28 June 2013
China is here
Chine Mbubaegbu spends a Sunday morning at the diverse, bustling and passionate Chinese Church in London.
As I walk towards the entrance of the Chinese Church in London (CCiL) – which is tucked away in a leafy suburban corner of Hammersmith – I wonder whether I've got the right place. The church building – a former synagogue – stands steady and unassuming. But as I walk through the doors, I'm hit with the hustle and bustle of activity. This is a busy church.
I'm given the grand tour by Siew Huat Ong (Osh), the church's senior pastor, and as we wind our way through the corridors of the church building – members warmly greeting him as they pass him – we see activity behind every door. Bible studies, children's work, young people's groups.
And all these taking place while the Cantonese service is going on in the main church hall. Every Sunday, three services take place – in Cantonese, Mandarin and English – at the church's centre in Hammersmith; while services also take place at the church's other centres in Soho, Croydon, Colindale and Hounslow.
But there's a sense of shared vision and family among the 1,200 people across the centres. Every Tuesday, the 15 pastoral staff go through what will be preached on Sunday, following the year-long teaching schedule that is already drawn up.
The church was started in 1950 by Pastor Stephen Y T Wang – who moved to the UK after the Communists took over China. At that time, most of the Chinese immigrants were in Liverpool and London – in the docks areas. After a group of friends spent Christmas Eve of 1950 in prayer, CCiL was born, with the first service taking place on 7 January 1951. Around 10 per cent of the UK's 250,000-plus Chinese people are Christians, which means there is a real need for churches to cater to their specific cultural and language needs. But this itself is complex. Not all Chinese people are from mainland China – some are from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, and more than 20 other nations. And their needs are not homogenous. While some Chinese Christians living in this country may speak little English, some – referred to by Pastor Ong as "BBCs" (British-born Chinese) – may be solely English speakers who may never have been to China.
Grace Chan is from Hong Kong and became a Christian while a student at Imperial College. "My mother tongue is Cantonese, so I go to that service here. Going to church is not just about the sermon for me, it's about relationship as well. It's not just about the language – it's more than that. I have family, fellowship and support here."
I meet Eric Lui – a 24-year-old Oxbridge graduate who works for Apple. I ask him why he chooses to attend a Chinese church. "I've grown up in this church and that's a big factor," he says. "It feels like family – both relationally and spiritually. Everyone knows me and they have invested a lot in me."
But he wonders whether the culture makes being truly unified with other churches difficult. CCiL often hold joint initiatives and events with St Paul's Hammersmith. However, Eric says: "We're a Chinese church, which has its benefits, but it also has its real barriers. I think the culture aspect is a big factor."
Pastor Ong, who grew up in Malaysia but came to the UK in the mid-1970s to study, feels that the ultimate aim is for an authentically diverse UK Church. Which is why he is a member of the Alliance's One People Commission – a body made up of some of the UK's leading ethnic minority church leaders.
"The Christian Church is definitely a very diverse church," Pastor Ong says. "So therefore it should reflect that diversity. Christianity for the longest time has been pre-conceived as a Western religion, but we have to reflect the fact that the Church is very diverse and not just Caucasian."
But diversity does not mean homogeneity, he says. "London is a diverse, global city. But we can't lose our identity in that diversity. In the real world, we have to live with the tension of our unique identity and also the diversity."
CCiL is inching towards diversity, with some Iranians, Caucasian people and West Indians as part of the congregation.
"We are more complex than people realise," Pastor Ong says. "One of our first priorities is to look to the future and we think that the future is going to be multicultural, but it will take us some time to get there."
"Our clear priority, however, is to reach the Chinese – especially those from China – and in one sense we don't have to go to China anymore to do that. Because China is here."
While that remains the primary focus, I'm struck by the church's passion for holistic mission. While their unique mission and their name suggest a Chinese focus, they are just like any other church – dedicated to meeting the social and spiritual needs of the world around them; locally, nationally and globally. The church's CareLinks ministry provides practical help to those in need, through supporting Tearfund and Cedar Fund. They also run professional counselling services in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. Their Next Generation initiative serves the needs of children, teenagers, parents and families; while they also have groups specifically for students, the elderly and women.
Every March, the church promotes its CareLinks programme with a Sunday dedicated to the importance of social responsibility. A book detailing the past decade of the church's history, says: "We sincerely hope that our congregations will become more aware and more willing to partake in caring for the community, so that those in poverty, and who are weak or who have great needs would also be able to embrace God's love."