Across the island of Taiwan, thousands of churches spring to life on sunday morning. Most are full of well-dressed professionals and middle-class families. These people are upwardly mobile, though they struggle to find security in a difficult economy. They sit with bibles open, studying and memorizing scripture — a comfortable and familiar task for these educated people. Outside, down on the city streets, sit an entirely different type of Taiwanese. These people are poor, sometimes homeless, with teeth stained red from years of chewing betel nut. They failed in school. They beg for healing at the local temple. In Taiwan, they are called the “grassroots” people, And they would never consider setting foot inside a church.
TEAM missionaries Jeremy and Ruth Hsu’s top priority is reaching these people on the bottom rungs of Taiwanese society and showing them Christ’s love. They recently began a ministry to plant churches among the grassroots communities of Dashe, a district in the larger city of Kaohsiung.
“As we are at a very beginning stage of it,” Jeremy says, “we are about making relationships. We are about broadcasting the vision. We are about telling anybody — be it national believers or national leaders or foreigners who want to hear about this exciting field and the exciting challenge. And we are about discipling. Not many people who are in the churches are willing to learn, but there might be one or two that want to learn. We want to spend the effort to teach them Jesus’ heart for the grassroots and the poor people.”
Taiwanese people, including many Taiwanese Christians, are shocked when they learn that Jeremy left the medical profession to work full-time in ministry to the poor. Being a trained doctor is a guaranteed way to make money in Taiwan, and making money is the primary goal for most Taiwanese.
“Money is almost like the god of most Taiwanese people,” Jeremy says. “They want to have security and significance through material wealth. And so, for Taiwanese, the challenge is to break out of that. We are Christians. We follow Jesus now. We don’t serve money anymore.”
Both Jeremy and Ruth were born in Taiwan and left the country as teenagers. Ruth was raised in a Christian family, but Jeremy was the first among his family to become Christian. He accepted Christ while attending college in Los Angeles. However, he was first drawn to faith during high school, when he studied at a missionary school in Ecuador. “What really moved me was to see the lives of the missionaries who sacrificed comfort… to move to Ecuador,” he says.
The couple met at a church in Los Angeles, married, and eventually started a family. They remained in California for many years, where Jeremy worked as an internist with a Christian medical group and then later with Kaiser Permanente, a massive health consortium. In spite of their material comforts, the experience of living abroad as foreigners — being unfamiliar with the language and culture, and feeling socially out of place — gave the Hsus a heart for disadvantaged and disenfranchised people.
Ever since she was young, Ruth had felt drawn to ministry. With a growing passion for the poor and disadvantaged, both Jeremy and Ruth sensed God calling them into missions. In 2003, they began preparing to leave California. They looked first to Taiwan, but God had different plans and led them instead to China. The Hsus lived in Yunnan Province for more than six years. While there, they worked with house church discipleship, Jeremy taught at a medical school, and they pioneered an HIV/AIDS ministry.
Three years ago, they clearly felt God leading them to Taiwan. They had learned holistic ministry and the need for discipleship while in China. God had used their time in Yunnan to teach and prepare them for their next step. So they joined TEAM and moved in August 2011.
Taiwan is seemingly a “reached” country: there are more than 3,000 churches and dozens of Christian seminaries on the island.
“But the Lord opened our eyes more and more to the presence of the unreached,” Jeremy says. For instance, he helped a former drug addict recently released from prison, but the man only came to church once. Jeremy noticed how the man, like many grassroots people, felt out of place at the church. And he could relate.
“Being immigrants, we looked very different from people around us and we are naturally reserved people, so we felt disadvantaged all those years,” Jeremy says. “We wanted to help people who are also immigrants or who struggle with fitting in.”
“Grassroots” is a term Jeremy uses to describe the bottom half of Taiwanese society. In China, Christians in ministry use this term when translating a Chinese phrase meaning “those at the bottom.” Other missionaries in Taiwan simply call them working-class people. Many grassroots people are poor, though not all, and ascribe to a superstitious worldview. But the defining characteristic is perhaps education: grassroots people tended to fail or do poorly in school. As a result, many struggle with jobs and income, self-esteem and self-pity.
“It’s very hard to define what grassroots people are,” Jeremy says. “They are not only the least-reached people in Taiwan, but they’re also the socially oppressed, economically oppressed, educationally oppressed because they don’t do well and they are sort of being left behind. The Taiwanese government cooperates with the rich, and they make policies that are in favor of the rich. And, especially in recent years, Taiwan’s economy is doing poorly, and the people who suffer the most are the people at the bottom.”
Grassroots people tend to work as farmers, laborers, contract workers in construction and cleaning, taxi drivers, or in factories. Some own small shops, restaurants, and markets. Over 60 percent of Taiwanese people could be considered grassroots, but Taiwan’s churches are full of educated professionals such as doctors and businessmen. There is a deep social and economic divide between the church and the grassroots, which has created a significant barrier to grassroots people accepting Christ.
