-boards beneath our feet. “You don’t want to fall into that!” he said pointing towards the sound of gurgling liquid not far below. 

Our meeting room was a haven of light, love and prayer.  Light shone out through the door as we arrived to find that there were already about 20 people there.  Some were helpers and brothers who now inspired others; others were addicts looking for help.

They came because they heard that there was a god called Jesus who helped heroin addicts.

The entrance to our meeting room
I found two wonderful ironies in this.

First, I was always struck by the image of Jesus as god of the heroin addicts.  It is so different to a sanitised western picture of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, floating on a Sunday school fuzzy felt board.  If we really read the Gospels of course, we find a very different image.  Homeless at his birth, his family were forced into exile as refugee asylum seekers; he was brought up in obscurity until his presence, teachings and example sent shock-waves across respectable religious society; he was often criticised for spending too much time eating with ‘sinners and outcasts’; often at odds with those who knew about religion, politics and power until his brutal death on a cross.  Yet somehow we have given him flowing wavy hair and beard, perfectly conditioned and styled, and a pristine white robe – hardly realistic for the Son of Man who had no-where to lay his head on the dusty roads of Palestine.  All too often in the West we have made him god of the middle classes, but here he was god of the heroin addicts!

Second, was the way in which this god called Jesus drew people who needed help to Walled City. The place of darkness had become the place of light and healing for addicts from across the whole colony.  The place which had acted as a magnate for those wanting to buy drugs had now also become the place where those enslaved to heroin came to find faith and healing.  What wonderful redemption.

Darkness in the middle of the day
When Jackie first came to Hong Kong in the 1960’s Walled City was at its most violent and dangerous.  In those days, one of the first tasks of the day was to throw out the bodies of those who had died the previous night from drugs, violence and natural causes.  By the 1980’s it was undoubtedly a much safer place to be, and those who were with ‘Poon Siuje’ (Jackie’s Cantonese name) shared the safe-status which she had earned over the years.  Only once during my time there was there any palpable danger when one local triad leader flew into a drug-fuelled rage and threatened to kill any ‘pale devils’ (westerners) who crossed his path.  Those of us who were westerners in The Well that day were taken out of Walled City one my one, surrounded by a scrum of Chinese brothers so no-one could have got near us, even if we were spotted.  But that was the exception and it all blew over in a couple of days.

Nevertheless, Walled City retained its reputation.  When Peter, a member of my parents’ church in Sutton came over to Hong Kong as guest of the Chief of Police, I offered to take him to the outreach meeting in Walled City.  His host was horrified and said that he could not allow this – it would be much too dangerous for a guest of the Hong Kong government.  When Peter insisted he wanted to go, the Chief of Police felt he had no option but to arrange a trip around the harbour on a Chinese junk with the promise that he would be back in time.  Needless to say, he found himself miles from shore at the time we had arranged to meet with no way of getting to land!

Later in my year there I was given a job to do in Walled City each Wednesday.  I was given the keys to the meeting room and asked to unlock and clean it before the meeting started.  That meant walking across the duck-boards above the sewers alone in the darkness, feeling for the padlocks and bolts to open the door; then reaching my hand around the corner to the light switch and flinching as the lights flickered on, causing the spiders, rats and cockroaches the scatter before my eyes.  Then I would sweep up the dead ones, disinfect the floor, and make the room ready to welcome everyone.  Those of you who know my fear of spiders may not be surprised to know that this was by far the scariest thing I had to face in Walled City!  Nevertheless, being entrusted with the keys to the meeting room in Walled City is possibly the greatest honour I have ever been given, and through it I learned to overcome my fears.

Prayer ministry in Walled City
Back in the meeting, as each new addict arrived they were not preached at or told what to believe.  They were simply gathered up in prayer, with brothers and helpers asking the Holy Spirit to fill their empty lives with God’s love and power.  I quickly became aware that this prayer was almost invariably answered within minutes.  Here were tough triad members, addicted to heroin who were being visibly filled with the Holy Spirit.  Most spoke in tongues within a few minutes, receiving a prayer language as naturally as drinking from a cup.  Experience of God was taken for granted in Hong Kong.  This was no theoretical theology of the mind.  Pained faces melted into smiles or released tears of healing and joy.  Addicts high on heroin spoke in tongues before they knew what speaking in tongues was.   Gentle prophecies gave encouragement to those being prayed with and even those who had tried and failed before were used by God to bring this outpouring of his presence into the lives of new brothers.  They came with nothing and received the riches of God’s grace.

