Deep in the countryside of Miaoli County, Taiwan, Brenda Carter has lived among the Hakka people for more than 30 years. Part of the Chinese Han population, the Hakka trace their lineage back to northern China. Their name is a nod to their migration south and can be translated as “guest worker” or “sojourner.” The four million Hakka in Taiwan make up about 15 percent of the country’s population.
A native of Florida, Carter describes her role in the community as a “matchmaker,” a title she uses intentionally—as well as non-traditionally.
“I am not here as a preacher. I am here as a matchmaker. The job of a matchmaker is to introduce two people, giving them a chance to get to know each other and build a relationship. But the matchmaker cannot force them,” said Carter. “I came to give people the opportunity to get to know the God who created and loves them, to build a beautiful relationship with God.”
In the past, some Hakka people traditionally lived in tulou, which are large, circular residences often three to four stories high. Multiple generations lived within a unit and the largest could hold up to 800 people.
“The Hakka community is like their tulou buildings. To protect themselves, there are very few windows facing outward, and it is difficult for outsiders to fight their way in,” she said. “But rather than saying the Hakka community is hard soil for the gospel, perhaps we ought to say that they are a neglected community.”
A love of the people
Carter first came to Taiwan in 1986 and spent two years teaching alongside numerous foreign missionaries at Christ ’s College Taipei. But her heart was for those the school was not already reaching.
Christian leaders soon explained to her that reaching the Hakka people with the gospel was challenging, and that society often stereotyped the community as stubborn. As a girl, Carter’s father had always said the same of her, so she wondered if encountering the Hakka community was God’s intention all along. “God very naturally turned my heart towards Sanyi,” she said, referring to one of Taiwan’s main Hakka settlements.
Carter returned to America for a year to raise funds and came back to Taiwan at the end of 1989. She studied Mandarin at National Taiwan Normal University, where part of her new routine included twice-a-week trips to Hakka communities, building relationships by teaching English.
After going back and forth for a year and a half, Carter, along with several Hakka friends, moved to Sanyi to assist a missionary couple there. In 1993, Carter joined the staff of Sanyi Hakka Church, a non-denominational congregation that was specifically trying to make inroads with the community.
At the beginning of her time in Taiwan, Carter lived with a Christian Hakka friend while continuing to learn Chinese. Although the friend was a Christian, her mother had raised her family with traditional folk beliefs, and the friend and her mother had only ever spoken about faith in the Mandarin language, never in Hakka.
One day, Carter challenged her friend to pray with her mother in Hakka. The mother was moved to tears. “Your God understands Hakka too?” she asked. Carter realized then the importance of prayer and worship in one’s heart language—and regretted not being fluent in the language herself.
Today, many churches in Hakka communities no longer hold services in their native tongue. Many local pastors cannot speak the language, and many church attendees can’t understand it. But in rural areas, however, Carter says that when churches don’t offer Hakka services, more non-Hakka end up attending who aren’t able to help or serve Hakka people, and local Hakka people end up viewing Christianity as a non-Hakka faith.
“The heart language of many of the older people is still Hakka,” she said.
In the early days of her “matchmaking” ministry, Carter insisted that her church translate from Mandarin to Hakka. But because so many Hakka are comfortable in Mandarin, translation to Hakka has gradually decreased, much to Carter’s disappointment.
Twenty-five years ago, Carter had been trying to share the gospel with a 70-year-old Hakka neighbor. One Sunday, this neighbor unexpectedly came to church by himself, but the service that day happened to have no Hakka translation. The minute he heard Mandarin, he turned around to leave. Carter did her best to convince him to stay, but he responded, “I thought you were a Hakka church,” and left.
Resilience through trials
Sanyi is well-known for its woodcarving industry, a trade that the Japanese built up during their occupation of Taiwan (1885–1945) through training locals. This craft has since become part of Hakka livelihood and is sometimes tied to folk religion and ancestral worship.
For this reason, converting to Christianity presents the Hakka with an agonizing decision. Many people appreciate the gospel after hearing it, says Carter, but once they consider the pressures they will have to face, they back away, because the cost is too great.
No matter the environment, Carter diligently continues the work of sowing the gospel. She was fairly introverted as a child, and was so quiet compared to her five siblings that people would forget she was present. But her mission work has forced her to constantly think about how to build relationships and share the gospel with people. Over time, God has given her the ability to start conversations with anyone.
“Even when you’re first meeting her, she feels like a longtime friend,” said Juma Wu, who participated in Carter ’s Bible study group for several years and now works with her on the church’s staff. “Over half the old people in Sanyi know her.”
Carter’s personality, however, can’t always save her from conflict.
Around 20 years ago, Carter nearly left her post over conflict with her coworkers. At that time, God turned her attention to Jesus, she says, through the words of Isaiah 53:5: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.”
