Taiwan’s Christian community has been more vocal and visible than ever in the past 18 months, as the topic of marriage equality continues to be at the center of social discussion. Making up roughly 4.5% of the total population, the conservative factions within the Christian community put up a fierce battle with the pro marriage equality activists, featuring large scale protests and aggressive information campaigns in the media that attempt to derail the momentum of the marriage equality movement while trying to win over support from undecided citizens through often misleading statements.
Their relentless efforts result in a general portrayal in the media that the Christian community is against marriage equality, putting some progressive Christians in an awkward position. However, this tricky situation doesn’t stop Pastor Joseph Chang of Taipei’s True Light Gospel Church from continuing his support for marriage equality and the LGBTQ movement. After all, it has long been his lifelong mission to find the balance between his Christian and homosexual identities.
Finding the Meaning of Being a Homosexual Christian
Growing up in a Christian household with both of his parents working for the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, Chang realized that he was gay when he graduated high school in 1993, around the same time as the beginning of Taiwan’s LGBTQ movement. With a strong urge to gain more knowledge about homosexuality, Chang referred to relevant books in libraries and bookstores. To his surprise, most of the information was conservative or negative, making it hard for him to be convinced that homosexuality is the result of traumatic life experiences.
“Most of the information on books considered homosexuality as a result of domestic violence, parental divorce, or sexual harassment,” said Chang. “Since I never went through these traumatic life experiences, it was hard for me to be convinced by those theories.”
Chang started to join some LGBTQ groups when he studied at National Cheng Chi University (NCCU), and founded the school’s first LGBTQ club in 1994, during his sophomore year. To him, founding the club was a way to contribute to the nationwide LGBTQ movement.
“In the mid-1990s, students were considered intellectuals in Taiwanese society, so I wanted to find a way to contribute to society,” said Chang. “I helped organize some small-scale events, and took part in the initial Taipei Pride Parade, which was basically marching around 228 Memorial Park with college students from other universities.”
After befriending a student leader from another university’s LGBTQ club in 1995, Chang and his friend decided to establish a support system for LGBTQ Christian students in Taipei. With the help of Reverend Yang, a female pastor returning from Chicago, they founded a Christian fellowship for LGBTQ individuals, and began to recruit members online.
“We named it the Jonathan Fellowship, and successfully recruited 12 people for our first gathering, “ said Chang. “We quickly grew to around 40 to 50 people after a year, so in 1996, we decided to turn the fellowship into an LGBTQ church, which became the Tong-Kwang Lighthouse Presbyterian Church.”
However, as the LGBTQ community just started to be more visible in society, paparazzi for tabloid magazines would try to secretly capture the lives and culture of homosexual individuals in gay bars or public parks. To Chang, the media’s portrayal of the LGBTQ community wasn’t really positive, and in order to avoid members of the church being outed through media coverage, the church decided to share a fake gathering location with the public.
“Since many members were worrying about being outed by the media, we decided to change the location of our first church service,” said Chang.
Balancing between Christian and LGBTQ Communities
Since Chang began to be actively involved in LGBTQ activities at school and his church, the distance between him and his parents began to widen, as he tried to avoid mentioning all LGBTQ related activities to them and formed an illusion that he was spending most of his time studying.
“Before I attended university, I had a very close relationship with my parents,” said Chang. “But since I started to get involved with LGBTQ activities, including founding the LGBTQ fellowship and church, I couldn’t share my extracurricular life with them anymore. That made me decide to come out to them.”
His mother’s first reaction was questioning herself whether she had done anything wrong to turn her son gay and asking Chang what was lacking in his life. To his surprise, his dad reacted calmly to the announcement by simply saying that while he never thought his children would be homosexual, he wasn’t opposed to it theologically.
“My dad only wanted to make sure that I was safe and not feeling too much pressure,” said Chang. “He respected any decision I made, but hoped I could promise that I would never leave God.”
After spending four years in the United States during which Chang earned his master’s degree and worked at the Metropolitan Community Church founded by a gay baptist priest, Reverend Troy Perry, he returned to Taiwan with the plan to study theology at the Taiwan Theological School and Seminary. However, due to his involvement in Taiwan’s LGBTQ movement, some people within the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, including faculty members at the seminary, knew about his homosexual identity.
“I asked the professors whether I should apply to the seminary as an openly homosexual Christian, and they told me it could be too controversial,” said Chang. “So I decided not to reveal my sexual orientation.”
However, an anonymous individual tried to blackmail Chang during his second year at the seminary. Several A4 sized flyers with his photo, name and family background were faxed to multiple institutions affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, with a clear message warning the church to adopt necessary measures from denying Chang the chance to continue being part of the Christian clergy.
“It was a Monday, and I received several calls asking me if I had learned about the incident,” said Chang. “While the church has a policy about how to deal with blackmail incidents, a few faculty members at the seminary and ministers of the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan still called to check on me, including the director in charge of assigning seminary graduates to their future jobs.”
