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A Taiwanese aboriginal congregation’s success story

April 1, 2013

Pastor Shin Liang Chen (right) and Elder Li-Jhu Gu (left) have helped revitalize Juang San Presbyterian Church.

Pastor Shin Liang Chen (right) and Elder Li-Jhu Gu (left) have helped revitalize Juang San Presbyterian Church. —Kristine Greenaway

TAICHUNG, Taiwan

Shin Liang Chen thought he had been assigned to the wilderness. 

He had just graduated from theological school in Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, and been sent to serve a small, impoverished congregation in Taichung, a city in the central region of the country.  The members of Juang San Presbyterian Church came from ten different indigenous tribes. Chen is a member of the Han Chinese majority of the population.

The former engineer and business manager felt totally unprepared for the challenge of serving as the solo pastor of a struggling parish in a poor area of the city. Worse, he quickly learned the congregation had been talked into buying a church building it couldn’t afford.

Now the bank was pressuring the elder who had signed the loan to repay the $178,000 loan. Elder Li-Jhu Gu didn’t know what to do. Her new pastor did. The congregation had to get its financial house in order.

Chen went to the bank, took back the loan for which the parish was being charged an exorbitant interest rate and got a new loan from a credit union at a much lower rate.

The problem of meeting the monthly repayment schedule remained however. Most members of the congregation worked in low-paid, insecure jobs and were unable to contribute to servicing the debt. Quietly Chen raised funds among his family which he used to meet the $6,700 installments.

Nineteen years later, Gu laughs as she tells the story. The congregation didn’t know where their young pastor was getting the money. It wasn’t until Gu was invited to meet Chen’s family that she realized he came from wealth.

How was she to know? Chen had endeared himself to the congregation by eating lunch from a paper bag seated on the ground, aboriginal-style. They had no way of knowing he had spent six years climbing the ranks of an engineering company until he was working in its human resources and financial planning office.

Today Chen realizes that those six years in private industry proved to be vital to his ministry.

Using his systems analysis experience, he assessed the situation of the congregation and recognized it had two big assets: the church was located near a large and wealthy Christian hospital and the congregational members were a work force that could be trained to provide services to the hospital. 

Chen quickly hit upon the idea of forming a cleaning company for the hospital. It flourished and so did the congregation.

The hospital cleaning company now has 350 employees working in the main Changua Christian Hospital and its eight auxiliary hospitals. Company employees offer support to indigenous patients as well as ensuring a clean environment.

Church members hired to work for the company have financial stability and are able to buy homes in the neighbourhood and be more active in parish life. The congregation has grown from 25 members to 100 and has just met to consider expanding its facilities because it has outgrown the building.

Within five years, the loan was paid off. Now the elders meet once a month, not to discuss their own debt, but rather to receive requests from other indigenous churches that wish to expand their programming or buy property of their own. They approve $100,500 in grants per year.  

Supervisory staff of Juang San Presbyterian Church's cleaning company at Changhua Christian Hospital with Pastor Chen and Clerk of Session Gu

Supervisory staff of Juang San Presbyterian Church's cleaning company at Changhua Christian Hospital with Pastor Chen and Clerk of Session Gu. —Kristine Greenaway

When Chen arrived, Juang San Presbyterian Church was a “Category D” parish, the category used by the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan to designate the poorest of its congregations.

Today Juang San is one of three “Category A” parishes in Taichung with an annual budget of $166,000, of which 30 per cent comes from congregational giving and the rest from profits made by the cleaning company.

Elder Gu and her husband were among the founding members of the congregation. Originally from a Bunan tribal village in central Taiwan, they had come to Taichung in search of work. For ten years they had been active in an indigenous fellowship group that had been meeting in a Han church.

There are 1.3 million people in the greater Taichung area. Of these only 3,000 are indigenous. However, 60-70 per cent of aboriginal people are Christian, compared to one per cent of the Han majority.

Eventually the pastor of the church suggested it was time for them to set up their own church. He wasn’t pushing them out, says Gu. He was encouraging them to become independent. It was impossible to find an affordable rental property so the group was forced to buy a building and renovate it.

Of the original fifty fellowship members, only a handful made the move to the new church. Some had lost their jobs meanwhile. Others found it too far to travel to the new location in the neighborhood where land was cheap enough for the fledging congregation to buy.

Helping people in their own parish manage their household economy and helping other parishes meet their financial needs is a central aspect of the congregation’s ministry.

Gu makes the point by telling the story of how she took on the management of an aboriginal hospital cleaner’s salary and expenses when he ended up in intensive care from the stress of being chronically in debt. Under her firm guidance he now has a large savings account. Saving is not traditional in Indigenous communities Gu explains. Learning that skill however has now allowed the cleaner to eat regularly and live well within his means.

From the beginning, Chen’s message to the congregation was not to rely on others. He told members they had to “learn to fish and become self-reliant.”  In Taiwan’s Han-dominated society, aboriginal people can be put down, he says, so it was important they learn business skills and keep trying until they succeed. If they don’t, he says, they will be put down.

The strategy has worked. Today the congregation provides support and encouragement for indigenous students and offers classes in aboriginal culture and language. The congregation now has its house in order with doors open to the community around it.

Kristine Greenaway serves as head of the Office of Communications for the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) in Geneva, Switzerland. The PC(USA) is a WCRC member church.

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