On the ground next to Madam S.H. Ho Hall, Prof. Tobias Brandner rode on the bicycle that had taken him round the world and up and down the university campus over the past 23 years, cutting through late November’s nascent winds with nonchalant ease. ‘This is my ecological statement and also an expression of my impatience and health philosophy.’ It begs credulity to believe that someone who is impatient can persevere in weekly treks back and forth from the city to its jails on the periphery, rain or shine, for 30 years. A genuine love for freedom may ring truer. The healer that gazes compassionately into the human soul understands too well happiness and growth spring not from coercion but letting go. He honours this freedom in his heart of hearts and bestows such beatitude on his neighbours: with prison inmates, he counsels and confronts but is ever patient, assured in the knowledge that for everything there is a season. He lets his two cats go beyond the threshold and roam the campus, doing what cats like to do. The Dendropanax dentiger he planted in front of his house 12 years ago had a large part of its crown ripped off by typhoon Mangkhut. To his surprise, the tree grew back into a plumper and stately shape, rendering a more splendid version of itself.
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Barring a sabbatical in Koh Samui in 2007, this is Professor Brandner’s 24th year in Hong Kong. An ordained minister of the Swiss Reformed Church—the Protestant branch in Switzerland, he came to the city in 1996 and started to serve as a full-time prison chaplain in 1998, which also saw him teaching part-time at the Theology Division—now named Divinity School—of Chung Chi College. Starting from 2008, he has been engaged full-time with the School while paying regular visits to local prisons. He teaches the history of western Christianity and Christian missions and researches on the religion’s shifting centre of gravity to the East while advocating for prisoners’ rights, receiving their confidences or simply being there for them.
In the earliest days of life, there were sights of verdant and gently rolling farms, free afternoons helping neighbours with the harvest in the fields, Thomas Mann’s long and short stories, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s unbounded pity for the suffering of mankind—and questions about life. Growing up in Auenstein, a small farming village in Switzerland, Professor Brandner got hooked on questions of deeper life in late teenage, when he became a voracious reader of books on philosophy, literature, Buddhism, psychology, and psychoanalysis.
One day, as he was reading on Zen Buddhism, a thought struck him. ‘Why do I need to go to the Eastern religions? Quite a lot of these thoughts can be found in the Christian tradition.’ From then on, he began to study Christian thoughts in depth. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison moved him particularly. ‘As a testimony of someone politically engaged against the dictatorial government, the work contains deep thoughts from prison. It also convinces me that Christianity is compatible with a modern worldview. We can have both openness and faithfulness to the Christian tradition.’
Youth is as beautiful as it is sorrowful. A week after his graduation from high school, the young Tobias’s father passed away. The unexplained passing of the father confronted the son with a sense of the futility of life. Theology, he decided, is just the lancet with which he needed to dissect life and make sense of it—and to let light in.
‘Theology is the deepest subject one could study. Different from Philosophy which is purely speculative, it is something you engage with and practise in life,’ asserted the theologian who favours the practical over the puritanical.
From Theology to Ministry
Theology is one thing; ministry quite another. In his school days, Professor Brandner came across a few souls who changed his perception on ministerial work. His Hebrew teacher during the final years of high school, an old wise pastor who had been a student of Karl Barth—the 20th century’s most important theologian—and, ever jovial, remained a critical reader of Christian myths, together with the supervisors for his prison placements during the undergraduate years, made him realize pastoral work can be a joyful undertaking.
‘They were not nerdy, aloof but were in for a good meet and good drink. To be spiritual does not mean one has to be negative and removed from the world—rather one can be spiritual in the world,’ he said, ‘Isn’t Jesus like that—going through all the dirtiness and temptations of worldly life, going to a wedding banquet, turning water into wine, while having the time to withdraw into himself and pray?’
And providence wills that the nerdy boy growing up in a farming community met a chic and cosmopolitan girl studying interior design at the Swiss top art school at a good friend’s party. He was attracted to her, while she was impressed by his courage to do a subject considered odd and unpopular in Europe. For the stretch of their days ahead, across Europe, Africa, East and Southeast Asia, they would be holding each other’s hands and wheeling through life together.
Next Stop Hong Kong
By 30, Professor Brandner had finished his doctorate, worked as a part-time prison chaplain for a couple of years, been elected into the city council to push for institutional reforms and involved in an international church organization. ‘I felt I had hit a wall, and my fiancée urged me to get over it,’ said he.
The chance came. One day, he received a letter from the president of the Basel Mission, then looking for someone to do prison work in Hong Kong and asking if he was interested. Holding the letter in his hand, he jumped in his flat. ‘I immediately knew that’s it,’ said he, still looking thrilled.
‘I had never been to Hong Kong, neither did I ask for a tryout,’ said he. ‘There was no hesitation, no discussion. We immediately knew we would go.’ Reason does not explain everything in life. As they said yes, little did they know they were to spend 24 years and counting on this island in the Far East.