Information about Chang’s sexual orientation gradually spread throughout the seminary, but only a few peers brought the subject up to Chang. Instead of avoiding the matter, Chang chose to remain true to his sexual orientation and was forthcoming about his homosexual identity whenever he was asked. While some had distanced themselves from him since then, several of his friends remained close throughout the process.
But in 2008, the year Chang was scheduled to be ordained under the general assembly of Presbyterian Church in Taiwan, opposition against him resurfaced.
“Some members of the general committee, which consists of representatives from local presbyteries, were against my ordination,” said Chang. “But with the support from some ministry directors and the general secretary of the Presbyterian Church, the committee ultimately agreed to accept my ordination.”
With the ordination process completed, Chang became an ordained pastor while successfully remained true to both his religious belief and sexual orientation.
A Church for Everyone
Chang never stopped finding a way to harmonize his religious belief and sexual orientation. After graduating from the seminary in 2005, he returned to Tong-Kwang Lighthouse Presbyterian Church in 2006, helping the church with preaching and training. However, when he applied to be the church’s pastor in 2007, he realized that the church’s vision was different from his. The decisive difference lies with the transformation of Taiwanese society’s attitude toward the LGBTQ community.
“I realized that the Taiwanese society had become more accepting of the LGBTQ community over the years,” said Chang. “In fact, LGBTQ individuals no longer needed to live in the shadow anymore. My vision for the Tong-Kwang Church was that they should open the church to everyone. Instead of making it an LGBTQ church. I envisioned it to be a church for everyone while theologically accepts LGBTQ rights.”
Chang’s vision was considered too progressive for the Tong-Kwang Church, so after contemplating for a few months, he decided to withdraw his application. He later founded the True Light Gospel Church in 2008, an inclusive church that’s open to everyone. While more than 60% of the church’s attendees are from the LGBTQ community, Chang still try not to overemphasize LGBTQ issues.
“My sermons are basically based on the Bible and the needs of the congregation,” said Chang. “When I try to use examples, I always remain sensitive about what’s going on within the congregation and society. I won’t preach about LGBTQ rights each week, but when the occasion was right, I often use my personal experiences.”
As an inclusive and progressive church, Chang and his church have been at the forefront of Taiwan’s marriage equality movement, but as the leader of a religious institution, he has intentionally tried not to let the church be labelled as an LGBTQ church. To him, it is not a healthy way to grow and lead a religious institution, as it might send the wrong signal to heterosexual Christians who might be interested in attending his church.
“One of my visions is to show mainstream churches that every church can be an inclusive religious institution for LGBTQ people, regardless of the pastor’s sexual orientation,” said Chang.
The Symbol of Progressive Values and the Quest of Theological Empowerment
While actively participating in different LGBTQ events, Chang thinks that his church should focus on advancing LGBTQ rights within the Christian community, instead of turning the church into a social movement organization. Rather than challenging the government aggressively through social activism, the True Light Gospel Church views itself as a supporter of the LGBTQ movement.
“I try to share my personal experience and explain that there are different interpretations about homosexuality in Christianity in interviews,” said Chang. “Additionally, my church holds an annual seminar on Christianity and homosexuality, while also disseminating relevant information online. Since many organizations and activists have been fighting for LGBTQ rights through social activism, we hope to focus on changing the Christian community, an approach that very few organizations have tried to adopt.”
Even though there is no lack of action to support LGBTQ rights within the Christian community in Taiwan, Chang says that it is still hard to communicate with the more conservative factions, as many of them still consider homosexuality unnatural.
“I don’t think the conservatives agree with homosexuality, and at the same time, they normally won’t reveal their ideologies in public,” said Chang. “Many of them will say they are parents or teachers, and instead of publicly opposing marriage equality through biblical interpretation about homosexuality, they will use other excuses or arguments to oppose LGBTQ rights and marriage equality.”
Chang thinks that Christians who support marriage equality should continue doing what they have done, while helping the Christian community catch up with the progressive trend. To him, resources and time should not be wasted on trying to convince the opposition.
“My church will continue to support the LGBTQ movement, and participate in events where we can elaborate our strength,” said Chang. “We will also keep publishing relevant content and try to keep focusing on the problems related to Christianity and homosexuality within the Christian community.”
Chang believes that the legalization of marriage equality will be a significant symbol for Taiwan’s democracy, as it is an important step forward in the field of human rights. It helps society to understand how we can discuss about other unresolved human rights issues. Even after marriage equality is legalized, there are still other tasks that need to be taken care of.
“Legalizing marriage equality is just the first step for Taiwan’s LGBTQ movement,” said Chang. “I think me and my church can play a crucial role in helping the Christian community to better understand the progressive values in the movement, and there are more critical issues that will need the help of the Christian community as we move forward.”
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