I woke up to this email last week (March 17th):
Dear Missionary Community,
In light of the recent travel restrictions put in place by various national governments around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ELCA is requesting that all United States based Mission Personnel (U.S. Citizens and U.S. permanent residents) return immediately to the United States.
Well, that’s sobering! There was an appeal option at the end of the email; if we felt safer staying put, or had some other reason not to travel, we should say so.
At that point, Hong King was having very few new infections. I talked to my mom, a couple trusted friends, and my boss/friend at the ELCA. I decided to stay, and my petition was granted. I did feel safer here, the travel sounded daunting, and I think I am needed more here.
A second, more decisive letter came the next day, but I held firm. My church body had to make a difficult call, but each of us had a different situation. There’s no right answer for everyone. Many decided to go home. And other church bodies brought their Hong Kong workers home, too. My community got a bit smaller.
One big consideration for all has been the rapid decrease in international flights. No one wants us to be stuck abroad, with no way home.
Fast forward to today, Monday, March 23rd. New cases in Hong Kong have risen dramatically in recent days, and the seminary has responded with more drastic measures: no more face-to-face classes this semester, no talking at meals, no visitors, and even restrictions on how many days per week faculty can come to campus. Masks are required at all times. I began to question my decision. If all classes are online, am I needed here? Am I safer here?
I still answer “yes!” Our spotless campus is gleaming; students come by for help; I breathe in the fresh, humid air; and we continue to be companions for each other—even in silence.
May I continue the ruse of me as a hike leader? Last Friday, I was needed elsewhere, but I just happened to be available for the opening photograph!
I’ll close with a small teaser: I have ordered a traditional Chinese instrument and it has arrived in Hong Kong! This is all you get:
I’m concerned about all of you, too. There are so many hot spots, and no one can predict the future. Everyone seems to agree on hand washing. Let’s keep that up, and let’s check in on our friends and neighbors. And who is my neighbor? (This new job is wearing off on me!)
Easy words to say. “Don’t panic.” “You’ll be fine.” “Stay safe.” All are said frequently, with the best of intentions. I heard these very often when the virus began spreading in Hong Kong. In fact, we did panic. We hoarded, we worried, and we stayed in our safe places.
Now it’s your turn, I’m afraid. While life is not perfect here, most of the panic and hoarding are behind us. Many of you are in the beginning stages of the battle. I’d like to tell you not to worry, but it is serious. We all will be challenged in various ways.
I am no expert, either! We have stayed healthy—was it the masks? The hand sanitizer? The cancellation of physical meetings? The frequent disinfection of surfaces? Probably all played a role. My money is on clean hands and keeping those hands away from our faces. Again, I am a trombone player. This has become my “go to” phrase for everything I don’t know!
Even after six weeks or so, our routines have not returned to normal. I have fewer stories of adventure, but perhaps you will appreciate this glimpse of what your future may look like.
We continue to gather in small groups for walks. This has been so great for me. I’m not sure I would have taken the time to do this if there were no virus. We are intentional! We can learn so much by looking, listening, and exploring. No money or special ability needed.
We are reading this small gem with partners at Elim Lutheran in Marshalltown. $7. I need a break from round-the-clock news. And there are no concerts, parties, or other temptations. I’m reading a good novel my brother gave me, I’m reading small bits of this Bonhoeffer book, and I look for new things I think my students might like to read.
Much of Hong Kong is glass and steel, reaching high into the sky. But not everything is fancy and new. My neighborhood is an interesting mix of old buildings and “progress.”
This is my house, where I am also spending more time. My apartment is half of the top floor, with access to the covered rooftop. I’m noticing more of the things around me. We have a yard! How great is that in Hong Kong? We have trees and flowers I’ve never seen before. Maybe I will learn more about tropical plants.
I’m not trying to fool you. After the panic dies down, the isolation is tough. Online church is ok, but not the same. Online teaching stretches my mind, but I’d rather be with my students. Quiet is good, but there can be too much of it. I hope you find ways to thrive during the coming weeks. I’d love to hear your suggestions!
Hello from Hong Kong! (I can say hello in Cantonese, but I have no idea how to write it.) I think this is my longest break between posts. You’ve earned it!
One reason for the big gap in posts is that, in some ways, not much is happening. (Don’t touch that dial! I have a couple things to tell today!). The other is that we are working hard just to teach our classes and stay healthy.
I’ve lost track of when we stopped face-to-face classes. The new normal is ok, but the isolation and lack of many normal activities have changed the atmosphere. There is a small group of international students on campus, and a few faculty who come regularly. There are many people I miss seeing. You can imagine that it’s not a time of great stories or adventure.
