For the purposes of dissertation research, I spent the month of July in Hong Kong.  In between the interviews, field observations, and analytical writing was, of course, a time of personal reflection on the very themes I pondered in my previous post: questions of tradition and personal history, of belonging and difference, of life trajectories disrupted by a fiercely independent God that cannot be defined or tamed and yet whose presence is ever familiar and compassionate. 

All of this rumbled within me while Hong Kong raged.  My time there overlapped with Hong Kong’s summer of protest, which only escalated week by week.  I arrived the evening of July 1st when protestors broke into and vandalized the government’s legislative council building after weeks of protests against a pro-Beijing extradition bill.  I left just days before the massive August 5th strike that sent the grassroots resistance into a new level of intensity.

What follows is a photo essay of my month in Hong Kong.  Each image is accompanied by a short prayer or reflection.  These photos explore the juxtaposition of my inward journey with the materiality of Hong Kong’s many places.  All of this is complicated by the anti-extradition bill movement that has saturated the city’s atmosphere during these hot summer days.  Not every image is related to the protests, though many are. It just goes to show how embedded we are as human beings. Our inward journey is ever shaped by what we see and engage in our everyday environments.

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1) Worn, weathered, and burn out – you still proclaim with conviction: “Put your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ – Your whole family shall be saved.”  But who looks up these days?

2) Christ may reign above, but the old gods still stand guard on their street corners and storefronts.  You may not notice them, but they’re always around – grounding the ebbs and flows of the city.

3) Will I see Jesus here?  Will he be brighter, stronger, and faster among the lights, projectors, and action?

4) Will such lights reach even the darkest places?  Is there hope in resurrection after death? Is it true? “Not one shall be left behind… 一個都不能少…

5) This city mourns.  Who shall hear? Who can hear?  Who will hear?

6) Young, restless, and enchanted – the people still call out for the presence of the gods in the rushing swirls of fragrant incense, in the endless clatter of wooden fortune telling reeds, in the endless murmurs and chants.

7) In this modern age, where do the gods dwell?  What will capture our awe? In the skyscrapers built by human ingenuity?  In the ancient temples constructed without a single nail? Or in the bonsai tree so diligently formed over decades? 

8) Is it in the Bible alone that we build our foundations, our daily bread for our daily walks?

9) But these streets are so crowded.  The Buddha sits at the intersection waving us through our daily commutes.  We share this road together.

10) Who shall heed our cries?  Remember our prayers, oh God, oh gods, oh ancestors! – we lift them up in memos and posters, in slogans and graphics.  In hope we declare:Be water!” “一齊走!Leave together!” “香港加油! Add oil HK!”  In despair we weep: “Fuck the police!” “沒有暴徒只有暴政!There are no rioters, only tyranny!

11) Who shall the white robed goddess of mercy* declare guilty of sin?

12) Will God really fill those hungry for righteousness? (Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!)

13) What do You see in these desperate and creative acts? (Are we just sinful rioters (暴民) to You?)

14) … or do You see nothing at all? (Is it all just emptiness (空)** ?)

15) I want to see everything come together – a time when true worship will transcend the boundaries human traditions have drawn between one another.

16) When the dreams and nightmares played out on the morning news the day after…

17) … are brought to completion in the Dao (道) made flesh blowing afresh through these hot, humid, and raging city streets.

18) Lord, almighty — baptize this city in your grace and let your mercies wash over us…

19) So that we might stand in the fullness of your presence.

20) Amen.

* The white robed goddess of mercy refers to Guanyin, a bodhisattva renowned for her compassion.  Bodhisattvas are Buddhist deities who withhold their enlightenment so that they might return to the earthly realm to assist humans in their suffering.
** Emptiness here refers to the Buddhist concept of “Sunyata,” which is often translated as “emptiness” or “voidness.”  It refers to the enlightened sense that all things are transient and the meditative state one attains when one is able to fully experience and embrace truth as a transcendental peace. 

  • Easten (he/him/his) is a doctoral candidate in theological and religious studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. His research focuses on lived theology, public life, and lnter-religious relations in contemporary China. He lives in Geneva, Switzerland, with his superstar spouse and two goofball children. He loves tea, art, and long walks to anywhere.