Spreading the Word

From Taiwan Review 2020-09-03
A children’s choir at Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Taipei City sings hymns during Sunday Mass. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)

A children’s choir at Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Taipei City sings hymns during Sunday Mass. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)

Despite constituting less than seven percent of the population, Christians in Taiwan make outsized altruistic contributions.

Few first-time visitors to Taipei City Yongfu Home for the Disabled could leave without feeling deeply touched by the compassion and patience caregivers show residents, many of whom suffer from lifelong conditions like cerebral palsy, Down syndrome or severe mental impairment. Staff at the Taipei City Government facility managed by Cardinal Tien Hospital (CTH)—a major Catholic medical institution with three locations in New Taipei City—refuse to give up on their charges no matter how challenging the task. “Most of the 177 residents in our care have trouble speaking and behavioral difficulties,” said Catholic convert and Yongfu director Chung Mei-lan (鍾美蘭). “But we treat them as souls deserving of God’s love.”

Yongfu is one of the many institutions in Taiwan built on the Christian tenet of altruism, but the world’s most widely practiced religion did not gain a foothold in the country overnight. It is the result of Christians systematically spreading their message through social work for over 150 years.

A priest gives blessings to residents at Taipei City Yongfu Home for the Disabled. (Photo courtesy of Taipei City Yongfu Home for the Disabled)

A priest gives blessings to residents at Taipei City Yongfu Home for the Disabled. (Photo courtesy of Taipei City Yongfu Home for the Disabled)

Though missionaries first arrived in 1625 along with merchants from the Dutch East India Company, Christianity did not begin taking root in earnest until 1859 when three Dominican friars from Spain founded what later became Holy Rosary Cathedral in southern Taiwan’s Kaohsiung City, establishing the country’s first base for disseminating Catholicism. Protestantism likewise gained ground on the island after James Laidlaw Maxwell, a member of the English Presbyterian Mission, came to Tainan in 1865 to practice medicine and spread the faith in the southern city. Seven years later Canadian physician and Presbyterian missionary George Leslie MacKay began to preach the gospel in what is now New Taipei’s Tamsui District, further popularizing the denomination.

A major turning point for Christianity’s local development occurred around 1949, when a wave of missionaries fled China due to the communist government’s religious repression. Chen Fang-chung (陳方中‬), an academic specializing in Taiwan’s Catholic history at Fu Jen Catholic University in New Taipei, estimates up to one third of them chose to relocate to Taiwan. Though only 15 Catholic missionaries lived in the country prior to 1949, the number reached a peak of around 1,000 in the 1970s before decreasing to about 700 today, Chen said. Dioceses also increased from two to seven between 1950 and 1961, with the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Taipei acting as the principal episcopal see since 1952.

Worshipers follow along with the choir at Taipei Nan King East Road Christian Church. (Photo courtesy of Taipei Nan King East Road Christian Church)

Worshipers follow along with the choir at Taipei Nan King East Road Christian Church. (Photo courtesy of Taipei Nan King East Road Christian Church)

Adventists, Baptists and Methodists all thrived on Taiwan soil post-1949 as Protestantism followed a similar trajectory. According to Chuang Ya-tang (莊雅棠), professor of theology at Chang Jung Christian University in Tainan, 57 denominations are active in the country. The Presbyterian Church boasts the highest number of followers at nearly 260,000 today, while roughly 470,000 people belong to local nondenominational churches.

Helping Hand

According to a 2019 survey conducted by Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s foremost research organization, 5.5 and 1.3 percent of respondents identify as Protestant and Catholic, respectively. Despite their small numbers, Christians have left very visible footprints in the country, Chen said. “Locals welcome the faith’s presence because followers have made such significant contributions to society,” he added.

In 1885, for example, Presbyterians founded the country’s first high school in Tainan. Similarly, more than 20 institutions of higher learning ranging from colleges and universities to seminaries and medical schools have been established by various Christian groups. But according to Chen, believers have left their most profound impact by setting up hospitals and social welfare institutions around the country.