This past week has been particularly challenging for me. First (in Hong Kong we seem to prefer “firstly”), I had two sermons to give. Two in five days. The process of preparation been quite enjoyable. I read the appointed texts, try to figure out why they might be grouped together, and then think about what might be interesting or helpful to those listening. I also read what others have written, and I listen to a podcast from Luther Seminary, where professors talk informally about the lessons.
The event itself is ok. The first of the two was at Christ Temple, where I attend English services on Sunday evening. I had Adam and Eve, Christ in the wilderness for 40 days, and Psalm 32. The second was for Thursday morning chapel online. Paul explains to the Romans how Abraham was justified through his faith. That was a more difficult text for me, but I think it had a better result. But it felt strange just looking at the camera on a laptop.
This is not fake humility: while I know that I have been a regular churchgoer, passed Confirmation class, and studied some parts of the Bible, when it’s time to start talking, I wonder how this trombone player got into this situation. I start talking and I see pastors and theology students in front of me. I’m grateful for the opportunity, but I feel inadequate.
Second/secondly, online teaching has been less than satisfying. I have taught quite a bit online before, but never live. The technology doesn’t always work as it should, and it’s harder to read students’ reactions. Are they bored? Lost? They seem to volunteer less. I am talking way too much.
Last, the virus is still a bit stressful. I feel very safe, but there is a continuing question of whether we foreign teachers should stay or go home. I want to stay! It also requires vigilance, as you in the US are starting to learn. Masks, hand washing, avoiding large crowds, and extra cleaning just add time and trouble to the day. Small things, but wearing.
Enough! How about some pictures? Our unofficial Friday afternoon outings continue:
As always, I am grateful to each of you for reading and for staying in touch with me. I also enjoy hearing the stories from home!
Nope. It’s not a wedding. Why would you even guess that?
First, the new: Because of the coronavirus, we are teaching all of our classes online, using a program called Zoom. I can see and hear all my students and, if they care to, they can see and hear me. It looks a bit like the opening video from the Brady Bunch, or maybe an episode from Hollywood Squares. We each appear in a box, with talking heads. I miss the personal contact with students and colleagues, but a few people are around, and it certainly is better than quitting! There’s been a small learning curve, but we are managing.
The old takes a bit more explaining. As usual, you are free to scroll ahead!
About a year and a half ago, I invited myself to my home church, Elim Lutheran, in Marshalltown, Iowa. I gave a talk about my work in Slovakia, played a little folk music and, because they were between ministers, I gave a sermon at two services. It had been 40 years since I was a member there, and I hadn’t visited much at all during all those years, but I saw a few people I knew, which was great. It was a very meaningful trip for me.
No surprise to any of you that I have a sentimental streak!
When I moved to Hong Kong, I wrote my friends at Elim about my new adventure. They surprised me with their enthusiasm. They wanted to know how they could help and they were concerned about my safety during all the protests.
So, because of the new technology, my dear church and my new students will meet! Pastor Jack Mithelman and I exchanged numerous emails about what we might do. We decided that interested Elim members would join an English class of mine. We will both read portions of the small book: Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, by Bonhoeffer. On Wednesday evenings (Thursday mornings in Hong Kong) we will “gather” for 20-25 minutes of discussion.
No one knows what to expect! But my longtime, faithful friends in Iowa will meet some terrific young people from Southeast Asia and I know we will learn a lot from each other!
On the virus front, we continue to be vigilant at the seminary. Classes are still online, we wear our masks and disinfect our hands and all surfaces. The team of people working here have done an excellent job of keeping us safe. No one knows how long we might continue teaching in this manner. I miss the lively atmosphere. Campus is quiet.
My colleague, Sung, and I* have been leading hikes on Friday afternoons, especially for the benefit of our international students, who are living in the dorm. While we can’t gather in a room, we can be together in the fresh air!
Last April, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America hired me for a position in Hong Kong. As part of their Global Mission, I (and many others) were charged to accompany partners churches around the world. During our summer training in Chicago, I met others who had been called to work in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. I was inspired by their stories and their courage! I also met those who had finished their service, and I was so taken by their stories—challenges, successes, joys, and perhaps even a few disappointments.
Now I am approaching six months in Hong Kong! I have had many of those same emotions as those I met who were coming home. Many, many more positives than negatives, so I am very happy to be on top of this mountain with this diverse, gifted, and sincere group of people.
I think professional fundraisers might say, “the silent phase is over!” Without asking, some friends and congregations have come forward with gifts and pledges. It is time for me to ask you to join them in supporting my ongoing work. Many of you have already done so much to get me here! And you have encouraged me with your blog comments, emails, cards, and prayers. I cherish all of it.