From the moment we arrived I was encouraged to join in.  There was no room for passengers in Walled City meetings.  If you were there, you were there either to be ministered to, or to minister to others.  Joining a small group praying with a young man, I prayed in tongues for him.   Given the language barrier and my lack of experience, I had little idea what to pray for, so entrusting my prayers to the Holy Spirit was the most natural thing in the world to do.

Worshipping together in Walled City
After about an hour, there were about 40 people crammed into the room and the formal part of the meeting began with worship songs.  I knew many of the songs although singing them in Cantonese was a skill which took time to acquire.  The song books had three versions of each song – Chinese characters, English and ‘romanized’ Chinese, where the Cantonese was expressed phonetically in the western alphabet.  After about 30 minutes of worship, there was a bible reading and message which Jackie gave. Then more prayer ministry, with everyone ministering to each other rather than queuing up for the ‘experts’.  It was remarkable. The whole meeting took 2-3 hours but the time flew by.

At the end of my first meeting I was introduced to Deri and Chen (both English helpers at Tai Tam, the First Stage House I was bound for) and Tony, a Chinese brother who was translating for them.  They had a new brother with them too.  He had been coming to Walled City meetings regularly for some time and now he was ready to come into a house and come off drugs.  He was both excited and apprehensive, having tried to come off heroin several times before but always failing.  “This time Jesus help me” he said, in broken English with a nervous smile.  “Before, no Jesus. This time, Jesus.”

Leaving Walled City I found that the sun had set and it was now night-time.  We all ate noodles at one of the street cafes outside Walled City, transferred my luggage to their minibus and began the drive over to Tai Tam.

Deri (left)
Chen was a few years younger than me.  Deri was a few years older and in charge of the First Stage House at Tai Tam.  Most of the ministry leaders at St Stephens Society were women.  This wasn’t some kind of reverse sexism.  It was simply that for the brothers, it was easier to be challenged by a woman than a man.  With men, there was always the risk of an authority clash, and some of our brothers had been senior Triad members who were used to telling others what to do.  They often found it difficult to be told what to do by a man.  Ego and the risk of losing face were high stakes for any self-respecting Chinese man.  Any confrontation with another man could involve someone losing face whereas being challenged by a woman did not carry such risks, especially if done with a smile.  In time I learned that male helpers like me had to be twice as gentle as women to gain trust and respect, which was completely counter-intuitive to my 25 year-old male macho mind!

We drove through the Cross Harbour Tunnel to Hong Kong Island and along the coastal highway past Causeway Bay, Tai Koo Shing, and on to Chai Wan.  There the multi-lane dual carriageway and the street lighting ended and we climbed the twisting road into the mountains. As we started to go down the other side I could see reservoirs glinting in the moonlight and shortly after crossing a dam wall, turned off onto a single track road down to sea level again.

We arrived at the Tai Tam around 10pm and all was quiet apart from the noise of the crickets. With the sea on one side, and jungle on the other, this wasn’t quite what I had imagined for life in Hong Kong.  This was to be my new home.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Touch Down

Crossing the Line - part 24 

Flying into Hong Kong in the 1980’s was always a striking introduction to the colony.

The only airport was Kai Tak whose runway was a narrow strip of concrete built out into Victoria Harbour.

If the wind was from the South or East, the pilot would, quite literally aim the plane at a large orange and white chequerboard painted onto a cliff.  The automatic landing system would guide the aeroplane directly  towards this rock face until the plane reached an altitude of little more than 500 feet, at which point the pilot had to take manual control, bank sharply to the right and look for the runway.  Having located the finger of land jutting out into the sea, the pilot would then have less than 30 seconds to line up with the runway, level the wings and touchdown.  Passengers on the right hand side of the plane could, quite literally see people eating rice or noodles or watching television in apartment blocks as the plane banked over.

