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Young Hong Kong Catholics reflect on umbrella movement

Fight for democracy and human dignity tested their faith, protesters say
Young Hong Kong Catholics reflect on umbrella movement

On Sept. 28, pro-democracy demonstrators gather near the Hong Kong government headquarters to mark the one-year anniversary of the umbrella movement protests. (Photo by Philippe Lopez/AFP)

Published: September 28, 2015 10:55 AM GMT
Updated: September 28, 2015 12:31 AM GMT

As hundreds of pro-democracy activists gathered in Hong Kong Sept. 28 to mark the anniversary of last year's spontaneous umbrella movement, young Catholics who participated in the mass rallies are also reflecting on the tumultuous period and how it tested their faith.

Esther Tam, a teacher in her late 20s, said that she went to the protest area in Hong Kong's central business district every evening after work during the demonstrations. She recalled that at one point, she felt lost and asked herself, "Why am I sitting here?"

She then shared her perplexity with a priest, who told her, "'Imagine what would Jesus do and you follow what he would do.'"

"I thought if Jesus was at the scene, he would stay there, especially when he saw the police shooting pepper spray at unarmed students," Tam recalled in a recent interview with ucanews.com.

On Sept. 28, 2014, protesters used umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas fired at crowds by police. The world's media dubbed the crowds as the umbrella movement, a term which is now often used interchangeably with Occupy Central, a civil disobedience movement for democracy and universal suffrage.

The months-long protests, which divided the city, began with a group of students protesting near the government headquarters on Sept. 22, 2014. What started as a student protest, however, quickly escalated when students occupied the government headquarters on Sept. 26. The subsequent police use of tear gas triggered thousands of ordinary citizens — many of whom had never planned to protest — to support the students.

At its peak, more than 150,000 people had joined the umbrella movement protests.

'Just a beginning'

"While I was shooting photos during the clearance of the movement last December, I asked myself: 'What would happen next? What should I do?'" Nicholas Lee, a student reporter for "CatholicPostSec," a publication for Catholic university students, told ucanews.com.

"I was very confused initially when the movement just ended. I could feel negative emotions inside of me and I developed a hot temper," Lee recalled.

His faith, Lee said, meant that he was more hopeful than many of his friends and classmates.

"I was convinced that God would stand on the side of the righteous," he said.

After the public protests came to a close in December, Lee participated in forums and seminars to share his experiences.

Initially, he thought the umbrella movement had achieved a great deal. "But later I found out that it was not to last. People do their own things," he said. "There were conflicts between protesters. Some became disappointed and discouraged."

Now looking back, Lee said he understands that "God is the real determinant of history. He has his plan. There are many things that people cannot control."

Esther Tam, the teacher, said she has been discouraged to see that Hong Kong society remains divided today: there are those who support the umbrella movement, and those on the side of the government.

"They are just at extreme ends. There is no space for discussion," Tam said.

But she agreed with Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired bishop of Hong Kong, who has said that "success does not always come immediately. The most important thing is to persist. And that Christians should bear a prophetic role. We should not give up for personal interest but to fight for fairness and equality of the public."

Protester Stephen Sui said he believes that democracy does not come overnight.

"As Christians, we must remember that the fight for democracy is to help achieve human dignity, in particular through equal participation," Sui said.

For Lee, the protests were an opportunity to learn.

"It was just a beginning," Lee said of the umbrella movement. "We cannot expect immediate change through a social movement. It is important to learn from the experience so that we can run it better next time, such as reducing the inconvenience that affected people's livelihoods and having clearer viewpoints to push forward."

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