A celebratory Sunday luncheon for the former pastor of a Taiwanese congregation in California ended in “grief and disbelief” when a gunman opened fire, killing one person and injuring five others.
Visiting from Taiwan, the longtime pastor of Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church knocked down the shooter, preventing the intruder from reloading and firing at more of the aging congregation, according to news accounts. Members were then able to use an extension cord to hogtie the shooter and disarm him.
The incident took place at Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods, California, where the Taiwanese church has met for the past decade.
Sunday’s luncheon—a tradition that had been on hold during the pandemic—resumed in honor of the return of their longtime pastor Billy Chang. According to the Los Angeles Times, Chang pastored Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian for 21 years and left in 2020 to lead a church in Taiwan.
Authorities said 30 to 40 members were gathered when the suspect, an Asian man in his 60s, opened fire with two handguns. The church’s current pastor, Albany Lee, told The New York Times that no one recognized the shooter and it was the visiting pastor who subdued him. Several accounts describe Chang hitting the gunman with a chair.
Orange County law enforcement applauded the congregation’s response as a display of “exceptional heroism and bravery” that prevented the situation from becoming worse.
On Monday, the sheriff called the attack a “a politically motived hate incident” and said the suspect—David Chou, a Chinese American from Las Vegas—held animosity toward the Taiwanese community. Authorities opened a federal hate crime investigation.
John Cheng died on the scene after launching to action to stop Chou and being shot multiple times. Cheng, a 52-year-old doctor, had accompanied his mother to church that day.
Four were in critical condition on Sunday. One suffered minor injuries. The oldest victim was 92.
“There is a lot of grief and disbelief among the congregation,” Yorba Linda councilwoman Peggy Huang, who is Taiwanese American, said in the Orange County Register. “This was supposed to be a joyous occasion.”
The banner photo on Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian’s website depicts about 150 church members posed at the front of their sanctuary, almost all of them older and graying. The vast majority of Laguna Woods residents live in a retirement community called Laguna Woods Village.
The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan is the island’s largest denomination, and some Taiwanese immigrant churches in the US come out of the Presbyterian tradition.
Both Geneva Presbyterian Church and Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian are listed as part of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Los Ranchos Diocese, which includes 44 churches in eight languages. Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian proudly continues to conduct services in Taiwanese.
“We use our own language and culture to worship God,” reads a message on the church website from Lee. “Although we don’t have our own church building, we are thankful to Geneva Presbyterian Church and their generosity, allowing us to share their facility.”
“Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church is a family of love,” wrote the pastor. “I hope that all brothers and sisters can become acquainted with each other on a deeper level.”
A member of the nearby Evangelical Formosan Church of Irvine said the two congregations had shared family and leaders.
The attack occurred a day after a mass shooting at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store, and a few months after another deadly incident at a California church.
For Taiwanese Americans, the tragedy comes amid ongoing concerns for safety—particularly for elders—amid anti-Asian violence during the pandemic.
“God, have mercy. 1 dead, 5 injured at a Taiwanese church today in Laguna Woods, California,” tweeted Michelle Ami Reyes, vice president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative. “Another precious Asian image bearer’s life tragically lost. How many shootings will we be forced to bear witness to this month?”
The Faith Based Security Network has tracked more than 500 fatal attacks in churches from 1999–2018, and the tally of incidents each year is climbing.
“Churches are intended to be safe sanctuaries from hate and violence,” said Orange County district attorney Todd Spitzer. “That serenity was shattered this afternoon by a gunman who unleashed unspeakable violence in a house of worship.”
This story has been updated.