Written by Mimi Tang
It is a common greeting given at the end of a worship service. But when thrown in a different time and space, and to a different audience, it could have an appallingly explosive impact! In June 1989, Jonathan, who was then preparing for his examination and was about to graduate from his MDiv degree, listened intently to the news broadcast as he had his mind fixed on the development of what was going on. On that endless night, a voice traveled through the airwaves from the distant square, “So this ends our broadcast for the night. May God be with us!” The closing remark was so gently put it seemed to still linger in the air, though carrying a weight that was unspeakably heavy. 30 years later, the memory that has fallen in some deep space is now surfacing as the introduction for our interview and a confession: “This remark touches me incredibly! What is the connection that puts us together? Living in different times and spaces, we are faced with different obligations and challenges. And as for the God I believe in, how does He fit in all these?”
Having grown up in a Christian family, Jonathan accepted Jesus as his savior at the age of 17. Two years later, he was called to serve the Lord. His Chinese name “Wah Yan” means “the grace of the Lord”, which has a lot of meaning for his parents – both being a witness for God and expressing their wish. Jonathan describes himself as someone who is “eager to explore everything and touch upon many subjects”. His major study in college was theoretical economics. After college in Canada, he went back to Hong Kong to study theology. Upon graduation, he chose to become a teacher instead of serving at a church. He explained, “It is useless to just have a degree in theology and zero understanding of what is going on in the world, especially when you have just returned from overseas. What good does it do even if you can preach the most fantastic sermon?” So he taught at a high school in Sai Kung for four years. This had made him understand how hard it was to work in the education field, and see the values being instilled in students by the system. And he realized how he really enjoyed spending time with the youth. Through interacting with the local fishermen and their children, he had slowly developed a great interest in humanity, “How do these children connect with the city? How can a person get enlightened, instead of having values instilled in him? What is considered real education and not schooling? I found myself intensely interested in the composition of human society.” Consequently, he decided to go back to school and pursue the study of human sociology and worldview.
After he left teaching, Jonathan joined Fellowship of Evangelical Students (FES) and served there for 14 years, until he decided to return to Canada to serve as a pastor at a church in 2007. Five years later, he served as the director at the 105 Gibson Center of Toronto Christian Community Church (“TCCC”). This community center is located in Markham, the most ethnically diverse town in the country. The town has a population of about 300,000, 70% of which are immigrants. Among them, Chinese represent the largest group: “God has put us here, and now that we have started a community center -- what is the significance of all these? That is what I want to find out.”
Let us travel back in time to 2011 for a while. At that time, TCCC purchased a 47,000- feet warehouse for the start-up of a community center. It was going to be used by the church to carry out its ministry. While the project was still in the planning stage, a few hundreds of the thousand people of the church raised their hands, asking to serve as volunteers for the community center. Shortly after that, Rev Harding Ng (former senior pastor) even started some community activities so that the church members could get some hands-on experience as volunteers. It was not exactly an easy battle during the entire process. And Jonathan was deeply moved by all these efforts, “Before I started this position, things were already lined up for me. My job was only to put everything together, and to recruit the people for them.”
The fact a church is determined to start a community center indicates that she is ready to walk with that community for at least the next 30 years. Compared with government work, this project only had minimal resources. But the actual time dedicated to its completion was actually longer. Jonathan added, “I always tell people that I am not starting a community center. I am starting a church. I really hope the existence of the church can bring positive impact and changes to our community. A community center can often do what a church building isn’t capable of doing or handling.” In his eyes, whether it's a church building or a faith community, it is important that the neighbors can experience the presence of Christ. Unfortunately, thinking that “Christians are the primary service target”, churches are often affected by the “consumer” culture. Jonathan lamented, “Has it ever crossed our mind that we should not be the ‘consumers’, but a team of workers? The most important task of pastors is not to serve the ‘consumers’, but to serve its neighbors together with the staff as a team of co-workers.” The quality of a church is not measured by the number of people attending its meetings. It is measured outside of its meetings, by its impact on the society and real life. He said, “That is why a community center should be open-minded and welcome everyone! You would rather have people asking, ‘Hey, what do you do here?’ than ‘What? I had no idea you existed!’”
The mission statement of the center is “Serving the community and the weak, while sharing the compassion and hope of Jesus”. It pertains to two verbs, “serve” and “share”, and four keywords, “compassion”, “hope”, “community” and “weak”. Jonathan smiled, “As long as you are human, you will be served.” Since the community center is committed to serve various ethnic groups, it took them a while to come up with the right name for it. “Can we use a catchy name that draws people into our center upon seeing it? If we named it ‘Kay Shun Center’ (Chinese pin yin for ‘Gibson’), it would seem to be exclusively labeled for Chinese people, and would ‘chase others away’.” However, with a more open-minded mentality, where would that take them? He answered honestly that it really depends on a case-by-case basis. When it comes to facing issues that are relatively liberal, they will need to return to the basic meaning of the Gospel, and act upon the fundamentals of it. Jonathan added, “Actually, evangelism is merely a strategic term. I think ‘to testify’ is a better phrase than ‘to evangelize’ when it comes to spreading the good news of God to people around us. We need to first approach the others as humans or our friends, rather than as a target of our missional task, or even our enemy to tackle.”
