More than a year after the constitutional court ruled that same-sex unions should be legal, Taiwan has yet to achieve marriage equality. The blockade has been spearheaded by anti-gay Christian groups, who have successfully pushed for a referendum later this month designed to roll-back a number of LGBT rights. But there are Christians who are fighting back. The Shepherds is a powerful new documentary about Tong-Kwan Church, and the pastors putting themselves on the line for their queer congregation.
Founded in 1996, the Tong-Kwang Light House Presbyterian Church (Tong-Kwang Church) is the first LGBTQ-affirming Christian church in Taiwan. The Shepherds is a feature documentary centered around four 'spiritual shepherds' whose lives are intertwined with Tong-Kwang’s history and ongoing efforts. Tormented by the dramatic clash between sexual identity and faith, queer Christians in Taiwan struggle to reach self-acceptance and a spiritual equilibrium. Battling with condemnation and denunciation from mainstream Christian organizations, Tong-Kwang's shepherds dedicate their lives to creating a rare yet much-needed spiritual shelter.
Identifying as heterosexual, Reverend Ya-hui Yang founded the Tong-Kwang Church after returning from her studies in the US, with the hope of promoting equality for the LGBTQ community in Taiwan. Her time there was marred with acute hostility from other Christian churches and media, and by the end of her term of service, Yang became severely depressed. In 2008, she self-published an autobiography titled The Female Pastor Who Bore the Cross, and ended her own life soon after. A decade after her death, Taiwan has reached a milestone year for the marriage equality movement. The film originated from an opportune determination to commemorate Yang and her endeavors.
Yang was succeeded by Shu-min Zeng, the first out-LGBT Christian priest in Taiwan, as pastor at Tong-Kwang. For Zeng, the fierce opposition of the regional Christian society hits on a personal level. Guo-yao Huang, a heterosexual pastor from Hong Kong who has voiced support for sexual minorities in local media, has been vilified and rejected by his city's churches. He would later move with his wife to Taiwan and became Tong-Kwang’s third pastor. Meanwhile, Reverend En, a third-generation Christian, works as a deputy priest at the Tong-Kwang church. He aspired to study at Tainan Theological College and Seminary, but was told to withdraw his application because of his sexual orientation, and had to refocus his career around social activism.
Director Elvis Lu’s composed lens takes us into the lives of Reverends Huang, Zeng, and En, giving an intimate look at their work and their lives, and building a resonance and empathy towards the persistent fight-backs and hardships they endure. Quotes from Reverend Yang’s autobiography, delivered as a calm and reflective monologue in sporadic intervals, became a poetic narrative device that threads together details of each character’s life. The film presents the spiritual lives of its main characters as ample and multi-faceted, with sequences of church congregations, roundtable programs with LGTBQ families, and their participation in marriage equality rallies.
Even as rejects from mainstream Christian opinion, our shepherds embody the truthfulness, kindness and compassion their faith advocates, united by a belief in love and equality. We may preconceive that the clergy are distant and unapproachable, but The Shepherds offers an affable and humanistic perspective through its personable narratives, bringing the characters’ crusades effectively closer to the audience, making their struggles feel lived through and relatable.
The equality movement continues to make strides, but the dilemma of being both LGBTQ and Christian is, for many, deeply complex. The root of their trials is the prevalent push-backs from conservative forces within the church. Their struggle is unique, for they hold a nuanced position within the ‘tit-for-tat’ opposition usually prescribed by LGBTQ rights groups against traditional religious forces. As devout Christians and members of the clergy, they long for the acceptance of the church. And yet, from The Shepherds to similarly themed films like 8: The Mormon Proposition, we see that, more often than not, conservative religious forces are all too ready to denounce LGBTQ members of the flock and their allies from the church.
The Shepherds documents some of the direct actions staged by conservative religious groups against Taiwan’s marriage equality movement. Lu maintains an unbiased viewpoint and steers clear of ostentatious antagonization, but these are moments of melodrama, with church leaders and their congregation kneeling in the street and wailing in performative protest. Less than 7% of Taiwan's population is Christian, but anti-gay Church groups, with the support of foreign right-wing fundamentalists, have proven themselves capable of mobilising highly visible opposition.
The historic ruling that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right in Taiwan in May 2017 was a huge step forward for equality, but the upcoming anti-equality referendum advocated by the Taiwan Family organization, and the pro-equality referendum led by marriage equality groups, are aggravating the deep divide between social opinions on this particular issue. While the equality movement makes gains and becomes widely recognized by the mainstream society, religious groups still have a long way to go until they can start becoming accepting of LGBTQ communities.
Reverend En remarks during a rally for marriage equality that if the courts rule that same-sex marriage being a constitutional right, it will potentially stimulate new waves of hate and malice by conservatives against Tong-Kwang Church. But they are unafraid to keep fighting. The more visible they are as an organization, the more solace they can provide for LGBTQ members with Christian faith. Perhaps they may even inspire the conservative church to better understand the queer community.
Wish those in love can have the right to marriage.
Wish the Shepherds can continue to pride safe havens for lost souls.
The Shepherds is screening as part of 2018 Love Queer Cinema Week (Beijing Queer Film Festival) on November 8th. The festival runs November 2nd-9th. Find the full programme via their wechat, or visit bjqff.com
Words: Peng Zhang
Transation: Will Dai
Originally written in Chinese. Images are from the film.
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