Rescue In Calamity
by Kelly Yu
Yu: Rev. Ho, you’re a pastor with a special burden for Chinese churches to become involved in ministry to victims of disaster. What in your background has brought you to this position?
Ho: I was born in Hong Kong, went abroad to study in Canada as a secondary student, and while there, became a believer in Jesus Christ and accepted Him as my Savior. After university study in Alberta, I worked for Hong Kong Shanghai Bank before God called me to study theology at Regent Theological Seminary. Later, I went on to get my doctorate in pastoral care from Fuller Seminary. I served in several different churches and in 2018 was called by God to become lead pastor at Joyful Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco. I thank God that He has led me by His blessed hand ever since, and I want to be of service to Him in whatever capacity I can.
I’m convicted that whatever church you’re in, there should be an emphasis on devotional theology (studying the Bible and applying its spiritual principles to your life) and on mission ministry. That is why when I see a community of people who encounter a devastating disaster, my top priority is to show compassion to the victims with the love of Jesus Christ. I really thank God that, after serving at Joyful Chinese Baptist Church for only a few months, I had the opportunity to participate in a rescue mission for the inhabitants of Paradise, California, during the immense wildfire that destroyed the area in 2018.
Yu: Do you think the special burden you have for churches to be involved in rescue missions is related to your upbringing?
Ho: I don’t think so. It is probably related to my church pastoral care experiences. The 2018 California wildfire disaster was not my first participation in rescue missions. I have always firmly believed in so-called “social services”—that, as Christians, we should be actively involved in ministering to those in need. And as a church leader, I feel I must lead my congregation to respond with actions to meet urgent needs of a hurting society. When I first started pastoring over 20 years ago, I was not yet aware of what we should do to help people when fires or storms bring disaster. But after seeing the tremendous needs of affected victims who become homeless and are left with misery and poverty, I determined to lead my Chinese congregations in rescue missions. Five years ago, I became involved in a disaster relief effort in Nepal, joining a mission team consisting of five medical doctors who helped nearly 1,000 affected inhabitants there.
Yu: Seeing increasing frequencies of natural disasters and human tragedies occurring, and realizing that our Creator God is kind and merciful, how do you explain the reasons why He allows such calamities to take place?
Ho: Indeed, many people raise questions about the reasons, including myself. Certainly, our God is loving and kind. The Bible clearly reminds us in Genesis chapter 1, that from the beginning of creation, God never meant for people to suffer. The original world was splendid and perfect, and God entrusted humankind with the privilege of governing the earth. Yet, Genesis 3 describes the first man and woman committing sins and departing from God. As a result, curses and suffering followed: the man, by toiling and sweating to exhaustion, would make his living, and the woman, by painful labor in childbirth, would be subject to her husband all her life. Thus, by departing from God’s way, they lost the blessings God intended to give them. However, God did not abandon the people He created. He provided a plan for their redemption so that anyone, through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, can have peace with God.
Yu: In 2018, when the disastrous wildfires erupted in Paradise, California, you, as pastor, pleaded with your brothers and sisters in your Chinese church to volunteer to help the affected victims in the devastated areas. How did they respond?
Ho: At first, they had never thought of taking action to help. This was because in the past few decades, there has been a lack of pastoral pleas for involvement in rescue missions among Chinese churches worldwide. I believe there are several reasons for this. Usually the rescue mission fields have not been within the area of the Chinese community. So, the Chinese have not felt it had a direct relevance for them. In other words, “others’ business is none of our business.” But mostly, there hasn’t been encouragement to see rescue missions as a calling of the church. Traditionally, Chinese churches have not put emphasis on caring for the needs of society, especially caring for ethnic groups that are different from ours.
When I first pleaded with our brothers and sisters to participate in a disaster rescue mission, the initial response was scanty. But praise God! When they saw their pastor taking the lead in taking action, some believers responded positively, asking what they could do to help. As a result, our first rescue team numbered 12 believers, and our second team jumped to 20 believers!
Yu: Did your group join up with other teams in the rescue mission effort?
Ho: We were very grateful to work with Samaritan’s Purse International Relief Association, an excellent and well-organized establishment! If we had chosen to go on our own, we would have been at a loss to know what to do and how to connect with the victims. No one knew anything about us and perhaps would not let us step into their community! Luckily, at the time the wildfire initially started, Samaritan’s Purse had already dispatched workers to do the connecting and promotional work. The local TV channel allowed an interview to tell the local people in the disaster area that some church rescuers were there to help and to invite other volunteers to join them in the rescue work. This organization also set up a hotline phone service so that nearby disaster victims had a way to reach us.
When we first arrived at the disaster region, Samaritan’s Purse organization gave us a special training session, telling us what we could do and what we could not do. They also advised us to wear protective clothing. Following that, they divided us into teams of 10 people, with plans to begin work the next day. Because the sky usually turned dark after 4 p.m., we could only render help to possibly one house in the morning and a second or third house in the afternoon. The owners of the houses had to be present at the site to let us in to work.
Yu: Rev. Ho, how did you feel upon arriving at the disaster site?
