Interviewed and written by
Photos taken by
(Catherine Kwong, General Secretary of The Urban Peacemaker Evangelistic Fellowship, MDiv 1997)
Grown up in the church and was a social worker. Interacting with the lives of her neighborhood day after day has influenced her faith and life. When a neighbor in the temporary housing area committed suicide, Cat realized that only Jesus is the driving force in life and our life-long companion. It also inspired her to think about connecting the churches and communities to work and serve together. Being called to serve in 1994 and studied at CGST, she joined UPEF1 after graduation. She always thinks about the meaning of God’s love to the neighbors and the true meaning of gospel.
(Joanne Choi, Deputy Director of Fair Circle, MCS 2018)
Curious about the environment and the world. Majoring in earth science, Joanne had her internship in Mainland China and the Middle East. After graduation, she engaged in geotechnical investigation, and of ten went to the poor areas. The faces of children along the road made her reflect the most important thing in life. She had another understanding of rich and poor. We are all the same if our clothes, skin color and languages are taken away. Our differences are due to background, development opportunity and resources. Therefore, Joanne determined to step out of her comfort zone while she was young and devoted herself to helping the poor. It was wonderful to take part in building up and connecting with others. She now promotes fair trade together with her husband.
Joanne: When I was involved in the education of helping the poor, I often heard that “people are poor because they are lazy.” This is really a myth and it is also a fallacy. It completely ignores the impact and the bondage of the changes in the environment or the social structure.
Cat: I agree. Poverty in Hong Kong is mainly related to structural shifts and aging population. Industrial development in the 1970s was booming, especially in manufacturing industry. The neighborhood we serve are mostly low-educated and low-skilled. People entered the industry at their 20s or 30s and worked up to management level. However, globalization has turned the whole world into a huge factory. Hong Kong has also shifted towards a knowledge-based economy. The emergence of deindustrialization had caused factories gradually relocate northwards. It is increasingly difficult for small and medium enterprises to survive in Hong Kong. Some small businesses are struggling while a large number of grass-roots workers are unemployed as a result of the decline of the industry. They are forced to become marginal laborers, and sometimes they even cannot find any part-time job. If they have health or family issues, they would struggle to make ends meet and would easily fall under the poverty line.
Joanne: Globalization has indeed contributed to increased poverty! Three years ago, when I was attending an international conference on fair trade in Sri Lanka, some participants mentioned that on average, two farmers in India commit suicide by taking pesticides or by hanging themselves every hour. How can this be? The seeds that the multinational agricultural enterprises claimed to be “more easily planted, better harvested, and more resistant to disease” have actually been “improved” so that they cannot reproduce. Even if farmers have surplus seeds, they still have to buy new seeds from the multinational agricultural enterprises every year. These agricultural enterprises bundled sales with the idea that “new seeds can only increase productivity with certain fertilizers”. In order to make a living, many farmers borrow money to buy those seeds and fertilizers. When there is storm or flooding, the debt would accumulate further. Facing such situation, the farmers are doubtful of themselves, “I have worked so hard and still cannot make the ends meet. I am really useless!” The high suicide rate not only indicated that they are desperate, but also reflected how income inequality has become a serious problem under globalization. The wealth of 1% of the population is higher than the sum of the remaining 99%. In order to satisfy the investors behind them, the multinational enterprises distribute considerable dividend every year. I believe that many people in Hong Kong become rich by investing. The problem is not about investment, but sacrificing the lives of the underprivileged groups, which we may not necessarily see or care.
Cat: Indeed. The message “you are what you earn” is embedded in Hong Kong society. If you are unemployed, then you are worthless. When people are often turned down in job interviews, they would develop a low selfesteem and would ask themselves, “Am I really that bad? Am I really not up to the standard? Why can’t I find a job with my previous salary level?” A WHO (World Health Organization) research pointed out that poverty can cause depression. Both are closely related. Moreover, they are not only poor financially, but also “poor in relationships”. They do not want to go out so to avoid comparison and disparagement. On the other hand, people would avoid meeting the poor for fear of subsidizing them in the long term. This is “social exclusion” - no connection and losing support.
Joanne: But the relationship network is really important! What is poverty? I immediately think of the faces of a group of Bangladeshi women who were sold by their husbands for sex work because of financial difficulties. When they returned home, they were still abused. They were the disadvantaged among the disadvantaged. They lost family support, and they could not accept themselves, which was even more miserable and difficult.
Cat: It would make a huge difference if someone would encourage them at this critical moment and let them feel that their life was connected to others. In fact, we do have the same need, don’t we? Over the years, we have seen many people whom they truly need is having someone walking with them and motivating them to go forward. We know that the value of human beings is in God and we understand that each person’s life is not only valuable, but also is capable of giving and contributing. For this reason, we often encourage people to volunteer, to care about their neighbors and establish a community network, for neighbor relationship is a vital and real “social capital”.