However, to overcome our inner fear is a very difficult lesson: “This is indeed very difficult and painful! In order to eliminate our own fear or satisfy the group we belong to, we tend to use labels to identify people, segregate them by groups or even demonize them. We do all that for our sense of security and that is a great sin of human beings. I am not saying evil is necessarily behind all sins, but our weakness definitely lies there. Even till now, we are still going back and forth, trying to learn the lessons in the books of Gospel – that this is the Father’s world. The sun shines on bad people and on good people.” Nonetheless, all along he is still upholding this belief: “I strongly hope we can deepen our understanding of the Gospel through each discussion. There are times when we even cherish the process of a debate. It is for this very reason that we need to leave more room for conversations, and not be too hasty!”
In October 2013, the 105 Gibson Center was officially opened. In the past six years, the Center has developed various service areas, including youth ministry, sports ministry, food banks for community needs, charity shops and free tax return filing, as well as community classrooms and cultural cafes. We also started the “Abundant Life Academy” for people age 55 and above (whom we call the “gold-” and “silver-” haired groups), providing them with a U3A (The University of the Third Age) learning module that allows them to get enrolled in courses according to their abilities and interests. They can either register as students or teachers. As for the ethnic groups in the center, they are seeing a greater diversity among the comers from Mainland China, Syria, Iraq, Ethiopia, Somali and South Asia. Some of them have regarded the center as their second home: “A few Syrians have recently joined us through the food bank. Even though we all speak different languages, the Biblical lesson on “hospitality” (receiving people from afar) is being put into practice here. We have heard many real life stories from them, and the hardships they have endured over the past five years. In fact, there is really not much that we can do to change their situations. But their very presence in our center has brought us great joy and happiness.”
The Center has always been upholding five principles: movement, platform, community, Shalom future and mentoring. As Jonathan pointed out, just like the church, the community center is more than a physical building. It is a living body of love, committed to mobilize actions of care and become a truly open and diverse interactive platform. It is sensitive to the needs of the community and provides services as needed. It is oriented towards the Gospel of peace and puts it into life practice. It sets the tone for the future of the community, and is totally willing to share the joy and the tears with each neighbor who sets his foot in it, so that they can walk alongside each other in their life journey.
Looking back at the past few years of the center, Jonathan was moved with endless stories beyond words and unspeakable gratefulness for the blessings of God, “There was a time when a white man and his girlfriend came together. After they had received food from us, my wife gave him a pair of pants. He was overjoyed, ‘These pants are too nice to wear!’ Actually those were just an ordinary pair of jeans, but he didn’t want to leave stains on them. He went on and said, ‘Why don’t we pray.’ So there we prayed, right at the front counter of the center. He wanted to pray with us and praise God for His love!” Jonathan’s voice trembled with emotion, “I thought we were praying for him. It was so moving!...Where did all this power come from? You know, it means Jesus is here with us! The experience of ‘Jesus with us’ is not something we could fabricate or ‘force’. We can only receive His blessing.”
In July of this year, Jonathan officially succeeded to the title of TCCC’s senior pastor. The position of the center’s director was assumed by another co-working pastor. Although his role has changed, his vision remains the same, “I often dream of Markham being a more joyful community because of the existence of our center and the believers. How can our tri-lingual church (Cantonese, English and Mandarin) become a life experience that proves to the world it is possible for people with different cultures to live in harmony and peace? We want to achieve so many things, but we also have many challenges. The road ahead seems to be really long, and we do feel discouraged at times, thinking whether or not we are aiming too high, or being too naïve? Can we carry on? But the truth is clear – that this is indeed a blessed journey. Jesus gives us this opportunity to share what he had experienced while living among people on earth.”
When he returned to Hong Kong this time, he saw how the city is suffering from turmoil and unrest. But he urged the churches in Hong Kong not to give up, “Don’t give up. And I am not talking about the politics. We should not quit testifying for God and telling others that there is hope. And the hope is in Jesus.” He explained, “This is by no means being pessimistic. As Pastor Wang Yi1 said, we do need to think deeply about whether our belief is worth holding onto. Is it worthwhile? If so, how do we proclaim the Gospel to the aunts that we despise and to those who appear so “pissed off” while waiting for medical service? How do we live with the people in this city? This is really a very high standard for us!”
“When I think of the wickedness of our world today, especially the darkness of human nature, it is really discouraging and devastating! But I take it as a reminder that I need to pray earnestly before God.” Today Jonathan still vividly remembers the wise words of a theologian from Sri Lanka, “‘We should pray like hell.’ What a true statement! We do need to pray with that kind of fear because this world does need our Lord!”
1 Pastor Wang Yi is the Founding Pastor of the Early-Rain Covenant Church of Chengdu, China.