Last Sunday, a local Chinese church’s multilingual service was broadcast live on BBC Radio 4, the United Kingdom’s most popular radio station, for the first time in history—a gesture of welcome to the hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents expected to migrate to the country under a new visa provision.
“This feels like a watershed moment for the Church in the UK,” wrote Mark Nam, an Anglican priest in Bristol. “I never dreamed I would be alive to hear Chinese songs and voices broadcast across the nation for Sunday Worship like this.”
Nam is among hundreds of pastors, ministry leaders, and laypeople who are preparing local churches for what could be the largest planned migration to the country in over half a century.
As of January 31, nearly three million British overseas nationals in Hong Kong are said to be eligible for this new passport program, which will allow them and their families to live and work in the UK and to apply for British citizenship within six years. The UK government expects over 300,000 to register and estimates that at least 130,000 will arrive in 2021 alone.
Political tensions are high in Hong Kong, particularly for pro-democracy activists—including Christians—who have become the target of a crackdown from Chinese authorities in the region. While the government has committed to open the door for everyone who applies, Christian leaders believe the church should be waiting on the doorstep to welcome them.
“It’s in our DNA; it’s in our doctrine,” said Krish Kandiah, a former pastor, missionary, and adoption reform advocate who has rallied local Christians around the Hong Kong Ready initiative. “The welcome is an important part of what the church is about, and we don’t always get it right, but we’re keen now.”
Kandiah, recently appointed the chair of a government board on adoption, connected officials to Christian leaders who were eager to help with resettlement. A team from his ministry network and representatives from the Chinese church community have partnered together to lead the way forward.
More than 600 people signed up for the Hong Kong Ready virtual event in late January, and so far 560 churches and counting have joined the movement. Evangelical groups like Welcome Churches and the UK’s Evangelical Alliance are among the many ministries partnering in their efforts.
Welcome Churches is helping to profile local congregations willing to receive newcomers from other nations and offering cross-cultural training on how to fully incorporate these new families into their church bodies.
Campaigns like the One People Commission and South Asian Forum share a similar goal, according to the Evangelical Alliance’s church and mission coordinator Donna Jennings, by “actively promoting the truth that diversity can and does exist in unity, in and through God’s people.”
Working together across denominational and organizational lines, the network is linking church leaders and civic officials, empowering the Chinese Christian community, mapping and mobilizing a growing list of welcome-ready churches, and building a bank of multilingual orientation resources for newcomers.
“I believe God is doing something special,” wrote Nam, who was recently ordained in the Church of England as one its first British-born Chinese priests. “Looking at the landscape ahead, my heart is filled with joy at the prospect of my children inhabiting a land where the stranger is welcomed and difference is celebrated.”
Witness against racism
Many of the leaders involved, including Kandiah and Nam, are themselves the children of immigrants and know the practical struggles and prejudice foreigners face—much of which has resurged in recent years.
“COVID and Brexit have intensified a sense of nationalism in the UK that has emerged in acts and attitudes of racism,” said Jennings. “In this context, the counter-cultural witness of the church is vital.”
The Hong Kong program will be the largest and fastest planned migration to the UK from outside Europe since the Windrush migration between 1948 and 1971, when the British invited families from former colonies in the Caribbean. At the time, the UK church along with the rest of the country not only failed to offer a warm welcome to the Windrush generation—it treated them in unjust and outright racist ways.
Officials were urged to issue a public apology on behalf of the UK government in 2018, and the Church of England did the same last year, as leaders repented and promised to renew their pursuit of racial reform.
“I’m still haunted by some of the stories around Windrush,” Kandiah said. “Fifty years later, we’re still reaping the negative consequences of people being treated appallingly.”
He recently spoke with a young woman on a Zoom call, listening as she shared a story about her own parents who migrated to the UK from the Caribbean. She said that when they showed up for Sunday service at a local Anglican church, the vicar turned them away and asked them to go somewhere else—saying the congregation would not feel comfortable worshiping God with them in the room.
But organizers are expecting even more resentment among locals about an immigration influx now, during unprecedented levels of unemployment. A COVID-19 Anti-Racism Group (CARG) has formed to monitor the rising tides of racism toward people of Asian descent stemming from the pandemic.
A recent report published by the group found that over the past year, there’s been a 300 percent increase in hate crimes or race-based violence against people with Chinese appearance in the UK, and a 900 percent increase in hate speech used toward or about them, both in person and online.
Nam joined CARG to help churches become aware of the growing threat of racism that immigrant families of Asian descent will face in the future. Many of those coming from Hong Kong already expect to encounter it here, he says, but they’re more worried about what it will mean for their children. Nam sees this as a chance for pastors and youth leaders to integrate the next generation and proactively combat bullying.
Growing up, Nam was one of few children of Chinese immigrants in his neighborhood, and he still has vivid memories from primary school. At lunch, when the rest of his classmates had Tupperware with a sandwich, fruit, and chip combo, he had a thermos full of fragrant noodles. “I’d crack it open, and across the classroom, someone would go, ‘Oh, what’s that smell? Something just died!’” Often, he’d keep the lid on and go home hungry.
Nam, who turned 40 this month, is working to make the church in the UK a more welcoming place for people with BAME backgrounds (black, Asian, and minority ethnic). But there will always be a special place in his heart for Hong Kong, where his wife and two of their three children were born—and where he served as a full-time pastor, ministering at a diverse evangelical church for nearly a decade.
“This is why I’m so behind what Krish has launched with Hong Kong Ready churches,” Nam said. “These Hong Kongers [are] going to be such a blessing.”
