Bulletin No. 2, 2019

29 Fly Me to the Moon Fly Me to theMoon Passing from death unto life with Tobias Brandner 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. The healer that gazes compassionately into the human soul understands too well happiness and growth spring not from coercion but letting go. 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. The theology professor’s soul- searching began 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. 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. Despite being professionally established, he felt he had run into a dead alley. And one day, the chance came. The president of the Basel Mission, on the lookout for someone to take up prison ministry in Hong Kong, presented him with such an opening and asked if he was interested. ‘I immediately knew that’s it,’ said he, still looking thrilled. ‘There was no hesitation, no discussion. My fiancée and I immediately knew we would go.’ 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, with many of them becoming 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. 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. As a prison chaplain, does he aim to convert the inmates? ‘Never. 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 he. ‘But how can people reconcile with their brokenness? How is it possible for one to love the worst in himself?’ ‘Here, faith comes into play. Faith is the experience of being accepted and loved despite all our brokenness. 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.’ Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character, hope; thus spake the theology professor. 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. Amy L.