Marc is the Unitarian Universalists Hong Kong Treasurer. Here we talk about some of the community.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let us start on personal and family background. How did they lean you into a Unitarian Universalist perspective and community?
Marc UU Hong Kong: My mother’s side is Baptist. My father’s side is non-religious. Long time ago Jewish but does not practice, German Jews a long time. I did not really believe in Jesus Christ. It was a social thing in junior high and high school.
I am not an atheist. I believe in God. I did not believe in the Christian God. In New England, Maine and Massachusetts, that area has a lot of UUs. They started out as mainline protestants. Now, they do not function as such. In every UU church, they are all different.
They have their own autonomy. It is not like the Catholic Church where everything is top down and organized. UU churches are completely independent.
Jacobsen: What is the flavour in Hong Kong while being consistent with the principles and organizing to the relevant community and culture?
Marc: Actually, very good, we do talks. We have the Hindu temple, the Sikh temple. We have been to Buddhist things. They have a Russian Orthodox Church in Hong Kong [Laughing].
Marc: Actually, our best event with the most people was a Canadian atheist speaker. He wrote a book. His name escapes me now. That was about 4 years ago. We had a Canadian atheist speaker. He is in Thailand now.
We had a huge turnout to that event. A lot of the people who come to UU Hong Kong, UUHK, have no other home. It started back in 2005 as a place for gay Christians. I am not gay. But I support them. They escaped to UU. They had a straight pastor.
He was administering to gay Christians. We did not call ourselves UUHK for the first couple of years. It was until around end of 2005 that we applied to Boston for the international recognition as UUHK. I would say that it is liberal people, open-minded.
We have had a lot of different things. Hong Kong is the type of place that you can do it because it is international here. Also, the Chinese culture, Western culture is “my way or the highway.” You are either Protestant or Catholic.
Even though, HK has 15% of the population as Christian – season greetings, happy holidays, and so on, are being presented here. Anything to make a dollar. HK is very tolerant with religions. That is part of the trouble here now with HK.
A lot of the religious groups are afraid when China takes over. Until the year 2047, HK has its own autonomy. They are afraid when they look to China with religion as really oppressed. Something not seen since the 1960s. They are really scared.
Jacobsen: How is the UUHK mixing with the local religions? You mentioned it. How is this done in practice?
Marc: We do this in their place. We dialogue with them. We get to know them. We build the bonds. Also, we are like a clearing house. In my neighbourhood, there is a Sri Lankan cultural centre. I helped arrange a trip to them.
Even though, we do not agree on everything. We, at least, want to know where you are coming from. Also, HK is also, geographically, a small place. It is easy to go around to go and meet people around here. There is also a big Indian community here.
India has so many religions [Laughing].
Jacobsen: [Laughing] it has a supermarket of gods.
Marc: Yes, we work with other groups. It is Meetup.Com. It is Hong Kong Sacred Space.
Jacobsen: For those who do not know, what is a sacred space?
Marc: Ha! It is whatever you find sacred. They do tours. They visit museums. They go to churches and hikes of places like deserted villages. I am a member of that. But I am not the top person in there. In UUHK, I am the Treasurer. We have another group connected with UUHK.
It is the International Association for Religious Freedom. It started over 100 years ago in Chicago. It is over 100 years old. So, we formed a branch here about 2014. It is not exactly like the UUs. Many UUs were involved or active in setting it up.
Jacobsen: Ideological structures can be defined within the width or range of their degrees of freedom. UU is probably not disliked by many people because it has a very wide range of degrees of freedom. What are the boundaries, borders, the limits, on those degrees of freedom, ideologically, within a UUHK context?
What defines in and out in this sense?
Marc: Actually, I would say that we would be on the left. We do not seek out evangelical churches. We tend to be with the more liberal churches. We do not touch the Mormons.
Jacobsen: [Laughing] why don’t you touch the Mormons?
Marc: I do not know. I had bad experiences with them. Personally, same with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I find them to be very pushy and proselytizing. If you start talking, it does not go anywhere. We just do not involve those groups.
There is another guy here, who is Korean. He says he is immortal.
Jacobsen: Is it Falun Gong?
Marc: Actually, Falun Gong is CIA supported. There was another rich guy from Korea. They approached. We did not reciprocate. We said, ‘We are too busy.’ We did not close the doors. They had conferences with the Sikhs and the Sri Lankan Buddhists. The people that they dealt with were burned and would not have anything to do with them.
Actually, Falun Gong is interesting. A Chinese guy in America. It is like the Scientologists. They are anti-gay. It does not really bother me that the Chinese go after me. There will be counter-protests that say, ‘Falun Gong will come.’ Let us face it.
CIA and other American groups want to disrupt Chinese society.
Jacobsen: Does this make UU anti-dogmatic?
Marc: I am speaking as an individual. I cannot speak for all people in the group. Alex Seto is the top guy. You communicated with him, first. You sent him an email. He sent this or forwarded it to me. We are mixed Chinese.
Most of the Chinese can speak good English. But they felt the only person representing a foreigner better would be me.
Jacobsen: How is the UUHK surviving in the light of the protests when things become explicitly violent?
Marc: Actually, we do not have a permanent church. We have meetings once per month. So, they cannot attack us. We did not do anything against it. It has not affected us. We had a meeting scheduled for tonight. But because of transport, I will not attend it.
