From Hong Kong to Bristol
As Mark Nam stood in front of the 2,000-member Hong Kong church The Vine leading worship, he noticed something that would change the direction of his ministry.
From his unique vantage point, he saw the glow of certain faces, separate from the others. He saw foreign domestic workers, refugees from Africa and East Asia, people without homes, the elderly. He realised with a jolt that the church’s Sunday celebration wasn’t necessarily comfortable for them. They came as people who were treated as second-class citizens all week long, who would silently take seats in the back and quickly leave at the end. He felt God asking him, ‘What do you see?’ And Mark realised that what he saw was depth and resilience. Despite everything, these people sought God. He felt God say, ‘They are the living stones with whom I’m going to build my church.’ That moment began a year-long transition for Mark from serving as a worship and creative arts director to becoming the church’s community and family life pastor, focused on building the family of God in his church, and wondering how to build community in such a diverse city.
Mark knew what it meant to experience the church as family. Born in Wales, he grew up in Hong Kong with his parents. He returned briefly to the UK for secondary school and university, but at the end of his first year of university his mum grew sick with cancer and died only a year later. One of Mark’s first memories of leading worship was when his father asked him to lead them in worship at his mother’s bedside as she passed away on New Year’s Eve in 2001. In the weeks that followed, as Mark grieved, his father suggested a year-long return to Hong Kong, to the place that felt most like home.
In Hong Kong, Mark immersed himself in the community of The Vine, and they became extended family members who ministered to him in his pain. The year passed, and Mark finished his law degree in the UK, then returned to Hong Kong. But before he could begin to practice law, those leading The Vine met with Mark to ask him to join them in church ministry. Mark and his fiancée Kayi sensed the Holy Spirit’s call, and, Mark says, ‘I let go of six years of study and all the money it took to pay for it. I became the associate creative arts director.’ After five years in this role, Mark experienced that moment in worship, saw the glow of those faces before him, and recognised that he wanted to help build the family of God in new ways.
With the support of the church’s leaders, Mark transitioned roles and began to oversee The Vine’s small group ministry, with more than ninety groups meeting across Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the outlying islands—creating teaching materials, developing leaders, leading mission trips into China and the Philippines, and developing ministries to the Cantonese-speaking community and foreign domestic helpers.
As the church grew, the pastoral issues grew in complexity, and Mark grew in understanding. ‘You can never presume to know what the issues are, let alone what the solutions might be,’ says Mark of the church’s outreach to refugees, foreign domestic workers, and others. ‘Jesus looks at people, he gets into their group, goes into their homes and eats their food. He sits on the street with those on the street who have nowhere to live. He hears their stories and weeps with them. Only once we’d done that could we start to build family and actually be constructive.’
Then one day, as Mark prepared to preach about the Old Testament kings, he thought about Saul. He thought he could identify with that young king in certain respects—and he could see that Saul had relied on his gifts and favour rather than relying on God, which made Saul insecure, trying harder and harder in his own strength. ‘I knew I was running on fumes,’ Mark explains. ‘All I’d learned growing up, through training and seminars, I’d exhausted it. I didn’t want to crash like Saul. I prayed with my wife, and we felt called to pursue a season of sincere theological study and reflection and rest.’ He and the church agreed that if he studied part-time, the church work would become a distraction, so Mark became a full-time independent student at Trinity, living in Bristol to be close to his father again and his wife’s family.
‘Being a full-time independent student can be challenging,’ says Mark. ‘You have to raise funds for yourself. Part of my spiritual formation is learning to surrender and trust—that’s an essential part of our time at Trinity. If I’m going to encourage church members to step out in faith, I can say that I’ve done it. If I’m going to tell them to let go and embrace the new life God has for them, I can say I’ve done that myself.’ Mark pauses and continues, ‘I miss The Vine. I miss it very much. But I’m finding a new family at Trinity. I’m inspired by the other students’ acts of faith, of obedience. I’m inspired by the stories of others around me who are growing in community.’
Posted January 2017, from the autumn 2016 Trinity News