So, with humility, I ask you, if you are able, to help the ELCA support my work at the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Hong Kong. I could not continue without their help! Yes, they pay me and provide for my health and well-being. But I also benefit from the wise counsel of people in Chicago and around the world, many with long careers of global mission.
There are a few ways to donate:
Online: community.elca.org/missionarygiving and choose Matthew Hafar in the drop down designation box.
Additionally, checks can be mailed to the ELCA Gift Processing Center:
P.O. Box 1809 Merrifield, VA 22116-8009 Please use my giving code GCS2063 and write Matthew Hafar in the memo line.
If your congregation would like to participate with a donation or a pledge, forms can be found at elca.org/covenantform. If I can supply any information about my work, I would be happy to do so.
Let’s move on!
In addition to teaching, I continue my other activities: hikes with students, writing, and, unbelievably, preaching. Here I am again at Christ Temple, next to the seminary.
My lectionary texts included part of the Sermon on the Mount. “You are the salt of the earth.” Remember that one? Two more “invitations” have been accepted for March! It’s not what I imagined I might be doing!
P.S. I thought the seminary WAS on the top of the mountain, but on last Friday’s hike, I learned there are about 44 more flights of vertical climb! Thanks, iPhone!
Thank you to everyone who has called or texted to check on me! It is very serious. I am not going to sugarcoat it! But, as with the protests, I am grateful for my church, school, and friends. We are in a quiet, sparsely-populated part of Hong Kong, which also helps.
No, I don’t live at the beach, but on Thursday, Tim and Mandy and family took me on a great outing in their car. No crowded, germy trains and, as you can see, no crowds of people. Serenity in the midst of chaos.
But, at times, I do have to leave the house for groceries or other errands.
I have to wear a mask and sanitize my hands frequently. I am uncomfortable in big crowds and perhaps overly cautious about touching handles and railings. I don’t like it. The masks are not very comfortable and they cut down on communication.
I don’t know what is next. I do know there have been only about 12 cases out of 7.5 million people. But that number is certain to rise.
The seminary has closed. In about a week, we will try to resume our classes online. We haven’t had that capability, so it will require a lot of software and education for professors and students. I do know that good, caring people are working hard to both keep us safe and keep the seminary running.
I can’t tell you not to worry, but I ask you to remember my students, the people in China and throughout the world who are sick, those in great danger, and the families of those who have died.
The international students at LTS hosted a New Years Eve dinner on Friday. We were greeted by the pig, the sign of the old year.
Midway through the evening, the pig was gone and the rat appeared! I was born in a rat year! This is my time!
I even got to wear the rat head!
International students and teachers (and rat) in the dorm courtyard.
The pig and Harvey taught us some dance moves. The students were wonderful hosts. A delicious dinner was prepared, and they made sure all guests were comfortable and happy. What a pleasure to spend an evening with them!
Between the protests and this corona virus from Wuhan, our city’s celebration of the new year will be quiet. But we still have beautiful lights along the river near my house:
Happy New Year from Hong Kong to all, especially my fellow rats!
It might be too early for this post. I’ve been thinking a lot about names this week and I’ve been asking a few questions. Maybe I will update this when I learn more.
On a recent Sunday evening the Intercultural Fellowship (the international student organization at school) invited me to their monthly gathering. As usual, I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I went. A fellow teacher was also there–we’re internationals, too. The room was full of students and food. A couple guys had guitars and we sang a few songs in an informal way. I think they’re often American Christian songs, and I almost never know them.
After singing, the leader said we had an activity. Oh. I usually don’t like games, so I was prepared to be uncomfortable. He passed out file cards to each of us, and I realized that they were identical:
1. What is your name?
2. Who gave you your name?
3. What does your name mean?
4. Does your name have theological meaning?
Yup, I thought, I don’t like this. There must be 25 of us. Are we going through this 25 times? I have school in the morning. We had sung a few songs and had some conversation. Wasn’t that enough?
One person started. When he finished, he called on someone else, so we weren’t just going around the big circle. Then the third person, the fourth…I was getting interested. Many student are from Myanmar. It seems that some names were given by the maternal grandfather. One person was named after an uncle who had just died.
All these syllables on my class lists that are so puzzling to me have deep meaning. Some people have many names, while some just have one, and some have taken on English first names. I wonder why. And why didn’t I take some notes or push “record” on my phone? Each person had a unique story and I wish I remembered them all. But I have new respect for these names and I’m going to work on pronouncing them better and make sure I’m calling them as they wish to be called.
