Democracy and Diversity: Lessons From 27 Years in Hong Kong

Dear Family and Friends,

I’m writing this annual letter to you at about 30,000 feet somewhere over the Pacific on my way back to the United States for six months to speak in local churches, seminaries, universities, etc., about the work of Interfaith Cooperation Forum (ICF) with the youth of Asia to build and nurture a movement that promotes peace with justice, or just peace, in the region. It’ll be my last journey like this one as I’ll be retiring on Aug. 1 after working for more than 27 years with several regional organizations in Hong Kong—Documentation for Action Groups in Asia (DAGA), the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and most recently ICF at the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs (APAY). This letter will be a bit different from my past letters to you as I not only want to share some of my recent work but also offer some reflections of what more than two decades of living and working in Asia have meant to me.

As for my recent activities, I went to Nepal in December to conduct a human rights workshop in Pokhara that was organized by ICF’s national forum for our School of Peace (SOP) alumni and others that they invited. Two of our Nepalese SOP alumni were resource people on sessions related to some of the U.N. human rights covenants and conventions as well as community organizing. The overall content was similar to previous programs, i.e., an overview of the historical development of human rights, an introduction to the U.N. human rights system and some of the major covenants and conventions, faith and human rights, obstacles to respect for people’s rights, documentation and advocacy and discussions about creating a human rights culture and movement. Unlike many of our regional or subregional workshops, however, this program was a national workshop with all of the 17 participants from Nepal. Because many of the participants work at the grassroots level and have a lot of experience, we had numerous rich discussions about the human rights issues in the country, such as bonded labor, human trafficking, child marriages and various types of discrimination based on caste, class, gender and religion. The participants explained that some of the causes behind these problems were political instability, corruption, poverty, patriarchy and a lack of awareness and information about human rights among the people.

My last project was editing a book of more than 200 pages for APAY entitled Light to Our Path, a collection of biblical reflections over the past several years by theologians and members of the ecumenical movement in Asia. As well as editing the 19 chapters of the book, I also contributed a chapter, “Faith and Human Rights: Being Authentic Christians in a Sinful World,” based on Micah 6:8: “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

My last two activities reflected most of my work for the past 27 years in Hong Kong for DAGA, AHRC and ICF—human rights and producing publications. The opportunity to do this work has been a blessing to my life. I feel so fortunate to have done work that I love and that I think is meaningful and that hopefully contributes in a small way to a better life for people in Asia. Along the way, I have had the privilege to meet many people who are committed to justice, peace and human rights—my colleagues, members of our networks and others who this work has allowed me to meet. These relationships, these friendships, have been another blessing that is priceless.

What have I learned from more than two decades in Hong Kong, however?

The list would be long, and I’m sure there are many things that people in Asia have taught me that I’m not consciously aware of. However, one lesson I believe I’ve learned is that democracies are a fragile political system that can be easily subverted by a small group of people, that democracy means more than voting every few years, that it requires the active participation of people to be a healthy system that functions to serve the needs and interests of the majority of the people rather than a powerful political and economic minority while, at the same time, protecting the rights of ethnic, racial and religious minorities.

In relation to life in the United States, I believe the most important lesson I’ve absorbed over the years is the need for Americans to experience and embrace those who are different. If we are open to meeting people of other nations, cultures and faiths, the exchanges, the conversations, can be enriching for everyone. We all share this planet. We can make it a better place to live, or we can make it worse. The choice is ours.

Bruce Van Voorhis serves the Asia and Pacific Alliance of YMCAs in Hong Kong. His appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, WOC, OGHS, and your special gifts.


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