For my first flight into Hong Kong the wind was blowing the other direction so I was spared this.  Landing from the ocean side was not without excitement though, as the only thing passengers could see beneath the plane was sea until the very last second before touchdown, when the runway finally came into view and the wheels hit the concrete.  While I was in Hong Kong, one China Airlines plane landed in a squall from this direction and slid off the runway into the harbour.  Flying into Hong Kong was regarded as one of the most challenging airports in the world for pilots until it was replaced by a new one in 1998.

It was a warm and sunny winter’s day when I flew into Kai Tak with my luggage and guitar.

Joining Jackie Pullinger’s work at St Stephen’s Society was a great honour, and I knew that there would be challenging times ahead.  The most prominent part of their ministry was with heroin addicts in the British colony, of whom there were many thousands but St Stephen’s Society also worked with all the poor of Hong Kong.  They fed the street-sleepers and set prostitutes free, providing men and women with a home, food and hope through practical ministry, prayer and a church where everyone was welcome.

The week before I arrived, they held a lunch for street sleepers and catered for 300.  When the time came, more than double that number arrived and the kitchen were more than a little worried.  There was nothing they could do with the food – they had already prepared everything that they had.  So they prayed and started to serve the food to the waiting crowd.  In a scene reminiscent of the feeding of the 5,000 everyone was fed and they ended up with plenty left over.

For those who don’t know, Hong Kong was established as a British Colony specifically to support the trade in opium during the Opium Wars of the 19th Century.  British trading companies shipped in opium from India to sell in Canton and when the Emperor reacted to the enslaving of their people into drug addiction by banning the trade, Britain went to war to defend it. After winning the 1st Opium War, the treaties which followed ceded Hong Kong Island and then the Kowloon peninsula to Britain in perpetuity as a military base from which we could further our greed and protect our colonial drug dealers.  In 1898, the New Territories were added on a 99 year lease, including over 200 islands and expanding the colony to over five times its original size.  Not exactly a glorious part of British history.

Jackie Pullinger had already been in Hong Kong for 20 years and the strategy for heroin addicts was simple.  Introduce heroin addicts to Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit; then pray them off heroin and help them build a new life.  Over the years Jackie had seen many heroin addicts come off heroin by concentrated prayer and the healing power of the Holy Spirit without the usual pain or cravings which withdrawal brings.

Their outreach at that time was focused on the Walled City, a lawless anomaly which housed around 50,000 people in a little over 6 acres and was run by various Triad gangs (China’s version of the mafia).  Until the treaty was completed between the UK and China for the handing back of Hong Kong to China in 1997, neither side governed the enclave.  Diplomatically it was still part of China and so any police action there would have been seen as an act of aggression by China.  The ancient walls had long gone, replaced by precarious blocks of flats up to 12 floors high which leaned together at the top like a house of cards.  In the legal vacuum, the Triads flourished and it became a mecca for drug dens, brothels and gambling, as well as unregistered doctors, dentists and those fleeing the law.  Jackie lived in Walled City and had a small meeting room which provided a place for prayer, worship and hope every Wednesday and Saturday.

Beyond that, there were two ‘Frist Stage Houses’ in more rural areas of Hong Kong where addicts came to withdraw from heroin and lived for several months, growing in their new lives as Christians. When ready, they then went to Hang Fook Camp which housed the main base for the ministry and where the church met for Sunday Services.  Here ex-addicts would work out what to do with their lives; find work, return to their families, or join the continuing ministry of St Stephens.

I was met at the airport by two western helpers from St Stephen’s Society.  They had big smiles on their faces and made me feel welcome.  We put my luggage in the van and they drove me through the busy Hong Kong streets to Hang Fook Camp for my introduction into life and work there. 

The camp was a former refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people.  It consisted of rows of wooden huts with metal roofs, a makeshift sanitation system, together with a large central kitchen and meeting place.  When the mass-migration from Vietnam started to slow, the camp was no longer needed for refugees and the Hong Kong government offered it to Jackie for her work with heroin addicts and the poor.  It was located in Cheung Sha Wan, a mixed industrial and residential area in Kowloon and it became a focal point for Jackie’s ministry.  Her church met there on Sundays and the kitchens produced food for both residents and street sleepers.  In addition to providing accommodation to a community of around 100 people, there was a small T-shirt factory where some of the brothers worked, a vegetable garden, sports area, and the office for St Stephen’s Society.

