LGP Stories

Personal Stories from DLGP

Hong Kong: unexpected in so many ways

Written by: on February 24, 2019

Arrival in Hong Kong brought both a sense of relief and renewed expectation. Relief because I was finally able to begin the Doctor of Ministry programme, and renewed hope because I was supposed to be in Portland, Oregon doing Semiotics. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

Note that Visa for China – easy

This is me – did you see that coming?

My journey began at the beginning of 2018 with a reasonably complex application for an international student visa to the United States for seven days. That application rapidly became a significant problem under the recently tightened rules of Homeland Security. I was denied access without going through another year-long wait for a special visa waiver. It transpires old non-custodial criminal records mean I am a person under suspicion of ‘moral turpitude’ (you’ll need to look that one up). Theologically, at least, I couldn’t agree more.[1] Though, quite frankly, I’d still invite me around for dinner.[2] After a quick discussion with Loren Kern, all was not lost, I could continue in a different cohort; never having to step foot on the soil of the brave and free. Hong Kong was now on the horizon, and I rapidly shifted from mild despair to subdued elation. God is good, and so is Loren.

Exposure to partial rejection so early on, framed my Hong Kong experience. I know what it’s like to fall from the dizzy heights of a hopeful life and spend a couple of years in a pit so dark life was barely worth living. I know what it’s like to have old failings hang over your head and what it’s like to live in the tension of knowing God forgives, but people and institutions don’t. I know the discomfort of past memories returning to haunt you, even though they are somewhat distant.

While flying to Hong Kong I remembered being sentenced in court. I remember being I placed in a holding cell as a mistake. I remember the cell door opening and a tall, thin Maori guy who walked over to me, put out his hand and said, ‘The name is Pearl, what are you in for?’ It’s a question I never thought I’d be asked in my lifetime, yet here it was. I told him, and then he confessed (in a matter of fact way) that he was in for GBHTK (grievous bodily harm and threatening to kill!). Pearl went on to tell me of all the prisons he had been to throughout his rather colourful life, while at the same time taking an interest in me. He was light in a dark place, because in that short half hour I experienced a kinship and freedom that I hadn’t in months. There, in the face of a man whose life was a mess, I found unexpected grace and friendship. When the cell door opened, and I was told I could go, I left the cells for the freedom of what I thought would be an ordinary life, yet I wandered straight back to the prison of public perceptions. Freedom is not what it seems. As an aside, when I asked about Pearl at court office, no one had ever heard of him.

Seventeen years later I understand how that experience changed me. People, places, encounters – all are viewed differently. Everything I anticipate is viewed through a different lens because there is divine irony almost everywhere. I’m a white, middle class, over-educated Anglican Priest –  but I can’t currently travel to the United States; I can, however, travel to Hong Kong and China, Beirut, Europe, and South East Asia: none of which are Christian. But there I was studying with Americans in a land that is foreign to us all. God makes things work in ways that are unexpected.

This is a long-winded beginning, but it was my experience of enrolling and finally beginning. Even now I’m conscious of how difficult the journey has been. But it’s been worth it and will be worth it, even if I never get to graduate with others, it’s the journey that matters.

The Bonsai tree. Restrict the roots in a tight container and you get an aged tree that never grew up. Expand the roots and tree grows. I felt expanded studying in a different context.

The Hong Kong Advance provided new people, experiences, thoughts and feelings and most of them were juxtapositions. The session at Linklaters international legal financial services and its connections with powerful countries and people, alongside Healing Hope and then Jackie Pullinger’s faith-filled drug rehab centre, St Stephen’s House.[3] To say I was conflicted by the difference between them all would be an understatement. Yet, each organisation comprised of people having heard God lead them to an unexpected ministry.

Philip Wickeri’s unpacking of Christianity in China was fascinating and caused me to rethink the messages I hear from mission agencies that seemed to be at odds with the experiences of a professor of Chinese history. Likewise, reading Steve Tsang’s History of Hong Kong offered new perspectives on the country that I hadn’t been aware of, such as the difficult and complex relationship China and Britain had to negotiate, and the very different colonial structure that Britain used in Hong Kong by comparison to say, India.[4]

What was unexpected was how being in a foreign country changed the way I understood my own research ideas. Would my thesis mean anything in that part of the world? Is the problem I am researching so unique to my context it would be rendered pointless elsewhere? It seemed not to be the case, but it did remind me how small minded my thinking can be when that thinking is exposed on a global platform. Academically, I hadn’t seen that coming. Moreover, my supervisor reminded me to ‘push out the boat’ by reading authors from different countries who were tackling similar issues in different ways. I needed a broad base if I was going to think critically[5] about my social and religious context.[6] In doing so, I have discovered dimensions of thinking from South America and India that have reshaped my own vision.

New friends in a strange land.

Since returning, the weekly readings have stretched my thinking. The ‘experience of reflecting in another culture, surrounded by new friends from a different countries with different stories to tell, has forced a reconsideration of my project and it’s cultural bias – I think it will be better.

Visual Image of mission from The Vine Church, Hong Kong

Though visiting different churches was not a new experience for me, the Sunday service I did attend provided one aha moment that has applied to our leadership journey here in New Zealand. The following visual put into place the very things our own congregation has been praying about for the last year. Indeed, some of the content was useful too, but since my return, it has been the simplicity of the design as a visual representation that has both critiqued and stimulated our own model of ministry that is yet to unfold. I guess it was an anecdotal experience of Sarah Pink’s Visual Ethnography.[7] I inadvertently fell into Pinks thesis that visual images can often be more powerful than the words that accompany them.

However, it was new friends that had the most significant impact. Study without interpersonal connection is often flawed. I, in particular, need people with whom to rub shoulders, share ideas, debate topics and see things differently. And to that end the Hong Kong Advance was great.




[1] Romans 3:23

[2] Luke 19:1-10

[3] Pullinger, Jackie, and Andrew Quicke. Chasing the Dragon: One Woman’s Struggle Against the Darkness of Hong Kongs Drug Dens. 2nd ed. Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books: Kindle Edition, 2007.

[4] Tsang, Steve. A Modern History of Hong Kong. New York: I.B.Tauris : Kindle Edition, 2004.

[5] Elder, Richard Paul, and Linda Elder. Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts & Tools. 7th ed. Thinker’s Guide Library, Amazon Digital Services : Kindle Edition, 2014.

[6] Elliott, Anthony. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. 2 ed. Oxford: Routledge : Kindle edition, 2014.

[7] Pink, Sarah. Doing Visual Ethnography. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Ltd: Kindle Edition, 2013.


About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

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