Preaching the Gospel a tall order in any language


By Mark Brolly

October 19 2015The Revd Rick Cheung admits that finding the right language to preach the Gospel to Melbourne's Chinese community is more difficult than it might appear.

Mr Cheung and his wife Jessica, Melbourne's first Chinese clergy couple, were both born in Hong Kong and their mother tongue is Cantonese.

It is challenging enough to convey a faith that emerged in the Middle East and grew in Europe in the language he knows well and one familiar to many of the Chinese who have come to these shores since the 19th century: it is harder still for him to do so in Mandarin, the official language of the more recent waves of mainland Chinese who have settled in Australia.

"And just because you can speak Cantonese does not mean you can preach in Cantonese," he says.

Mr Cheung, who longed to be a missionary, admits his ability with languages has not matched his ambitions.

"I set myself the goal of learning another language and teaching the Bible in another language but I realise that God did not give me the ability to do that."

Notwithstanding the language difficulties, the Cheungs recently began a Mandarin-language service at St Paul's Cathedral every Saturday morning after many years of working among Chinese in central Melbourne and the eastern suburbs.

Mr Cheung, a pharmacist, had attended Swanston Street Church of Christ but during his pharmacy studies came into contact with the Revd Dr Charles Sherlock and studied at Ridley College. Later, he worked with the Revd Dr Peter Adam at St Jude's Carlton and served as an adviser to Archbishops David Penman and Peter Watson on multicultural ministry.

Ordained a deacon in 1987 and priested two years later, he and Jessica were contemplating missionary work among mainland Chinese in Macau when he was asked to become Executive Missioner of the Anglican Chinese Mission of the Epiphany in Little Bourke Street.

"I could not speak Mandarin, so I preached in English and used an interpreter (John Zhang, who was to be ordained in the mid-1990s)," Mr Cheung said.

In Chinatown, Mr Cheung faced the complexities of multicultural ministry. The Mission was controlled by Australian-born Chinese who could not speak Chinese but were involved because of their heritage. Over this time, many Hong Kong Chinese were migrating to Australia because of the impending handover of the former Crown Colony to Beijing, while others had left China after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.

At the same time, he was working at St Michael's and All Angels in Bennettswood, among Cantonese speakers in the eastern suburbs, and became Priest-in-Charge of the parish -- believed to be the first time a Chinese-speaking clergyperson had been appointed to take charge of an English-speaking parish in Victoria.

In 1992, Chinese church leaders wanted to have a theological training course for Chinese-speaking pastors, so he became a ministry supervisor and mentor at the Melbourne School of Theology in 2006.

"To grow the Chinese Anglican community, you need to look at the quality of the clergy. You need to be bilingual and bicultural.

He left Chinatown to concentrate on St Michael's, where he led two English services and a service in Cantonese each Sunday morning; then at 6pm, had a service for university students from the nearby Burwood campus of Deakin University. At this time, he recruited a Methodist youth worker from Canada, now the Anglican Revd Yvonne Poon.

"Being mission-minded, you always realise your time is limited," he said. "You are working yourself out of a job."

Mrs Cheung, meanwhile, worked with her husband at St Michael's after completing her curacy at St Barnabas' Glen Waverley. For almost five years, she has worked with Chinese congregations at St James' Ivanhoe and Holy Trinity Kew.

Much of her work is in English with ARCs (Australian-raised Chinese), who are usually aged 10 and under, and their parents. Chinese who have settled in Australia more recently are often in the professions or are business migrants, often quite wealthy -- unlike students of the past who had to do "low-end" jobs to survive.

"These kids are the future of our Chinese church and Australian churches, so I use a lot of energy with them and to help their parents," she says.

Mrs Cheung has baptised 128 people in the past eight years in Chinese congregations, some of them visitors to Australia.

"For them, it's a new beginning and I am glad God has brought them here," she says.

"The Spirit is working among these people," her husband adds. "They come in search of a better life and they are excited by Australian life. But when they hear the Gospel, they feel, 'This is what I have been looking for'. They have been starved in China, spiritually."