“We think about this all the time, because it’s very easy to reach a middle-class, more-educated person,” Jeremy says. “It is, relatively speaking, a lot easier compared to a grassroots person, because Christianity is a book religion.”
Looking up passages in the Bible, reading and discussing them — this type of classroom setting is foreign to grassroots people, who Jeremy says are often school dropouts. They are often confused by the formality and implicit ritual of a church setting.
Another obstacle for many grassroots people is low self-esteem. It is intimidating for them to enter a church on Sunday, where people are well dressed and can donate money to the church. Most grassroots have comparatively little money to give the church.
Today, Christians comprise 3 to 5 percent of Taiwan’s population. Among grassroots, less than 1 percent are Christian. In Dashe, where the Hsus are working, less than 0.5 percent of grassroots are Christians. The most commonly practiced religion in Taiwan is Buddhism, followed by Taoism, although grassroots people practice a spiritist form of Taiwanese folk religion that includes influences from both.
This creates what Jeremy believes to be yet another significant barrier for the grassroots people: superstition.
For example, Jeremy describes the traditional Chinese festival of Ghost Month — the seventh month in the lunar calendar, which fell in July of this year. Taiwanese believe that during this month, the gates of hell open to allow all ghosts, spirits, and “good brothers” or ancestors to come into the world. The spirits are hungry, looking for food and favors from the living. During the month people offer drinks, meats, and good foods to appease the spirits, lest they come back to cause trouble. They set an extra plate on the table during dinnertime, so their ancestors also may eat. Grassroots people are fervent observers of Ghost Month. And outside of such festivals, they regularly worship idols in their temples.
According to Jeremy, Taiwan ranks first in the world for number of temples per capita. One of the biggest temples in Dashe is devoted to an agricultural deity, because the region used to be farmland and the people believed the god had blessed them. The next largest local temple is devoted to a god of health.
“They worship different kinds of gods,” Jeremy explains. “Usually, this comes up from the stories of the past, where some person had been miraculously helped by a special encounter and they start to make it into a god. So we have all kinds of gods here.”
The Hsus’ ministry to grassroots people is twofold: bringing justice and mercy to the community, and discipleship. Grassroots people have for years been ignored or oppressed by those who have money and power, so serving the community and its felt needs is a priority for the Hsus.
“If we are serving the grassroots people and the bottom half of society, in a way we are helping out just to be fair… to bring the justice of Jesus, so that the ‘people who have,’ have the gospel, and the ‘people who don’t have,’ have the gospel, too,” Jeremy says. “In Christ, we can all be one.”
The Hsus see their work as a ministry of mercy because of how much suffering they’ve noticed among the grassroots. Working with local schools is one practical way they are addressing that. The principal of an elementary school in Dashe told Jeremy and Ruth that one-third of its students come from broken homes: they live with single parents or — as is common in Taiwan — both parents leave to find work while grandparents raise the children. In some cases, the children have no idea where their parents are. Just as frequently, elderly parents are abandoned by their adult children and so have nobody to care for them. In addition, grassroots people suffer from the usual effects of poverty: lack of basic goods, lack of quality medical care, and lack of educational and job opportunities.
“In this community, some of the top felt needs would be to help teach the children academics, because every family in Taiwan wants their kids to do well [in school],” Jeremy says. “It’s like, if you don’t do well in school, you will have no future. So in every parent’s heart, they want their kids to do well. We want to come alongside that.”
Another practical way the Hsus want to help is in job creation. Jeremy is hoping to find people who will come develop and help others develop businesses. Grassroots people need honest businesses that will provide jobs and offer job training so they will eventually be able to stand on their own.
To further this part of their ministry, Jeremy and Ruth have been building relationships with the grassroots people in their city. It is a challenge, and they are learning as they go, but the Hsus are trying to immerse themselves in the lives of their grassroots neighbors, to be visible to them and speak with them.
“One of the ways to really enter their lives here is to speak their dialect,” Jeremy says. “In Taiwan, the official language is Mandarin Chinese… but the Taiwanese grassroots, they prefer to speak Taiwanese dialect. It’s their heart language. By God’s grace, I’m learning more Taiwanese now and when I do Bible studies or when I talk to them at a park or the market, I use Taiwanese more. They know that I struggle with Taiwanese, but they know that I try to speak their language.”
Jeremy and Ruth’s desire to live among them and to learn their ways intrigues many grassroots people, especially considering the life they left behind in America.
“The thing that attracts them also is the fact that I left medicine to be a missionary,” Jeremy says. “[But] it’s a greater value to do what Jesus called me to do, to serve the people for the gospel, than just to earn money. In a lot of people’s minds, to be a doctor means just to earn money, but we want to be different. And so that point actually attracts many people to want to — at least in curiosity — try to find out what makes this person like this.”
It is a point the Hsus also hope to convey to the Taiwanese church. Their background is a natural platform for the discipleship focus of their ministry.