During times of conflict with coworkers, Carter could initially only see their “wrongs” and her “rights.” But God finally broke down her self-righteous heart. Carter says she realized that even if she was in the right, if she lacked love and the fruit of the Spirit, she was still in the wrong before God.
“I realized that for many years, I was seeking to accomplish spiritual things by the efforts of my flesh. But Christians are 100 percent reliant on Jesus to accomplish our all,” said Carter. “When I want to prove that I am right or defend myself, and so establish my righteousness, then I am casting aside the gospel and Jesus, and have an attitude of building righteousness through works.”
Carter says that the Holy Spirit has helped continually remind her that, because of the gospel, she can face her true self and doesn’t need to defend or justify herself. She’s told critics, “If you truly knew me, you would know that I am much worse than you just said.” The sense of security that comes with this perspective has also offered her the confidence and humility to acknowledge to others her own helplessness and pride.
Carter’s many years of serving people who didn’t want to leave behind their cultural practices, of experiencing difficulties with coworkers, and of dealing with her own personal trials has made her better able to sympathize with other people ’s struggles.
Today, when she teaches Taiwanese preachers, she always begins by asking, “Do you describe your ministry as peaceful, light, and easy?”
If the answer is no, she reminds them of Jesus’ words: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
In the same passage, Jesus describes his yoke as easy and his burden as light. When asked why Christians sometimes don’t experience this, Carter responded, “Because we have not turned our hearts to God alone. We want to avoid or escape trials, but many things that try us are also molding us, so that we become more and more like Jesus.”
Contextualizing honor and respect
Carter believes that missions happens most effectively by honoring Hakka culture and values. But this is not always easy. Carter and fellow Christian leaders have faced the difficult challenge of contextualizing the Christian faith while respecting Hakka values.
For example, Hakka funerals—which have elements of Taoism, Buddhism, folk religion, and ancestral worship—are an important part of the culture. Respect for one ’s ancestors is a Chinese tradition, and the Hakka people particularly esteem their ancestors.
But Carter realized that Hakka Christians were falling short in their funereal duties. Early on, she heard rural elders complain that Christian funerals were “done minimally and hastily.”
“Funerals do not need to cost a lot of money, but they must have dignity,” she said.
In attempts to contextualize, some church families have added Christian lyrics to Hakka funeral songs. Like non-Christian Hakkas, they also follow the tradition of building ling peng (a temporary structure erected outside a home during times for mourning). By playing the modified songs in the ling peng, relatives can hear the praise music without entering a church service.
Leading up to the burial, the refrigerated coffin is kept in the family living room, and Carter will use those one or two weeks to spend time with the family. Traditionally, mourners are not allowed to sleep when keeping vigil, so Carter intentionally visits at midnight to stay up with the family.
“That is the best time to visit and share the gospel, because no one else dares come,” she said. It is a rare occasion for the whole family to be present, and she can lead them to share more deeply with each other about more serious matters.
And during the Qingming Festival, a springtime holiday where families traditionally visit loved ones’ tombs, Carter endorses the Hakka rites of pouring water, offering flowers, and lighting candles to remember one ’s ancestors and honor God.
Although some Christians object, believing it excessively emphasizes local tradition, Carter thinks that “using such ceremonies help people feel a sense of solemnness. It does not go against the Bible, and non-Christians are willing to participate, so Christians then have the opportunity to share the gospel.”
Decades of diverse service
Carter’s love for the Hakka has taken many shapes and forms during her over 30 years of ministry. In her first years, she started English classes to build relationships with local residents. Rather than using the school fees as income, she established an emergency fund for the church, which was used to pay church workers and support missionary ministry for several years.
Yang Yumin, a former Hakka pastor at Sanyi Hakka Church, affirms Carter’s effort and diligence, and believes this is why she has been able to gather many people into the church. “Teacher Carter played the role of a mother, bringing up her children. The church stumbled forward for many years, and it was truly not easy to hold fast.”
In 2000, Carter was part of a group that founded the Christian Hakka Seminary, where she still teaches from time to time. Additionally, she encourages and accompanies Hakka missionaries abroad and helps train local workers. During summer and winter breaks, Carter travels to different Hakka communities, mobilizing young people to evangelize.
As a missionary, Carter embodies the Matthew 10:8 concept, “freely you have received, freely give.” She keeps her house—affectionately known as “Brenda’s hostel”—open for others, including for short-term missions teams. And she keeps a transportation card loaded with the equivalent of about $100 in her car, so that whoever is using her car can easily pay parking fees.
Carter’s life testifies to the love of Christ, who loved her first so that she could love the Hakka people. Carter may have served as a matchmaker by introducing the Hakka to the gospel, but she was also matched to them.
This article has been edited from an article first published in Taiwan Church News.
English translation by Christine Emmert