What the Gospel Has to Say About the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church Shooting, Part 2
This article is part of a two-part series by SueAnn Shiah reflecting on the 2022 Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church Shooting. Read the first part by clicking here.
“Do I belong here?”
Citizenship in the Kingdom of God was the first place that I ever felt assured of my belonging. Earthly nations and kingdoms may come and go, but I could rest in knowing I was God’s child. It was this security that gave me the courage to start asking bigger questions, questions that before I had been too scared to ask for fear of an answer that might trigger a deep existential crisis, about my Asian American-ness, my Chinese-ness, and my Taiwanese-ness.
I was not raised a Christian, but my faith is perhaps the most important and defining part of my life and identity. I remember the first time I ever read the Bible at the end of seventh grade. When I got to the part in Exodus about Moses fleeing to the desert away from the Egyptians who had adopted him, and also, his blood relatives, the enslaved Hebrews, he named his son Gershom which means “sojourner” because “I have been a stranger in a strange land.” It hit me somewhere deep in my soul.
Growing up in the United States as a child of immigrants, I never felt like I fully belonged: I knew I had U.S. citizenship, but I never felt quite sure that I was fully accepted as an American. I would return to Taiwan with my family, and they would say I was American.
When I mentioned in casual conversation at a family dinner that I had started attending a Taiwanese Presbyterian church, my aunts and uncles made little jabs telling me that I shouldn’t tell them I come from a “blue” (KMT) family. To them, the Taiwanese Presbyterian church represents the DPP, benshengren, and those who see people like my family as the enemy and will never accept us as belonging here in Taiwan. For my family, the ideology of Chinese nationalism is what brought them here in the first place, the thing that justifies their existence. If we let go of that way of seeing Taiwan, as a part of China (and not just the ROC or PRC, but the bigger overarching “idea” of China), then we are also letting go of the idea of home that they’ve finally been able to make for themselves after generations of wandering and migration.
For many, Taiwanese-ness is something that exists in the past, an identity that claims pre-existence to the arrival of the ROC, something that we don’t quite have the family background to claim for ourselves. So the only way we can believe ourselves forward, and preserve our existence is to hold onto Chinese nationalism, the hope of the glory of a reunited China, a reunited family, so that we can finally go home again, or rather “stay home.”
I understand why members of my family and, particularly, my parents’ generation hold onto this way of understanding identity. I and many others in my generation disagree with it, but I think that I can understand the need to find home and belonging for them. After all, those are things I hope to find for myself too. But for me, Taiwaneseness is not something that exists merely in the past before ROC occupation, but the hope of a future for all of us who have, by various means, found ourselves calling this island our home.
Making a Home and Building a Future
I have spent almost four years here in Taipei, attending graduate school at National Taiwan University (NTU). For the majority of that time, I have attended a weekly Bible study at Chi-Nan Presbyterian Church, a flagship church of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan (PCT). There is no question of the political orientation of my Bible study attendees: pan-green, pro-independence, and politically progressive.
We spend many nights reading the Bible and discussing the context of those Bible passages, then asking how we can apply them to our current context here in Taiwan. Questions about nation-building, identity formation, militarization, and colonization come up almost every week.
As someone from a waishengren family, my Taiwanese Hokkien skills are extremely limited. Other than a few everyday phrases that my mother used to usher us to eat dinner, apologize, or say thank you, we were very much a Mandarin-speaking household. In this Bible study and church community, I found that upwards of 50% of my Bible study would be in Taiwanese Hokkien. (The rest mostly in Mandarin Chinese until recently when an influx of Hong Kongers threw Cantonese into the mix as well). Weekly church services at most PCT congregations are done in Taiwanese Hokkien, from the hymnal, to the Bible translation, to the sermon, this is one of the few places in Taiwan where you can still find institutionalized Taiwanese Hokkien, or Taigi.
I started taking Taigi classes at NTU. My degree required a third language related to my research, and since I was studying church music in Taiwan, Taigi felt like a perfect choice for me. I seized upon an opportunity that I had long awaited, a missing piece to feeling like a true bonafide Taiwanese person. Back in 2014-2016, when I worked on my documentary, I had arrived at the conclusion that I did not need to know Taigi in order to be a “real” Taiwanese person. I instead arrived at a place where I had decided it was enough to embrace this identity and chose it for myself. I felt that learning Taiwanese would help me to deepen the relationships I had with local Taiwanese people and be an expression of my solidarity with my chosen community.