When I got home, I thought if one of my favorite Moravian hymns:
Jesus makes my heart rejoice,
I’m his sheep, and know his voice;
he’s a Shepherd, kind and gracious,
And his pastures are delicious;
constant love to me he shows,
yea, my very name he knows.
A favorite because “his pastures are delicious,” but on this night, “yea, my very name he knows.”
This tree has a name: Hong Kong orchid tree, in English. Its bloom is on the flag for Hong Kong:
Yes, it’s blooming in January. Since it’s a bit cooler, the chrysanthemums are everywhere, too.
What a beautiful spot this is! A crowded, noisy city, surrounded by mountains, water, and orchid trees! (And an enormous statue of a Chinese goddess in the distance. I will find out about her and get back to you.)
In November I visited a former student from Slovakia in Singapore. Between Christmas and the new year, I hosted him here. I saw many new things. Perhaps I have been overly cautious; I haven’t explored the city very much. These few days were peaceful, so I have some pictures.
Our first big outing was to Victoria Peak. It is the highest point in HK, with views of the city and the ocean.
Night was falling!
The next day was a hike of Dragon’s Back, a popular trail along the ridge of some big hills. It was a challenge for me to get up on the back of the dragon, but we were rewarded with views of beaches, islands, and water on both sides:
Proof that I made it! It was a big physical achievement for me.
I sacrificed my Hawkeye bowl game to go on this hike. I only checked the score 3 or 4 times.
Sunday started with another new experience. Near the seminary there is a place called “10,000 Buddhas.” Intriguing. I have seen parts of it from school, but we decided to visit.
Something about the name reminded me of some Midwestern attraction: world’s smallest church, largest ball of twine, Wall Drug, etc. As you can see above, it was a steep walk.
The seminary, from below:
I need to learn more about Buddhism. There were several images of a woman with child (above) and of men riding fish:
The last day included a ferry ride to Cheung Chau, an outlying island. Although it was crowded at times, there are no cars, so it seems a bit more peaceful than the city.
Last stop on the tour was the Monetary Museum downtown. It was small, but very interesting and full of technology. It also allowed some great views of the harbor, as it is on the 55th floor of a prominent building.
Not great shots through windows, but you get the idea.
Last was a mural (mosaic?) made of coins:
That’s it! Consider a visit! My calendar still has openings!
The hymns were the same, the lessons were familiar, but there’s something about the setting that changes everything!
On Christmas Eve I attended the English service at Christ Temple, next door to the seminary. It was a “lessons and carols” service and, since I was early, the pastor tagged me to read a lesson. As always, there were 9 lessons and 9 carols. I had the first reading, about Adam and Eve in the garden. As the service went on, I was struck by the nine unique English accents: Midwestern, Cantonese, Scandinavian, British…no two people sounded alike.
At the end, a very touching moment. All during the service, I had been wondering about the empty nativity in front of the altar.
Can you see it between the candles? Where was everyone?
After the liturgy was finished, the pastor brought out a shopping bag. He reached in and placed the baby Jesus in the manger. “Let us pray for all babies in Hong Kong, for their health and their futures. And pray for all children of the world. Give them hope.” Then Mary. “Let us pray for new mothers and expectant mothers in Hong Kong, and for women everywhere. Give them health, courage and let them be respected for their gifts and talents.” (I’m paraphrasing.). Then Joseph. We prayed for fathers in Hong Kong, all fathers, and all men. When he placed the shepherds, we prayed for all who work: teachers, doctors, nurses, farmers, clerks. The 3 Kings: pray that rulers and people given authority in Hong Kong will rule with justice and work for peace! (Indeed!). Last, the animals arrived, and we prayed for God’s creation, that we may live in harmony with creatures and our natural world. Wow.
Christmas morning was also familiar and different. I attended church with my friends Mandy and Tim. I was warmly welcomed by several English speakers. But when church started, everything was in Cantonese (as it should be). Tim played the piano and Mandy whispered in my ear. Again, familiar readings and hymns, but, on my own, I couldn’t understand a word. I followed the lessons on my phone and sang the carols from memory. If there were four verses and I could only remember three, I sang verse one again!
Before the service, members transformed the empty room into a church. The Advent wreath and candles were very pretty, and we had beautiful sounds from the piano.
I thought about other Christmas celebrations: attending late-night services in the freezing cold with our grandparents; singing in various choirs; playing folk music in Slovakia. Some Christmas Eves were working days: playing brass and racing from one church to the next. In keeping with my entire Hong Kong experience, this Christmas was like no other!
This year I was free of all responsibility. I heard the familiar words in new ways, in unfamiliar settings and languages, and I had more time to reflect on all of it. What a great mystery, this holy birth!