The deadly shooting at a meeting of Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church members in Laguna Woods, California, on May 15 not only violated a sacred space, but also left Taiwanese Americans feeling their cultural base had been shaken.
The church building was not only a place of worship, but also a place where Taiwanese language and support for a democratic Taiwan thrived.
The mass shooting, committed by a man who officials say was motivated by political hatred of Taiwan, has highlighted the close connections that the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan has had with the nation’s democracy movement.
Jerry Chen, the member who dialed emergency services after fleeing the gunman, calls himself a “proud Presbyterian” and says the congregation, while avoiding politics in church, likes to talk about what is going on in Taiwan.
“We care deeply because we grew up in Taiwan,” said Chen, 72, who has gone to the church since its founding 28 years ago.
Chen said he was puzzled why a man who has no apparent connection to the church would drive from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Laguna Woods — a town of 16,000 inhabitants, mostly retirees — to carry out such an attack.
Members of Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church had gathered on May 15 for the first time since the emergence of COVID-19 for a luncheon honoring their former pastor, Billy Chang (張承宗), who was visiting from Taiwan.
Investigators are still piecing together information about the suspected gunman, David Wenwei Chou (周文偉), 68, who was born in Taiwan after his family was forced to leave China when the communists took power.
They said they obtained Chou’s handwritten notes documenting his hatred of Taiwan.
Chou struck six people, one of whom sustained fatal wounds and died at the scene.
Officials said that the deceased, who was identified as John Cheng (鄭達志), a 52-year-old doctor, was killed when he charged at the gunman, attempting to disarm him.
Older Taiwanese immigrants supported each other in the small, tight-knit congregation, said Sandy Hsu, whose in-laws made a last-minute decision not to attend the luncheon.
The shooting has sowed fear and anxiety in the Taiwanese community nationwide, she said.
“My in-laws are questioning if it’s safe to get together in the future,” Hsu said. “We’re asking ourselves if it’s safe anymore to talk about politics.”
Second-generation Taiwanese Americans such as Leona Chen have said that their churches — whether part of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan or another denomination — have been a “social haven.”
“I have very visceral memories of potlucks where aunties would cook traditional dishes and play matchmaker for the young adults,” said Leona Chen, editor of TaiwaneseAmerican.org, a Web site and nonprofit organization serving the Taiwanese American community from the San Francisco Bay Area.
“Uncles who were retired engineers would help kids with calculus and SAT prep. Church was also a place where everyone figured out life in a foreign country together — from jury duty and homeownership to their kids’ college applications,” she said.
However, Leona Chen said that she also views the church as “a political space.”
“Especially in the Presbyterian Church [in Taiwan], there is a theological commitment to activism, to fight against injustice,” she said. “Churches became sanctuaries for pro-democracy groups.”
Taiwan is majority Buddhist and Taoist. Christians make up only 4 percent of the population.
The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan carved a niche and grew in political stature in the 1950s, after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) came into power in Taiwan, said Christine Lin, who in 1999 published a book about the denomination’s vital advocacy of local autonomy in Taiwan.
The KMT imposed what many perceive to have been an oppressive regime and targeted Presbyterians, even labeling them “terrorists,” she said.
On June 28, 1997 — three days before Hong Kong’s reversion to China — Lin recalls being at a rally with 60,000 people outside Taipei’s World Trade Center.
She said that nearly one-third of those gathered were Presbyterians who had arrived by bus from across Taiwan.
Lin, who grew up going to one of the denomination’s churches in Saint Louis, Missouri, witnessed a Presbyterian minister leading the congregation in singing phrases in Taiwanese such as “make Taiwan independent” to the tune of Glory, Glory Hallelujah.
The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan distinguished itself as a “native church” that represented Taiwanese, Hakka and indigenous people, with a political vision rooted in democracy and self-determination — ideals that many Taiwanese found attractive, Lin said, adding that it succeeded in Romanizing the spoken Taiwanese language.
The denomination was also instrumental in bringing members of the Democratic Progressive Party into power, said Tseng Ju-fang, dean of the School of Theology at Charisma University, an online institution based in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Tseng worked in the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan’s media department from 2001 to 2003.
Raised in a family that favored Taiwan’s unification with China, Tseng said her mindset later changed thanks to the Presbyterians.
“The Presbyterian Church has always been more inclusive,” she said, adding that church leaders were adept at navigating secular spaces while not imposing their religious beliefs on others. “Their motivation was faith-based, but they didn’t push Christianity on anyone.”
In the US, most of the denomination’s churches largely stay away from politics, Lin said.
“The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan was certainly involved politically, especially from the 1970s,” she said. “But the churches here, while they promoted the Taiwanese language, and supported self-determination and democracy in Taiwan, did not make overt political statements or engage in activism.”
It is common to find people with connections to China in many of the denomination’s churches in the US, said Daisy Tsai, an Old Testament professor at Logos Evangelical Seminary in El Monte, California.
The two groups might hold different political beliefs, but their Christian faith binds them, she said.
“People generally mingle and get along,” said Tsai, who is Taiwanese American. “In many churches, there is an unwritten rule that we don’t discuss politics. But sometimes, those discussions could spill over to social media and turn into debates.”
Al Hsu, a second-generation Taiwanese American who lives in the Chicago area, agrees that church is not necessarily a place where people talk politics.
“But it is a place where we foster a sense of our peoplehood, our heritage and national identity,” he said.
Hsu said his mother holds dual citizenship and travels to Taiwan to vote because she cares about the country’s future.
“The church has been a safe place for the older generation to talk with others who share those concerns,” he said. “For someone to come into such a sacred space and target our ama [“grandmothers”] and agong [“grandfathers”] — to attack the elderly people whom we hold in such reverence — is an attack on our entire community.”
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