Arriving at the camp, I met Jackie almost immediately – by coincidence not design.  I don’t know who was more taken aback.  For my part, I was in awe of her.  For hers, she saw my long hair first, and was worried.  Long hair on men was not an acceptable part of Chinese male culture then and as I learned later, could provoke irrational negative reactions among the brothers.  After a brief conversation however, she concluded that I would be OK.  Apparently, there was something in my eyes.

It was now early evening and I joined the community for food, eaten together around large communal tables with rice and various communal dishes shared and devoured at speed, particularly for a chop-stick novice.  I met some of the brothers (ex-addicts) and tried to understand snippets of conversation where I could.  Then I spent a while playing guitar with John To (who later married Jackie).  John had come off heroin some years ago and was the main worship leader for the camp and church. He wasn’t that impressed with my guitar skills, but then I had a lot to learn and I knew it.  Worship songs flowed at Hang Fook Camp in an effortless way which required both spiritual discernment and the musical ability to move from one song to another without written music in front of you to tell you what to do.  Although I was ok at playing guitar with music, this was beyond me and I wasn’t at my best after the long journey.  Later in the year we would lead worship together every other Sunday but that’s another story.

Around 9pm, I was shown to a bunk bed in the huts and advised to get some sleep for the next day, but I couldn’t sleep.  I was far too excited and jet lag hadn’t hit me yet.

By 10pm I had got dressed again, left the camp and began to walk.  Heading back towards the Kowloon peninsula I walked the 3 miles to the Star Ferry opposite Hong Kong Island, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of this new continent.  I was mesmerised.  Everything was different.  The huge housing blocks, the flyovers, the street vendors and street sleepers in their box-homes under bridges and roads; the lights, the skyscrapers, the constant sound of traffic, ships and people, even in the early hours.  It was intoxicating.  As I stood at the end of the Star Ferry pier, I could see Hong Kong’s spectacular skyline across the water and feel the warm breeze of the ocean.

Arriving back at Hang Fook Camp about 3am, I finally got some sleep.

I don’t really know what I expected for the following day.  Perhaps a gentle introduction to routine life in camp?  Perhaps a few days to acclimatise?  I certainly didn’t expect to be entrusted with anything significant for a while.  I was a novice rookie in a brave new world.

What I didn’t expect was to be thrown in at the deep end.

Bobby at Hang Fook Camp
That morning, Bobby was assigned as my mentor for the day.  He was a lovely, gentle American with a wicked sense of humour who had served in Vietnam during the war and had been with St Stephens Society for some time.  He introduced himself and took me out to brunch at the American CafĂ© on Hong Kong Island.  He showed me how to use the MTR (Hong Kong’s underground) and told me the plan. 

I wasn’t going to stay at Hang Fook Camp.  I had been assigned to live and work at Tai Tam – the first stage house on the far side of Hong Kong Island.  To get there, I would be going to the Walled City meeting that afternoon where I would meet Deri who was in charge of Tai Tam, and then travel back with her and a new brother.

Now I was amazed.  The first stage houses were where new bothers came off heroin with nothing but prayer for support.  Along with Walled City, they were the sharp end of the ministry.  What were they doing, letting a rookie like me anywhere near this hallowed ground?  Bobby just smiled and said “You’ll be fine.”

After going back to Hang Fook Camp to collect my guitar and luggage, Bobby drove me to Walled City for the meeting.  I saw the blocks of concrete flats leaning together at the top because they had no foundations.  I saw the darkened alleyways which acted as gateways and streets.

Less than 24 hours after landing, I was led into one of the most notorious places on earth.  There was no going back now.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

I had a dream

Crossing the Line - part 23

The final piece of the puzzle during that year in London was to find a church to go to.

I moved into my friends’ house in Corbyn Street, Finsbury Park on a Saturday and was looking forward to finding a lively church to join.  I had no idea where this would be, but I did notice an old, rather grubby looking Anglican church in the next street.  Ok I thought, I’ll go there tomorrow and then find somewhere more exciting next Sunday.