Ho: The town where we rendered help was named “Paradise,” yet what we saw was more like “Hell.” When our truck drove us to the central disaster region and I saw the devastation, I was overwhelmed by feelings of compassion and pity, to the point that I just wanted to cry. If we felt these emotions, I could only imagine how the real disaster victims must be feeling! It was as if we were there to attend a “funeral service”—to pay final tribute, along with the disaster victims, to a wasteland, say a memorial prayer at the burned houses one by one, and share a deep remorse and sorrow for the loss. A further look revealed some mementos of previous glories—shiny wood floors that had been covered by grandiose carpets and solid floors built from huge marble slabs, along with numerous messy household items. At the sight, I could not control my tears of sorrow.
Yu: While working in the disaster zone, what did you experience?
Ho: When we entered some of the houses, the owners would want to tell us about the original internal house design, even the arrangement of household items within the house. It seemed important to them that we knew the original house was beautiful. Sometimes some of our teammates would kneel and pick up pieces of stones or jewelry, with the hope of retrieving some precious treasure for the owner. What moved me most was to enter an affected house together with the owner, who was seeing his destroyed home for the first time, and to witness his sorrow at that tragic moment.
The Samaritan’s Purse organization prepared a Bible for each of the homeowners, bearing the signatures and some encouraging words from each of the volunteers. The volunteers would hold hands together with the family and pray for each household. At that moment, there would invariably be shedding of tears—such a moving scene! Perhaps what was needed most were not material items but the words of God and the consolation and presence of God!
Yu: How did the brothers and sisters from your church perform in doing the rescue mission work?
Ho: I witnessed the brothers and sisters helping the owners dig away shattered remains of construction materials in the hopes of retrieving some item they treasured. One owner pleaded: “There is a wedding ring I treasure very much. Please help me find it!” But to find anything there was not that easy. Often when a fire of this nature starts, it is accompanied by an explosion so that everything is blown far away and can never be recovered. Even so, our brothers and sisters were more than willing to try their best to help the homeowners find something that was missing. They also seized the opportunity to talk to the owners, pray with them, and most importantly, tell them the gospel of Jesus Christ. I witnessed the genuine surrendering of themselves to give their best to God as they worked with the disaster victims, experiencing to some degree, the same sentiments of suffering and misery that haunted the victims.
Yu: After returning home from the disaster region, what were their perceptions and what did they learn?
Ho: Our brothers and sisters felt the volunteer work they did was very meaningful. They mentioned several lessons they learned that were impressive. They became aware that the home they possessed at present could one day be lost—reduced to ashes in the flicker of a moment. So, they began to question the wisdom of buying more material things, asking: “Should I buy that 70-inch gigantic TV set or that genuine Italian leather sofa? One day they could be turned into ashes!”
Our brothers and sisters awoke to the reality that to treasure personal relationships among one another is the most important thing! They had witnessed a lady who had not only lost her house but her younger sister had also burned to death! She had lost the preciousness of a close relative whom she treasured above all else. Our volunteers came to a real awareness of how important personal relationships are—that we should make the most use of the present moment to treasure loved ones closest to us.
Yu: Rev. Ho, what was your most unforgettable experience through this?
Ho: I can never forget one day, after finishing my rescue work in one of the burned houses, everyone was there, clasping hands together to pray for the family, and the Bible was being handed over to the master of the house. At that moment, God inspired me to ask, “Would you allow me to sing a hymn?” Everyone answered unanimously, “Sure! Why not?” So, I sang the hymn “God Will Make A Way,” composed by Don Moen. After finishing the hymn, I heard the gentleman next to me, a volunteer from another church, weeping uncontrollably! The picture was really, really splendidly moving! Here we were, not just rescuing disaster victims, we were, at the same time, working together as brothers and sisters of different origins, under the light of love within the body of Christ, to edify, encourage, and work in harmony to help the desperate ones in need.
I especially thank the Lord that some of the disaster victims we helped accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord. There were others who had not been to church for a long time and were now willing to worship again and read their Bibles. All these things really touched my heart deeply.
Yu: What are some practical ways you encourage brothers and sisters in Chinese churches to participate in similar disaster rescue missions?
Ho: I plead with churches to enthusiastically participate in volunteer efforts at critical times of disaster. Details of how to get involved can be found at www.samaritanspurse.org. Participation is very flexible, even to spending just one or two days at a time. However, you have to pay your own room and board, unless you are willing to volunteer for one whole week (5 working days) whereby you will be offered free room and board by this organization. Participants need only to provide their background information for probable money handling on the “volunteer” website space, then Samaritan’s Purse organization will provide the applicant with an ID number to enable him/her to report for service duties in the disaster region. Upon arrival, many things can be done according to the instructions of this organization.
Generally speaking, Chinese churches have neglected becoming involved in social welfare, including rescue missions to help victims during a disaster. Churches need instruction and encouragement from pastors who lead by example. Chinese believers need to serve needy victims of disaster in one accord, hand in hand, alongside volunteers from other churches and other ethnic believers. The love of Christ unites us, and to Him be the glory!