It is a meeting about these Pakistani Muslims. Because of the transport situation, I will not go. It has not really affected us. As Alex said, if we go to China, there are three ways. There are the communists and the Christians. We are the middle way.
We do not try to proselytize. A lot of people are anti-communist. A lot do not like the evangelicals. So, we call ourselves the middle way.
Jacobsen: One UU minister noted, in correspondence, to me, that there is no tradition of UU-evangelism. One, a lot of people do not know a lot about them or of them, the UUs. Two, the fact that people generally like the UUs.
Marc: I would say, “That’s spot on. It is 100% true.” There is no proselytizing. That is why a lot of people have never heard of us and agree with us.
Jacobsen: Someone has to be open-minded to find out about them. If they do find out about you, they must be open to you, so would be open to liking you.
Marc: We do not have the money too. We operate on a shoestring budget. Actually, there were separate UUs. In Britain, it just called Unitarians. In the U.S., it is called Unitarian Universalist. In France, it is Unitarian. Unitarians rejected the Trinity.
Universalist does not believe in hell and rejects Jesus in some ways. In America, in 1961, they came together as one. They were so similar. They tried to pool their resources. Until 1961, they were separate churches.
Actually, Unitarians have been around for 600 years. They started in Romania, actually Transylvania. When they were in power, they had some political power in Romania at that time. They were tolerant toward the Jewish.
Jewish shtetls thrived. Unitarian is not a new thing. It is not a new wave religion or anything like that.
Jacobsen: How are they more tolerant towards the shtetls and other marginalized communities?
Marc: A lot of Jewish people are UUs. I am from Maine, New England. They come from a lot of Christian households and pick UUism as a middle ground.
I am trying to think of some famous ones. The famous astronomer from Cornell. Carl?
Marc: Yes. He was Jewish but Unitarian. The former Secretary of Defense for Bill Clinton, William Cohen. Because they still accept Jewish people. I have been to a number of events here. We have never had a major incident. We have been going on for 15 years. No major incidence with the government. Only about 25 signed up as members with about 10 people per meeting. We visit places.
Sometimes, we have meetings in a restaurant like a vegetarian restaurant or something like that. We are very simple.
Jacobsen: How is the association with Ethical Culture, UU Humanism, and Humanism?
Marc: I am on Facebook with them. But we do not communicate with them. Sometimes, we have visitors from America. We show them around. There was a specific UU meeting in the Philippines. They wanted us to go to have some representation.
It is in association with the UUA. As I understood it, a lot of people from India and some from Australia. Most from the Philippines. It was the first one ever in the Asia-Pacific regional meeting of the UUs. I am still working.
Alex is a medical doctor. We could not take off the last weekend of October to take part in that. The Philippines are the most active with 3,00 members. They have their own churches. Japan is interesting. They have monthly meetings in Tokyo.
India has some in the northeast in a place called Shilling. That is just on paper. Taiwan had a group. It comes and goes because people move out. There is absolutely o sustainability. I heard Singapore had a discussion group. I do not hear about it anymore.
The Philippines is the most active in Asia.
Jacobsen: I know some of the humanists and groups in the region there. What do you hope for the next 5 to 10 years for the UUHK?
Marc: Good question. Increase membership, this is a long story. I was a teacher before. I retired at the age of 62 as a secondary school teacher. It means that I had a lot of time on the weekends. I am working at a language institute, which is a private business.
I work Saturdays and Sundays. It suffered as an organization with my new schedule. I plan to retire soon. I want to increase our events. So, that is what I am looking towards. Something like that. In this recent HK demonstrations, we have not gone as a group.
There are not enough of us. On Facebook, you will see a lot of that stuff. We have not organized to protest together.
Actually, both sides have done awful things. China has a lot of problems. People have a right to protest. But some of the vandalism is absolutely incredible, disrupt transport. Both sides have done atrocities. I think you read about the police shooting somebody.
If this was in America, before they stormed the legislative council, if they tried this in America in Congress, then there would be a lot of dead people. Can you imagine disrupting the House of Representatives?
Canada would not allow that and then to wreck things and spray paint. Generally speaking, there is the violence. Compared to the Western countries, this is nothing compared to them.
Jacobsen: How about the leadership of the UU in the Asian region? How are they working together to keep the community alive and growing, and dynamic?
Marc: Actually, just through email communication, I mentioned the meetup in the Philippines. But not all that much. Before, we had the UUs from Japan visit us. It was an American guy. Gene Reeves helped us. He was a Buddhist scholar. He made a movie.
He lived in Japan for 30 years. He helped us set up the International Association for Religious Freedom. He is a Buddhist UU. He is really famous. We do a lot of email and the Asia-Pacific conference. The outsiders, the Indians and the two Australians both went to it.
We are not that tight. We are not like the Catholic Church, top-down.
Jacobsen: Any final thoughts based on the conversation today?
Marc: How did you find out about us?
Jacobsen: Through listings of Unitarian Universalists, I am going through small communities to get those voices out there.
Marc: I was surprised to have the email forwarded to me. I was wondering why some guy in Canada would have an interest in me.
Jacobsen: [Laughing] I get that a lot from a lot of different groups. It is a completely independent endeavour. So, fair enough.
Jacobsen: Yes. I mean it’s young, old, secular Jewish organizations, the UUs, the humanists, atheists, freethinkers, all of the groups. It is a lot. I saw a gap and decided to do it, then kept at it. It is as simple as that. Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Marc.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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