Then the strangest thing happened.  That night I had a dream.  I was walking into a church I didn’t know.  As I walked in, I saw that the pews had been taken out of the back half of the church and replaced them with second-hand sofas, easy chairs, carpets and cushions.  There was a small music group practising at the front and a warm welcome from the people I met.   When I woke up, I thought ‘That would be nice but where am I going to find a church like that?’ 

I think you can guess the rest.

When I walked into St Saviours, Handley Road that morning, I found a church with the pews taken out of the back half of the church, replaced with second-hand sofas, easy chairs, carpets and cushions.  There was a small music group practising at the front and a warm welcome from the people I met!  I was absolutely astounded.  Before I knew it, I was invited to lunch after the service and I knew that God was telling me that this was the church he was leading me to.  The congregation was quite small, and the elderly vicar was not the most dynamic person I had ever met, but I started to realise that this was God’s choice for me. 

I met some lovely people there.  There were Simon and Pauline who invited me to lunch that first day; Joy who led the music group; Jeanette who was a journalist and was planning to launch a Christian arts magazine.   Then there was the Vicar, Tony and his wife, but more about them later.

One of my hopes for the year was to find out what it was like to be part of a church without a ready-made role, while juggling the demands of work, friends and faith. 

That might sound a bit pompous but I had never had the chance to be an ordinary church member of a normal church.  As a child I had always been the vicar’s kid.  University churches are hardly ‘normal’ and I was the strange evangelical in an Anglo-Catholic shrine.  Then I had been the Youth Worker in Haddenham.  I always had a label.

Now I had the chance to start afresh where I didn’t know anyone and no-one knew me.  I could choose what I got involved in.  I could join the struggle to establish a balanced work/church/social life without any aspect overbalancing the rest. 

It was easier said than done.  I did join the church music group and a home group but at the same time, I found that dispatch riding was exhausting.   I had to be in bed by 10pm each night during the week because I couldn’t afford to risk being overtired when riding around London all day at speed.  I often didn’t get home from work until around 7pm and it would take me an hour to get cleaned up and/or dried out.  Often I was too tired to go out again.  What is more, if the last job of the day took me to the opposite end of London (or the country) that meant cancelling plans at short notice.  Juggling these competing demands is a good experience for a future vicar, and one worth remembering.  That is how many working people in churches live.

Even with all these limitations, I was made welcome at St Saviours and supported in a way which showed me what a good church should be.  I saw and received lots of acts of kindness and there were things to get involved with, as and when I could. 

The music group which led the singing was fun, if a little chaotic at times and I contributed as and when I was able.

Jeanette asked me if I would like to review a film for her new magazine.  I found myself in a press preview of the film in Soho, hosted in a luxurious cinema studio alongside people who reviewed films for a living!  I had come straight from work and was dressed in my biker gear.  To say I looked out of place would be an understatement, but I wrote the review and it was published in the first edition.  The film (Almost You) wasn’t a blockbuster and was definitely not my kind of film, but the whole experience was fun!

At work, I never shouted about my faith, but I didn’t hide it either. As I got to know the other riders, they got to know me too.  In time they found out that I was going to be a priest.  Their reaction was fascinating.  Each one said they thought it was fantastic but then promised not to tell anyone else out of concern that I would be ridiculed.  Eventually, one of the radio controllers found out, and he thought he would have some fun with this unusual information at my expense.  He called me up on the radio and with a huge sarcastic laugh he announced to over 100 riders that I was going to be a priest.  Thinking he could then milk this and get some more laughs at my expense, he called up the toughest rider he could think of.  “What do you think of that?” he asked.  The riders couldn’t hear the reply because of the way the radio system worked but it silenced the controller.  Later I discovered that he had responded by saying that he already knew and thought it was terrific that we had a man of God out on a bike.  He wished me all the very best.

That night in the pub, I had rider after rider coming over to ask me about my faith and what had made me decide to be a vicar.  It was such a privilege.

Then in church, there was another incredible coincidence.

By the time I arrived in London, I already knew what I wanted to do in a final year out before going to Theological College.  I wanted to go abroad, to live in a different culture and an amazing opportunity came up. 