I was welcomed as a sister. I was welcomed as a Taiwanese person. I may be a “third generation waishengren” but my Taiwanese Presbyterian community will remind me, enthusiastically, that I am a “first generation Taiwanese!” We wrestle with the ins and outs of Taiwan’s postcolonial realities, transitional justice, of loving our enemies, and working to make Taiwan into a place for the flourishing of all people.
I will not pretend that this denomination and community does not struggle with issues of settler colonialism, homophobia, ethno-nationalism, or other worldly corruptions, but it is the place where I have found a home, people to co-labor alongside, and belonging.
St. Paul, the most prolific apostle in the entire New Testament, began his story as Saul of Tarsus, persecutor of Christians. While on the road to Damascus, Jesus appears to him and asks, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” What follows is the most dramatic transformation of the New Testament where the oppressor becomes the oppressed, and the persecutor becomes the persecuted.
I find comfort in stories like that, most of all, because I need to believe that there is hope for people like me. My family inheritance does not come without stains and without blood, but how am I to make a home with and among those who I or my family has harmed in the past? My faith gives me answers for that and gives me hope that healing and reconciliation are possible, and that we are not doomed to the sins of the past or destined to condemnation. I am a Han Chinese person, but I spend a significant amount of my life denouncing and fighting against Han supremacy — think white supremacy but Chinese! We can build a future together, we can take the swords used to kill and destroy, and we can turn them into plowshares that till the earth and bring new life and sustenance to bless people.
The Taiwanese Presbyterian church is a place for me where I found love and acceptance. It is a community that has accepted me and communicated me as an official member, even after I experienced rejection from other churches both in the United States and in Taiwan because of my race and queerness. I am building a life and a future for myself — someone without the pedigree of Christianity or Taiwaneseness but who gets to join in the harvest, celebrate the good news, go home, and be called “sister.”
A year has now passed since the shooting, and I am now enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary (the first Presbyterian seminary in the United States) with the intention of pursuing ordination in the Presbyterian Church, in large part due to the influence that the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan has had on me. The PCT gave me a vision of a future that included a place for someone like me, and I look forward to spending my life serving in this community.
This is why the news of the shooting by David Chou affected me so much. When he showed up at the church, they welcomed him in. They knew he was not a regular attendee, but they heard him speak Mandarin and heard something familiar in his accent, and gave him the benefit of the doubt. But I don’t think that the shooter was looking for community and acceptance. Instead, he wanted to eliminate what he saw as an obstacle to the glories of “Chinese civilization” and “reunification.” Usually, in the United States, we speak of nationalism or racism as conflicts between groups based on differences. In Taiwan, it may be that people who do not look or sound so different from each other have radically different ideas about identity and nationality. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves and to love our enemies. Sometimes our “enemies” are our neighbors or the members of our own families.
Chou didn’t just want to kill any Taiwanese people. He wanted to make a strategic political attack against a community and institution that has supported Taiwanese independence and been a sanctuary for Taiwanese activists. Even more, assumptions that have arisen about Chou’s identity and belonging do not connect his specific branch of pro-unification Chinese nationalism to a domestic Taiwanese history, rather assuming it is of outside Chinese influence, stoking increasingly rampant Sinophobia in the United States. We are a complicated people with so many backgrounds, stories, and ways of understanding identity. We are all a part of Taiwan, whether we call ourselves Taiwanese or not.
When I look at Chou I see someone whose experiences and views are not so distant from that of family members I know, or friends of family — but our realities are not split into some sort of ethnic essentialism. There are benshengren who identify as Chinese and waishengren that identify as Taiwanese. As we continue to sit with the grief of this attack and consider the posture with which we want to move forward, my prayer is that we choose restorative justice instead of retributive justice, and we continue to extend the welcome that I have been so fortunate to receive.
I am thankful to count myself as a member in the fellowship of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, to be in a spiritual community that is wrestling with hard work of repentance and reconciliation because it knows that we are all one body, even if we don’t always like to admit it. We do not get to choose who we are born as, but we do get to choose who we want to build our lives with, and how we want to live them.
My heart is broken and still breaking whenever I think about the tragedy that took place at Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church. But I will continue to believe in a God who promises that it shall come to pass: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 65: 25). And I will continue to cling to my faith which teaches that there is room for everyone to belong and continue the work with my community to build a better world and a bigger table, even for sinners such as me.