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Travel and Transcendence
Author/ By William Burr, Master of Divinity student, Vancouver School of Theology

The delegation from The Presbyterian Church in Canada after learning how to make flower garlands in a rural village.
(Photo Credit: PCT ECU Office)

My experience on the moderator’s trip to Taiwan

My name had been put forward by the Vancouver School of Theology for me to become a member of the trip that the moderator of The Presbyterian Church in Canada takes each year. In April, the Rev. Dr. Robert (Bob) Faris was bringing a delegation from across Canada to Taiwan. I’d been looking forward to the trip for weeks.

“Maybe it will help with your discernment,” my professor had said. I’m studying for a Master of Divinity, the degree to become a minister, but I’m not sure what I’ll do with it.

Upon arrival, we drove through suburbs into bustling Taipei, where lush green trees framed highways and industrial buildings. A Taiwanese Canadian member of our group, Paul Wu, led us on a visit to a temple wedged between urban buildings. Large red dragons adorned the pillars, and dozens of people gathered in a courtyard had lined up to be smudged with incense or to throw wooden divination blocks.

Taipei was calm and humming, dense but organized, with narrow alleys, wide thoroughfares, and motorbikes weaving seamlessly in and out of traffic. Pedestrians filled the sidewalks but never seemed to rush. The sun was hot and humid, 30 degrees in mid- April. When the skies opened up a day later, the motor-bikers had suddenly all donned full-body rain suits, without skipping a beat.

The day after our arrival, we attended the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, one of the main denominations in the country, founded by Canadian and Scottish missionaries in the 19th century. We sat in a huge hotel conference space, where over 500 people took in the rapid, occasionally heated Mandarin and Taiwanese proceedings. Everything seemed formal and ceremonial, and yet debates were constantly emerging between speakers on the floor and leaders on the stage. I struggled to follow the simultaneous live translation.

Proceedings stopped suddenly when a flurry of television news crews scurried in, followed by the Taiwanese vice-president, who gave a speech about choosing democracy and religious pluralism over authoritarianism.

“Even if China invades, we have the God of history on our side,” the pastor of one church we visited later said to us. “Pray for Taiwan,” several people said as we left their communities. “Don’t forget us.”

On our third day, we visited the Jing-Mei White Terror Memorial Park, which commemorates a period in Taiwan from the late 1940s to early 1990s, when martial law was in place. People were imprisoned without due process, and an atmosphere of secrecy and mistrust hung over the country. The names of people executed by the state were shown on a wall of the former prison. Our guide had spent over 10 years unjustly detained, and he showed us a small, sterile room that he’d barely left for years. He was a jovial man whose demeanour seemed at odds with this grisly history. It was so important for him to come and tell his story there every day, he said.

We went around the island on bullet trains, regular trains, by mini bus, even by foot, through low mountains, Indigenous villages and university campuses, seminaries and churches. Bright flowers grew wildly on the sides of dusty roads next to rice fields. Communities everywhere welcomed us, sang, danced and told their stories. One Indigenous group walked us past colourful murals that showed how the community had once been expelled from another region. The people there earned their livelihood by making toys out of bamboo, and showed us how to work with the strong, brittle material. They were hearty, welcoming and relaxed after the formality of General Assembly. They served us rice and seafood wrapped in grape leaves, a sweet and crispy fried meat, fresh melon and guava.

We were accompanied on our travels by two guides from the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan: Chi Kang, who introduced us everywhere we went, and Rachel, who made sure none of us got lost. Other members of the moderator’s trip ranged in age from late-20s to retirees, and were selected to represent different aspects of the church’s life and ministry. Every time you took a seat in the bus or the train, you might talk to someone new from the group. I learned about switching careers from day trader to Presbyterian minister, and the challenges of being a gay minister. I heard about a doctoral thesis on open relationships in the church, mission work in Malawi, and advocacy work for people with disabilities.

We wanted to be present, in this new place, for these people who knew little of Canada, for whom we would be the example. There is something so heartfelt in that desire to be a good representative.

We went to church once, in one village. But we were always in a kind of church, literally or figuratively. To look for God is perhaps sometimes more to look for a type of conversation. “God understands me better in my own language,” one Taiwanese Indigenous man told us.

A New Testament scholar at one of the Taiwanese seminaries told me how she ended up in an academic career because of her professor’s suggestion, and said that maybe I would like to pursue a similar path. At one theological college where all the professors met us, dressed formally, sitting behind desks in a conference room, and where they spoke in careful, fluent English, looking calm, collected and reflective, I did feel an affinity.

When our moderator asked the president of that theological college about LGBTQIinclusion in the church in Taiwan, it wasn’t possible to tell where the faculty stood on the question. But one woman we met on our journey left an impression I’ll never forget.

We met Maelyn at a dinner on a restaurant terrace overlooking a mountain valley near an Indigenous village. There were a few of us Canadians and a few local people at my dinner table. Speaking to us with the help of Paul Wu’s translation, Maelyn suddenly asked the Canadians at the table: “What is the position of your church regarding people of multiple gender identities?” When we explained to her that LGBTQIpeople are included and respected as equals, she burst into tears. We were all quite concerned, not knowing what was going on. Was she angry? Then she said some words to Paul in Mandarin, and he explained to us that she had a child who was assigned a male gender but who liked to dress more femininely. Her child, who still lives with her, had been excluded by her church, and to make things worse, her father was one of the church leaders. It felt so moving to listen to her and encourage her; to tell her that I was gay, and to see relief in her eyes after a desperate search for recognition.

“Walk with me,” said Louise Gamble, an 84-year-old Canadian mission staff who worked at a school on the outskirts of Taipei, transcribing archival documents. She told me about joining a diaconal order in 1965, when women were not allowed to be ordained, studying Mandarin and flying to Taiwan. “They had me teaching. My limit was when they asked me to teach a high school ethics course entirely in Mandarin!”

Over dinner one evening, another traveller in our group told me how he once spent summers in his youth working at an upscale resort in rural Quebec. I imagined him absorbing some of the laissez- faire atmosphere that comes with an environment of holiday and excess, of summer, still lakes, peaceful nights, crickets and moonlight, wind in the leaves. Somehow, the busy asphalt world of Taipei was a similar departure from the confines of regular life. The trip, with all the new places and people who moved into and out of our lives in a matter of days, had all the strange power of circumstances that could never be reproduced.

Occasionally, with some people, in some places, a kind of door opens, and it has been so long since it last opened that you forgot it was there, and you walk right through the door into a new life that was waiting for you all along.


Related Photos>PCT Ecumenical News | Facebook

Moderator Visits

Each year, the moderator of the General Assembly visits denominations and mission partners the PCC has outside Canada. These visits give moderators a greater understanding of Christ’s work in the world in different contexts. It used to be the case that moderators travelled with their spouse and perhaps a staff person who worked with our partners. In the last few years, this custom has been changed so that moderators travel with people from across the PCC who are chosen based on the priorities of our partners and moderatos. Earlier this year, the Rev. Dr. Bob Faris travelled with nine people from across Canada who were associated with many aspects of the PCC’s ministry. In 2023, the Rev. Mary Fontaine will visit with ministries and people in Israel–Palestine.


Submitted by:普世
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