My life-long friend Chris, had been to Hong Kong and spent some time working with Jackie Pullinger.  Jackie’s work with heroin addicts and the poor was famous all over the Christian world.  She lived in the notorious and lawless Walled City – a diplomatic anomaly governed by neither the British nor the Chinese.  In the vacuum which resulted it was run by the Triads – the Chinese mafia.  Jackie had already lived and worked there for around 20 years, praying addicts off heroine without the usual pain & discomfort and offering prostitutes an alternative to exploitation.  Her book “Chasing the Dragon” was an international best seller and essential reading for all Charismatic Christians.

So when Chris came back and said to me, “You should go Benny!”  I thought he was joking.  How on earth could I go to Hong Kong and work with Jackie Pullinger?

In fact, it turned out to be quite simple.  All I had to do was write a letter to Jackie, tell her a bit about me & about why I wanted to join the ministry, and then wait for a reply.  Much to my amazement, the answer was yes.

And the coincidence?  

Back in St Saviours Church in Handley Road, I discovered that Tony, my vicar had been a missionary in southern China for 30 years before coming to Finsbury Park.  His wife was Chinese and they spoke fluent Cantonese, the dialect spoken in Hong Kong. To top it all, he offered to teach me the basics of Cantonese before I went!

I think the word is God-incidence, not co-incidence. 

For 6 months I would go to the Vicarage, early one morning each week and Tony patiently taught this very slow student the fundamentals of a tonal language where the same word could mean vastly different things if said in the wrong pitch!  He would not accept any payment and while I found it hugely difficult, he patiently helped me prepare for one of the most significant years of my life.

There is one more act of kindness which shines out in my mind. 

In those days I had long hair.  When it was wet and straight it went most of the way down my back. On a motorbike, I gathered it into a pony tail which would flail about wildly below my crash helmet as I sped along.  Keeping it knot free got harder and harder as the year went on.  Before I left to go to Hong Kong, I was concerned that my long hair might raise a few eyebrows in a Chinese culture but I didn’t want to cut it short.  Pauline from church offered to tidy it up for me and I turned up at her home one afternoon for an hour to get it done.

Soon after Pauline started to comb through the mass hair, she made a disturbing discovery. High up in my pony tail was an enormous clump of knotted hair buried deep down near my hairline.  It was about the size of a plumb.  It was in an area I found hard to reach, and slowly over the year, it had grown and grown.  The obvious and easiest thing would be to cut it off, but that would mean having a short back and sides!  So Pauline spent the next four hours painstaking loosening the knot with olive oil one strand at a time.  Her husband Simon produced tea, coffee and food at regular intervals and we chatted about everything and nothing until the knot was no more.  I will always remember that afternoon; the kindness and gentleness they showed me and the smooth tangle free pony tail which resulted.

Reflecting on all this makes me think about what makes a good church.  It’s not the size of the congregation or the reputation of the clergy.  It’s not the quality of the preaching, the music, or the relevance of the services.  More important than all of these things is the love which churches show to those whose paths cross it.  St Saviours did not have all the trappings of a ‘popular’ church when I was there, but it brought together the love of God with the humanity of kindness in a powerful mixture of incarnation – God with us.

This is what real church is.

Alongside the excitement of riding my bike around London that year, I leaned about the beauty of an ordinary church in north London and its amazing people; about the challenge of balancing work, faith and friends in the way most of our church members have to.  In retrospect, I wish I had learned the lessons more deeply, but it was a start and now a new challenge lay ahead.

I didn’t know it, but the year I was about to start in Hong Kong was to be the most significant year of my entire life.  It fundamentally changed my understanding of God and people.  It honed and redirected my sense of ministry and calling for the next 20 years.  Through those changes I would later meet my wife in the most unlikely of places and we would raise a family.

As the plane took of from Heathrow, I was excited and a little nervous, but I had no idea of the extent to which the next nine months would change my life.  Twelve hours later a new world awaited - challenging, invigorating, and beyond my dreams.

God can use all kinds of ways of guiding us to where he wants us to be.  Dreams, visions, prophecies are all part of his tool kit, but sometimes he simply wants us to try.  To see a need or an opportunity and push the door.  It was a dream which took me to St Saviours Church in Finsbury Park, but a simple letter of enquiry which took me to Hong Kong.

I wonder how many things we miss in life because we a waiting for a sign?  There were no heavenly neon arrows which pointed me to Hong Kong, and yet it laid the foundation for my life and ministry for many years to come.