Divides in the Chinese diaspora
The radio service Nam heard broadcast last week on the BBC was led by pastor Henry Lu, the director of Chinese Overseas Christian Mission, a global ministry based in the UK that works with Chinese Christian communities in the Chinese diaspora.
Lu said that one obstacle the Chinese community has to face in integrating Hong Kongers is politics, which he says fall into two basic categories, labeled by two different colors: blue and yellow. The blue camp is generally favorable to China and its political policies, while the yellow camp is critical of both.
When it comes to the current situation between China and Hong Kong, “it is a very complicated political dynamic,” Lu says. “There’s a very clear divide in people’s opinion.”
The older Chinese population in the UK, primarily those who come from mainland China, tend to lean more traditional in their loyalty out of love and pride for their home nation. The younger generation, especially those who hail from the islands, are more likely to agree with the ongoing political protests against China’s actions in Hong Kong.
In response to the UK’s new visa policy and immigration plan for Hong Kongers, the Chinese government has declared that it will no longer recognize the British National Overseas Passport (BNOP), warning that Hong Kongers who move to the UK will be treated as “second-class citizens.”
Many experts believe these tensions are likely to get worse in the coming years. “China (actually, to be precise, the Chinese Communist Party–CCP) will tighten its control over Hong Kong for its international political security,” said Fenggang Yang, a sociology professor at Purdue. “This may trigger a sense of urgency for those who have been considering emigration but hesitating.”
In other words, many who make the life-changing decision to leave Hong Kong and move to the UK in coming years are doing so out of feelings of fear—for their freedoms, their families, and their future.
“These people are coming to a strange land. They’re leaving their home. They’re leaving their familiar places. They’re sojourners. They come here, some by choice, some may be forced to come,” Lu says. And because of this, Hong Kongers moving to the UK may also bring the baggage of emotional trauma, from anger to anxiety. “This is where my passion is in terms of the Chinese church—to say to them, ‘Look, as Christians, we need to help them. I don’t care if you’re yellow or blue. We need to care for them.’”
Nam says Western believers have much to learn from their Eastern brothers and sisters, despite their political differences.
To him, Sunday mornings at any local Chinese church in the UK is a perfect reflection of what determined unity in diversity can look like—where the church meets each week for food and fellowship before three congregations head into three rooms for three services held in three languages: English, Mandarin, and Cantonese—and gather together once a month for a joint service.
But due to COVID-19, incoming Hong Kongers will face more social obstacles than they would under normal circumstances—as will the local church members who want to reach out and connect with their new neighbors.
“It’s tough moving countries and continents in the best of times,” Kandiah said. “But it’s even harder moving in the middle of a pandemic, and especially when English is your second language.”
Momentum for Hong Kong Ready
So far, around 7,000 have moved to the UK since last summer, and several congregations have already been stepping up to help resettle dozens of families into their communities. In the midst of extended lockdowns, pandemic protocols, and social distancing, the welcoming effort has been mostly digital.
Over email and video calls, volunteers help with paperwork, translate documentation, show how to register for health care services and set appointments, and explain public transportation. These initial points of contact provide families who are relocating a sense of reassurance in knowing what to expect when they arrive.
“In a season that has forced our church buildings to close and our church programmes to be cancelled, Hong Kong Ready helps the UK Church to take stock of who we are and what we have to offer to our local community and wider society in such challenging times,” Jennings wrote. “Our divided culture is hungry to see a more beautiful way of being community, of functioning in society.”
The movement is even gaining momentum among high-level church leaders like the Bishop of London and popular big-city congregations such as Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), the UK’s largest and most influential Anglican church. Founded by pastor Nicky Gumbel, the London-based church-planting network is the birthplace of Worship Central, Alpha, and The Marriage Course.
In the larger scope, the Hong Kong Ready team has facilitated citywide roundtable discussions, hosting virtual meetings with local leaders throughout London, Manchester, and Birmingham. These conversations are facilitating unprecedented cooperation between civic officials and church leaders around the country. “There’s this real sense of partnership, which I’m really excited about,” Kandiah said.
In the past, Christian activists have lamented some immigration policies set by the UK’s Home Office, which they feel have created a hostile environment, rather than cultivating a welcoming posture toward foreign-born citizens. But now, many church and ministry leaders of the Hong Kong Ready initiative believe this could signal the beginning of a brand-new chapter in their history as a nation and as a church.
Emily Holden from Welcome Churches says she hopes that if local churches are able to welcome Hong Kongers well, “this will show to the UK government the desire from civil society to have more welcoming policies” towards refugees, asylum seekers, and other marginalized groups in the country.
Thus, receiving these Hong Kongers represents both “a challenge and an opportunity for the church to step into our identity as the people of God,” Jennings said—which should “transcend national identities and politics” and “embody a radical, warm welcome to those who have come to live among us.”
“In many ways,” says Nam, they are leading an ecumenical movement that’s blazing a trail for future generations of believers to follow. “And I say that humbly—as in, like, it’s scary.”
As Kandiah enlists more churches, ministries, and faith-based nonprofits to take the lead in “welcoming the strangers” coming to the UK from Hong Kong, he thinks of his mother, who emigrated there from India in the 1960s. Although she faced racial prejudice at every turn, she began what Kandiah refers to as “a one-woman resistance campaign” out of her own home—cooking plenty of rice and curry to share and inviting those who felt like they didn’t fit in to come have a meal with their family.
“I believe that churches up and down our country will soon be seen offering the same radical resistance to racism through hospitality and friendship,” Kandiah wrote in an op-ed last month. “I wish that she were alive today to see it.”