NKEC was a sustaining force for its congregation during the instability of the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of NKEC)

NKEC was a sustaining force for its congregation during the instability of the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of NKEC)

“When Taiwan was still developing, Christians brought medical skills and donations from their home countries, using the resources to build clinics, hospitals and facilities for the handicapped and thus drastically improving quality of life for the people,” said Tang Sai-hung (鄧世雄‬), former director of CTH’s branch in Yonghe District of New Taipei.

Headquartered in New Taipei’s Xindian District, CTH was named after Tien Keng-hsin (田耕莘), who was the Roman Catholic Church’s first East Asian Cardinal. He played an instrumental role in founding the hospital in the 1960s, following the lead of missionaries Maxwell and MacKay, who respectively established Sin Lau Hospital in Tainan—the first hospital practicing Western medicine in the country—and MacKay Clinic, the first such institution in northern Taiwan. In 1912 the latter was renamed MacKay Memorial Hospital and relocated to Taipei, where it continued its groundbreaking achievements by opening the country’s first intensive care unit in 1967 and first suicide prevention center two years later.

“What motivated the Christians behind these organizations to save lives wasn’t financial reward but religious passion,” Tang said. “If you have the right purpose, donors and volunteers will help you fulfill your mission.” In 2012 he founded the Taiwan Catholic Long Term Care Institution Association in hope of better imparting his faith to the masses. The Taipei-based organization supports caretakers by arranging forums on long-term care issues and visits to Catholic institutions around Taiwan.

Cardinal Tien Hospital named after the first East Asian cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, is one of many Christian medical facilities around Taiwan. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao

Cardinal Tien Hospital named after the first East Asian cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, is one of many Christian medical facilities around Taiwan. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao

Modern Role

While large religious organizations may have more resources to work with, Walter Wu (吳紹楨‬), a senior preacher at Taipei Nan King East Road Christian Church (NKEC), believes independent churches have a special role to play. NKEC’s local management allows it to change with the times to address people’s needs. According to Wu, this explains its longevity after being founded by seven Christian couples who moved from China to Taiwan in 1945. “The church was a sustaining force for the community in the years of instability following the relocation,” he said. “As Taipei modernized, the church began to provide English language and stress management classes for busy office workers.”

NKEC’s congregation has grown to around 1,400 people, increasing the scope of its community outreach. Among its endeavors are fellowship groups targeting a range of demographics including adolescents, couples, singles and single parents. For the growing elderly population, NKEC provides opportunities to socialize through art, dance and singing classes. Another project cares for children from underprivileged families each day after school. “We never preach about Christianity when offering help. Many beneficiaries aren’t even aware we’re a religious institution,” Wu said. “But through the aid we extend, they’ll come to know the love of God.”

The Holy Rosary Cathedral in southern Taiwan’s Kaohsiung City traces its origin back to 1859. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)

The Holy Rosary Cathedral in southern Taiwan’s Kaohsiung City traces its origin back to 1859. (Photo by Chin Hung-hao)

Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church has been a crucial force in advocating for political and social reform and encourages its followers to do likewise. In one particularly notable case in 1977, the church published “A Declaration on Human Rights,” which called on the international community to recognize that the future of Taiwan must be determined solely by its inhabitants. “Through such actions, the Presbyterian Church played a significant role in the country’s democratization and identity-building process,” Chuang said. Today the church is heavily involved in the movement to abolish capital punishment, endorsing the Taipei-based Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty founded in 2003.

Though Christians have contributed greatly to Taiwan society, cultural barriers have hindered the faith’s spread among the local populace. According to Wu, the vast majority of Taiwan’s Protestant denominations ban the deep-rooted practice of ancestor worship, which restricts the number of people willing to join. Nevertheless, he remains devoted to the work of helping the needy and spreading the word of God. “All Christians have a duty to preach the gospel to every corner of the world,” he said. “As long as Christians remain devoted to helping others, we can help change people’s lives.”

>> Read More