“Discipleship is what the Great Commission is all about, but it’s not happening enough in Taiwan,” Jeremy says. “We have all these well organized ministries: literature, good TV, radio… and they’re all good. But at the bottom of it, the regular believers, the common believers, are not taking discipleship seriously. They are mostly Sunday believers… Somehow, someway, we need to create an environment where people walk into a church and they can sense the expectation [that] we need to be about seriously learning from Jesus. We need to be seriously living out the Christian faith at home, at the workplace, in the community.”
Many Taiwanese churches say they are reaching out to the grassroots, but Jeremy argues that these churches tend to be institutionalized and program-oriented so are satisfied doing one or two outreach efforts a year. Jeremy believes that ministry to grassroots people needs to be a full-time effort: living among them, building relationships and making friends. Taiwanese Christians may understand this, but because of various obstacles — being too busy, not feeling equipped, not having the courage, or simply not knowing how to do it — have a difficult time putting it into practice.
Part of the Hsu’s ministry involves taking some disciples out into the community to spend time in the parks or the market or in people’s homes, building relationships with the grassroots and finding ways to serve them.
“We must be about discipling new and old believers,” Jeremy says, “[and] evangelizing… planting churches that will actually multiply. The traditional churches here don’t multiply and there is not enough heart discipleship going on… we need to change that. We need to model and teach and take the believers out to the field and in the real life context — in the ministry context — we can impact them through the teachable moments.”
This applies equally to grassroots people who come to faith in Christ. Jeremy is currently in a Bible study with two grassroots families; the families were led to Christ by other Taiwanese Christians who then asked Jeremy to disciple them. While modeling plays an important role in discipling grassroots Christians, their unique problems create additional challenges.
“To bring what the Bible teaches to these people who don’t like books is a challenge,” Jeremy says. “You will need to know how to quickly get to the point that they can understand, but not stretch out too long like in a classroom… They need to hear stories [or] watch videos, maybe. They need to hear testimonies.”
Since poor self-esteem also affects most grassroots people, it is difficult for those who have accepted Christ to understand the impact they can have on their own family and friends.
“[One woman] has been asking me to reach her elder son, who is not a believer,” Jeremy says. “So it’s good that she sees the value of the gospel in the children’s lives, but the problem I have with that is that she doesn’t recognize that she can do it herself.”
Jeremy and Ruth want to help these grassroots Christians become firm in the truth, so they will have the strength to reach out to their neighbors. It is a shift in thinking for the grassroots people, as many have become accustomed to asking rather than giving. Before coming to Christ, spiritist grassroots people would go to the temple, burn incense, and make requests for health and prosperity. They no longer burn incense, but now they pray and ask Jesus for healing or for help with their families and jobs. These are legitimate needs and authentic prayers, but Jeremy believes that some may be essentially replacing their idols with Jesus.
“Many of them had never grasped that Jesus is Lord,” he says. “Jesus is not a Santa Claus or a genie in a bottle. Jesus can help our needs, yes, but we are ultimately submitting ourselves to Jesus under His Lordship. And I see the lordship of Jesus as mostly missing in our discipleship efforts in Taiwan. It’s not about us; it’s about serving Him and worshiping Him with our lives.”
Currently, Jeremy, Ruth, and their three children under the age of 13 run the entire grassroots ministry in Dashe. As the children grow older, they are becoming more involved with the ministry. For example, the two eldest Hsu children assist with a weekly outreach to elementary school kids from the community: they meet in a local church for singing, games, and Bible readings. The Hsus also have some potential teammates who may be joining them soon, and Jeremy is excited to see a gathering of workers.
“I, with all my heart, believe this: grassroots mission in Taiwan is the top missionary priority for Taiwan in the decades to come,” Jeremy says. “For the last many decades, we have not seen breakthrough in this majority and in the next decades, hopefully… we can see more missionaries, more national believers, willing to come down and take on this missionary priority. It’s like the last final frontier of missions in Taiwan. People looking from outside, look at Taiwan and say, ‘Well, Taiwan is a reached country. We don’t need missionaries in Taiwan.’ Ah, not true. You come to the backyard of Taiwan, you will see this vast darkness.”
It’s been a difficult ministry. TEAM once had 70 missionaries in Taiwan, but many have moved on to China where people are hungry for truth and more open to the gospel. Today, TEAM has only 14 missionaries in Taiwan.
“Here in Taiwan, we hardly find hungry hearts,” Jeremy says. “It’s a long-haul investment… In Taiwan, if I want to create numbers, it’s not hard, but if you want to see people changed the way Jesus asked us to follow Him, you won’t see numbers. That’s a difficult path.”
But Jeremy and Ruth are motivated by the knowledge that Christ will return and judge all people for their actions, including grassroots people. And they are motivated simply by their love for the people of Taiwan.
“Taiwan in our hearts, Taiwan in our blood,” Jeremy says. “When I walk the streets of Dashe, I just feel so at home. I want to be among these people... And we will enjoy life or suffer together with them.”
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich. – 2 Cor 8:9
-Written by Megan Darreth
-Photography by Robert Johnson