Joanne: At least they can unite and gain resilience in the face of adversity. In Sri Lanka, we have similar practices. We have set up support groups or cooperatives for farmers who grow spices. The scale varies from a dozen to nearly 100 people. In the past, they were forced to borrow high-interest loans that were difficult to pay back, just like the Indian farmers.
Cat: We do need resilience in life! In a grassroots community that we serve, they pick up usable items from refuse collection points from time to time. They venture to set up an alternative market stall and we helped them to work together. This platform is not only used for barter and exchange, but also bring them together. During the process, they became a force of community interaction and even watched over one another.
Joanne: They no longer felt that they were just someone receiving help passively, but became part of the community. Just like the farmers participating in the cooperative, from learning the skills in the beginning to teaching others, setting up the organization, and electing leaders, they saw their own value. I always feel that this is the most amazing thing! They will never forget how we see them. I think this is how we can walk our faith in our lives.
Cat: In fact, we are deeply moved by the brothers and sisters, who give out of a genuine heart. Sometimes when the donated items are too heavy or too big, they rented a truck and sent them directly to the recipients’ home. For a poor family with a monthly income of only HK$4,000, they have to work more than two hours to earn a truck rental fee of HK$75. Today, can we ever imagine that some people may have never been to the Hong Kong Island? There are children who have never been to a beach, some teenagers without an octopus card,2 people who do not use computer because they cannot afford the electricity bill, and the grassroots parents are discriminated by the school because they do not know how to pay the fees via electronic means. All these demonstrated the situation of marginalized intergenerational underprivileged families. Even if parents want the best for their children, their own self and their connections limit them. Therefore, we encourage more believers to become mentors who are willing to walk with the children to help them to explore new possibilities in their lives.
Joanne: In addition to financial support and time commitment, brothers and sisters can actually make use of their expertise to help. In the past, we received assistance from brothers and sisters to provide advice on computer technology, legal, or design. We felt that we were not alone in our battles, by having them walk along with us.
Cat: Yes, the Lord has placed us in various workplace. We can begin from where we are. The churches may try their best to explore ways to connect with their neighborhood, whether it is a one-time or a long-term support. A church extended the use of her Benevolence Fund to benefit people outside the church. They worked with us to launch a “Health Care Voucher Scheme” for poor elderly and single parent families in the district so that they do not have to go to the cross-district public hospitals for medical treatment when they are sick. We also encouraged intergenerational service by matching young believers and local elders. We organized the “Reunion Dinner at Home” and asked the young people to prepare dinner for the elderly before Chinese New Year. In fact, it is always good to donate a Mid-Autumn dinner, new clothes, or even a nice Nashi pear. I can never forget the excitement of a mother who handed the new clothes to her child and said, “We have never dreamed about this. This is the first time for us to have new clothes!” One neighbor held the volunteer tightly with both hands after the Mid-Autumn dinner and said, “This is my best meal in the whole year, thank you.” Perhaps some people may think that “it is a waste of money to dine in a restaurant”, but to our neighbors, this tiny happiness is a rare taste of being cherished. In the face of poverty, response to their needs is certainly the top priority. Yet poverty is not just an issue, it is about people and lives. This involves not only urban planning, such as facilities of new communities, but also resource allocation and social policy. The government needs to take the initiative and help people to start all over again.
Joanne: In fact, the value today is about high efficiency, making quick money, pursuing rising GDP, and satisfying investors. We are so accustomed to these values. Has it worsened the disparity between the rich and the poor, and increased the population of the underprivileged? At the socio-cultural level, we really need to reflect and strive to find alternate ways to alleviate poverty. For example, the consumer movement is quite effective. In Bangladesh, the collapse of a factory that killed more than 1,000 people in 2013 has prompted consumer initiatives to require multinational fashion brands to face outsourcing problems. The Bangladesh government also reviewed the labor system and revised the minimum wage. This reminds us not to be a lazy consumer!
Cat: To change culture, believers can act as a mediator and inject new possibilities into Hong Kong society. When the political and business communities promote corporate social responsibility, the Christian bosses of small and medium enterprises may be more flexible in creating alternative cultures. If our spiritual community is alive, the relationship poverty will surely be overcome. I shall never forget a scene at the baptism of one of our neighbors. He was about to give his testimony, but he suddenly stopped and cried out loudly, “Thank you Jesus! It was Jesus who gave me the privileged status.” The moment I heard this, my tears were pouring out. He found his identity in the Lord through which became the driving force in his life. If we really regard one another as brothers and sisters, they really have a home.
Joanne: Our lives are the same with infinite possibilities because the Lord is in it. It is like HE is holding a magical pen. Therefore, I do not come to help them. I just walk with them, help them see where they could breakthrough and find their own strengths.
Cat: Proverbs mentioned that mercy to the needy is a loan to God and God pays back those loans in full. Every time I heard this verse, I almost felt the impossibility. Why does God need to borrow from us? It is because God treasures them. Actually, it is our honor to serve them and see how God restored and renewed His creation. This is what attracts us and encourages us to continue to serve!
Joanne: That’s right! I have never thought about getting involved so deeply and even married the man with the same vision. Now I have committed my whole life in it!