The first economic recession in Hong Kong in 13 years has proved both an opportunity and a trial for the church. With a 5.5 percent unemployment rate, the former British crown colony has nearly 188,000 of its people without work. The figure is expected to rise in February during Chinese New Year when employers typically reduce staff to avoid giving bonuses.
Churches have set up funds and databases to help Christians find jobs to tide them over. But few Chinese Christians, particularly in the middle class, are eager to seek help from churches. In order to save face in the culture, they prefer to rely first on savings, and, as a last resort, friends. Only a tiny fraction of people ask for assistance from churches or the government.
Historically, Hong Kong churches have just paid lip service to deeply rooted social problems, focusing instead on education, health care, and social service agencies. As a result, many residents do not see Christian churches as a ready resource for the poor or unemployed. In addition, despite Protestant mission work in Hong Kong since the 1840s, only 8 percent of the region's 6.3 million people are Christians. The majority are Buddhists or Taoists.
RETRAINING THE JOBLESS: To help Christians who have lost jobs, the Hong Kong Council of the Church of Christ in China has established a $2 million relief fund ($257,900 U.S.). The fund assists affected members within local congregations, affiliated schools, and church headquarters, helping them to apply for government assistance. Initially, the agency provides an interest-free loan for three months. Then it refers the unemployed to openings in its 65 schools and 49 congregations. In addition, an Internet Web site has been set up to advertise positions. Nearly half of the openings have been filled through churches.
The Chinese Alliance Church, with about 90 member congregations, thought of setting up a database of unemployed members but abandoned the idea because of poor response. Luke Poon of the Chinese Alliance Church says, "We don't know how to break this barrier." Instead, a denominational committee established last June is encouraging Christian businessmen to create temporary jobs. "This way we act as a facilitator," Poon says. "We do not want to be a job-seeking agency."
Not all Christians are happy with the response of churches. "I do not know whether the economic downturn has really forced the churches to think about their role in society," says Kwok Nai Wong of the Hong Kong Christian Institute. "That explains why there is such a low interest in the churches' programs."
While mainline churches grapple with the problem, parachurch organizations such as the Hong Kong Industrial Training Center have retrained more than 200 people in computer skills, fluency in English, office assistance, and domestic help.
But there is a silver lining in the cloud of economic difficulty. The Hong Kong Association of Missions has been able to move to a new and larger office because of the slump in property prices. Ministry leader Raymond Lo says, "We were offered a larger office for $7 million ($902,600 U.S.) and appealed to our supporters for donations. The whole amount came in within four months and we are now debt free." The budget of the Hong Kong Associ-ation of Missions has not been affected by the financial crisis, and salaries of missionaries have not been reduced.
The economic slump is also proving to be an opportunity for evangelism. A number of cell groups have formed, and executives in suits are now seen praying and discussing the Bible in restaurants.
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