Lo Heung Gong
Professor Brandner, who has seven spoken languages under his belt, speaks near native Cantonese. He spent his first two years in Hong Kong learning Cantonese. ‘If I’ve ever done something good, it has to do with me learning the language properly,’ he said, reminiscing the days he learnt the language’s seven phonemic tones by heart at the University’s New Asia Yale-in-China Chinese Language Centre (now Yale-China Chinese Language Centre). ‘It’s a great language, with so much wit in it. Hongkongers have such a great sense for jokes.’ His mention of Lufsig, an IKEA toy that proved a hit with Hongkongers years ago made us burst out laughing—by mere chance, the toy’s Chinese name is close to an obscene three-word phrase in Cantonese.
Excitement animated the theology professor’s calm, harmonious facial features as we touched on the topic of prison—his confirmed passion after three decades of service.
‘Those in prison are not necessarily bad people; they are just ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The prison system is a place which tries to normalize people, people with somehow dissenting voices or thoughts,’ observed the close reader of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. ‘I always love these guys,’ he said, a tenderness coming over his voice. ‘They have done seriously wrong things, but I have deep respect for them.’
As a full-time teacher now, Professor Brandner does prison visits once a week, serving male adult prisoners in Stanley Prison, Shek Pik Prison, and Siu Lam Psychiatric Centre. Once a month he takes his theology students to Shek Pik Prison for joint worship. ‘I can only take 10 people each time. I hardly have the problem of not getting enough students—they always love to go and find it rewarding. A lot of them become friends with the inmates.’
Getting through the numerous gates that insulate the inmates from the outside world, he would begin the day by visiting different sections and workshops, greeting, nodding and shaking hands with them, doing short chats, or having longer discussions in a private room. The professor remarked a prison chaplain is challenged, among other things, to grasp what is most needed by the person he encounters. He also has to maintain a selfless and unbiased attitude to people of different temperaments and backgrounds. ‘You most easily establish relationship with outgoing ones, but they are not necessarily those who need it most. Finding a way to talk to the more introverted ones is important—I have to constantly remind myself to leave the comfort zone.’ With a whole day of engaging in dialogue, listening, and travelling back and forth from the city, a visit to prison is often a herculean voyage that exacts much from one’s body and soul.
Throughout our chat, Professor Brandner kept emphasizing the importance of listening in his work. At times, silence speaks volumes. In Beyond the Walls of Separation, penned during his sabbatical and published in 2014, he wrote about an inmate who suffered minor brain damage and had difficulties in communication. For this he often got into trouble with others and was put in solitary confinement. Unable to converse meaningfully with him, the prison chaplain stretched his hand through the bars. He gripped the hand, and for several minutes was massaging it tenderly and lovingly.
‘Small talk is important too. It’s about building relationships rather than communication,’ said the professor. ‘There are people who remain distant for the 10 or 15 years we know each other, but as time goes by they would establish a sense of trust towards me. At some point, maybe when something happens in their family or in their life, they would come to me and start to talk in a very different way.’
Do the inmates care about spiritual matters? ‘Yes, but in a very practical manner.’ The prison worker likens the prisoners’ dilemma to Sisyphus’s distilled by Albert Camus: the king of Corinth is damned to roll the rock uphill, only to have it roll down ad infinitum.
‘Why do we insist on living? In everyday life there’s not much reason to kill ourselves. But once in prison, where life’s trappings are all gone, holding onto life, finding life worth living is a challenge.’
‘Do you aim to convert the inmates?’ I asked.
‘Never. It is something that happens. I always warn people it is not easy—turning to Jesus Christ is always turning away from certain habits of your life. What I aim at is leading them on a path of growing ability to love and to receive love. What I do, ultimately, is to communicate God’s forgiveness,’ said the chaplain.
‘To translate that into the language of non-believers, I would say, our life is more than our deeds. Let’s imagine you’ve done something bad in your life. You have hurt someone deeply. Forgiveness means that you are not defined by this act. You are more than having seriously hurt someone. It does not mean that what you did does not matter. It does. But I would never call someone a killer, for there is much more to him. In prison and in life, there are persons who commit crimes, but they are not criminals. They are persons who did something wrong.’
‘But how can people reconcile with their brokenness? How is it possible for one to love the worst in themselves as well as the best?’ ‘Here, faith comes into play,’ the chaplain said slowly, his voice like a fire burning in the dark. ‘Faith is the experience of being accepted and loved despite all our brokenness. I cannot convince you. You need to surrender to this deeper truth in life, and that is why, theologically speaking, we call it a gift. It is not you who decide to be a Christian: it’s really God’s spirit which moves you. And this moving means receiving this amazing gift that you are accepted for the way you are.’ He added, taking a light breath, ‘This is a deep truth we can only grasp in faith.’
By the time I finished the interview, I kept thinking of the words the theology professor shared with me that morning: suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character, hope. The flickerings of hope shall guide us through long nights. When the day breaks, the sinning and the sinned against would all be free, pitied—and cast to the winds of human history.
This article was originally published in No. 551, Newsletter in Jan 2020.