Chinese church
celebrates 125 years

First Chinese Christian Church
leaders reflect on its beginnings

They're celebrating how history repeats itself at the First Chinese Church of Christ.

It's the 125th anniversary of the church, which was created with the help of island Protestant leaders for the earliest immigrants who wanted a place for Christian worship in their own language.

First Chinese Christian Church

125th Anniversary
"Celebrating God's Faithfulness" is theme of 10:30 a.m. service.

June 8, 1879: Hawaiian Evangelical Association approved founding of church.

Aug. 6, 1879: Charter members bought first site at Fort and Beretania streets.

Oct. 3, 1879: King Kalakaua granted charter of incorporation.

1926: Growing congregation moved from Chinatown to present site.

June 16, 1929: New building designed by Hart Wood was dedicated.

Now: Located on 1054 S. King St. with 700 members on the rolls, 400 of them active.

Mingling with second, third, fourth and fifth generations of Hawaii's Chinese families at tomorrow's worship service will be young professionals and students from China and Taiwan, the newest wave of Chinese-speaking immigrants.

"We are a microcosm of the change taking place in the community," said the Rev. Samuel Ling, who was called two years ago to serve as Chinese-language pastor and was elected head pastor earlier this year.

"This church has been changing and adapting with each new generation from the beginning," Ling said. Born in Hong Kong and educated in the United States, he was pastor of a Los Angeles Chinese-American church for 12 years.

"The founders were pioneering people with spirit, flexible to change," said Edson Lee, chairman of the church board of directors.

"In that spirit we have come full circle," Lee said. "We can see the Asian population needs a church. Our congregation needs to be a bridge from Asian culture to American culture, helping to retain the values they bring and to understand the values we have."

Lee is third-generation Hawaii Chinese; his wife was born in Hong Kong.

The 10:30 a.m. service tomorrow will be in English and Mandarin, and translated into Cantonese. The languages used are a thread in the history. The first immigrants spoke the rural Hakka dialect. Later immigrants from southern China spoke Cantonese, which is still the prevailing dialect among Hawaii's 60,000 people of Chinese ancestry, Ling said.

But the children who grew up here learned English, and by the mid-20th century the prevailing language at the church was English. "In the 1970s-1980s, the majority of the church were English-speaking," Lee said.

The new Chinese immigrants speak Mandarin, and their children want Sunday school to be taught in English.

The congregation is "international," the pastor said, with members of other ethnic groups in the pews, too.

The idea of ohana is not just figurative. Many members are not just linked to past generations, but are interrelated. "Generations of the same family come here and stay here," Ling said.

Among those with longtime ties are Roberta Chang, music director for 37 years, and Leigh Okazaki, preschool administrator for 27 years.

The church leaders shared a recent example of family ties: A man who was baptized as a youth in the 1930s and became a real estate developer in Las Vegas gave $100,000 to the church earlier this year.

"It shows how people feel about belonging here," Ling said. "We want to be a home to all the wandering hearts that long to be connected, valued, respected and loved."

Members re-crafted their mission statement earlier this year to "Loving God, Loving People, Sharing the Good News," a goal for the congregation as its time line continues into the future. "It honors our history, plus confirming our mission of outreach and service," Lee said. Ling is fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. Because he was ordained a Baptist, he had to await approval from the United Church of Christ denomination and will be installed in a Sept. 12 ceremony.

Among those invited to the celebration are several ministers who grew up at the church. Their vocation in ministry had its roots in the church's programs, said Lee, who became a Christian after participating in youth programs.

Education programs and outreach to youth are other areas where everything old is new again at First Chinese Church of Christ. Classes in English language were offered from the beginning as the agricultural workers emerged into a 19th-century merchant community.

Today, English as a Second Language classes and tutoring in English are still popular activities. Also on the weekly calendar are sports events, and groups for gardening, senior aerobics, tai chi, sewing and crafts. That's in addition to the Bible study, prayer group, choir rehearsals and contemporary worship music practice.

Ling and the Rev. Paul Brennan, associate pastor and one of a handful of Caucasian pastors in its history, preside at separate weekly Mandarin- and English-language services. However, they merge with a joint bilingual service on the first Sunday of the month.

That tradition evokes the days of the Rev. Charles Kwock, the first pastor to deliver bilingual sermons. His 30 years of service were a time of growth, according to "Seasons of Light," Diane Mark's 1989 book chronicling the history of Chinese Christian churches in Hawaii. The book will be sold during anniversary events at the church.

The history is bigger than the church itself, thanks to a link with a pivotal figure in Chinese history. Sun Yat Sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic and its president until his death in 1925, lived in Hawaii as a youth and took English-language classes at the school. "He wanted to convert, which led his older brother to send him home," Ling said. Sun was later baptized in Hong Kong, he said.

Again, there is a historical echo.

"We extend a pastoral influence on China," Ling said. "In the congregation are students here attending college, the cream of the crop from China. They are becoming Christian and will go back to China asserting a positive influence."

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