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Taiwan Christianity enters new phase

Younger aboriginals are leaving the faith as cities beckon

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American Presbyterian minister John McCall, left, visits Paiwan aboriginals Kanpi, right, and his wife, Lumiya, in southeastern Taiwan.

American Presbyterian minister John McCall, left, visits Paiwan aboriginals Kanpi, right, and his wife, Lumiya, in southeastern Taiwan.

Wally Santana, Associated Press

SAPULOU, Taiwan — Sixty years after Roman Catholic and Presbyterian missionaries first converted large numbers of Taiwanese aboriginals in their leafy mountain villages, Christianity here is entering a new phase. Adherents are leaving the faith.

Faced with a declining agricultural economy in their hard-pressed rural communities, more and more upcountry Christians are moving to Taiwan's bustling cities, where worldly temptations and a bewildering social framework are challenging their beliefs.

At a recent Sunday morning service in the nearby community of Laolauran, American Presbyterian missionary John McCall tried to rally the faithful, as local hill tribe pastor Sakulu translated his Mandarin Chinese sermon into the aboriginal language of Paiwanese.

"God loves you, and he is your father," McCall said. "You're all the children of God."

But the church was mostly empty, and the worshippers included few if any young adults.

"I used to go to church," said Dzwo Ying-gung, who recently returned to the area to work at the Dawu Mountain National Education Center. "But now I don't. My faith has fallen away."

The attitude of Dzwo and thousands of hill tribe Taiwanese like him represents a fundamental challenge to McCall and the legion of local pastors he and his predecessors have helped train at three Presbyterian seminaries around the island.

Ever since Canadian George Mackay came to Taiwan in 1871, the center of the missionary enterprise on the island has always been its hill tribe people, whose ancestors migrated here from South Pacific islets about 6,000 years ago.

The Paiwan and others once proved much more receptive to Christianity than their lowland neighbors, who followed Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

Today, some 65 percent of the hill tribe population of 460,000 is Christian, about equally divided between Presbyterians and Catholics, according to government statistics. That compares with about 2 percent of Taiwan's 22.5 million Han Chinese, who originated on the Chinese mainland, where they constitute a large majority.

Sociologist Jonathan Unger of Canberra's Australian National University said the hill tribes were more open to the Christian message, largely because of the prejudice they felt from the Han. Other Asian minority peoples, in places like southwest China, Laos and upland Thailand, also were more willing to embrace Christianity, he said.

"It's a common phenomenon that a minority people considered inferior in many respects by the dominant culture will protect itself by turning to a world religion," Unger said.

Rangalu, a 45-year-old primary school teacher in the hill tribe village of Sapulou, said the discrimination he experienced played a key role in forming his own Paiwan identity.

"When I was in school in Taipei the (Han) teacher would say, 'Look at this Paiwan kid, he's so dark, he's dirty, don't play with him,"' he said. "It really made an impression."

His wife Muni, 39, cited another reason for Christianity's popularity: the health care and other social services provided by foreign missionaries.

"They were all very poor, they had very few clothes," said Muni, who spent seven years studying theology at the Yusan Presbyterian Seminary in the eastern Taiwanese city of Hualien. "But the missionaries came and cured them, they gave them clothes and they taught them to love God."

But now, she said more local young people are going to Taiwanese cities in search of work.

"They are discriminated against, they lose their connection to the church, they start to drink, their lives become unstable," she said.

Placed near the base of a steeply rising mountain covered with coconut palms, stands of bamboo, and verdant rows of acacia trees, many of the homes in Sapulou village are decorated with handsome wood carvings depicting traditional Paiwan symbols: serpents, warriors holding spears, and hunting scenes featuring wild mountain pigs.

Sapulou lies near the southern extreme of the 240-mile mountainous spine that runs down the center of Taiwan and hosts its 13 government-recognized aboriginal tribes.

Dappled with satellite dishes — and only a few miles removed from a railway stop on the line to the mostly Han city of Taidung — the village is not nearly as isolated as some other aboriginal villages in the high mountain country.

In one of the village's more solid looking homes, Kanpi and his wife Lumiya, both 70, welcomed a group of foreign and local visitors with a traditional Paiwan melody embellished with modern Christian lyrics.

"We welcome our guests to the house," they sang. "We thank the Lord we have all come together in our home."

The walls of the simple structure were covered with the spoils of Kanpi's hunting career — assorted pig skulls, eagle feathers and deer skins. They served as poignant reminders of the recent past, when hunting and subsistence farming were the core of the Paiwan existence.

One of the visitors was McCall, who first came to Taiwan in 1996 after being inspired by stories from retired missionaries near his home in Black Mountain, N.C.

A tall, youthful-looking 49, with a thick shock of salt-and-pepper colored hair, McCall said that after almost 12 years in Taiwan he remained committed to his mission of helping to prepare young hill tribes people for ordination into the Presbyterian ministry.

"In the first generation and even the second the fire is still very high," Muni said. "But now ... the fire is starting to fade."