Fr Tang Kai breaking the mould

Fr Leslie Tang Kai delivers a sermon at church.  - Photo courtesy Leslie Tang Kai
Fr Leslie Tang Kai delivers a sermon at church. - Photo courtesy Leslie Tang Kai

IN his own inimitable way, RC priest Fr Leslie Tang Kai is redefining what it means to be a man of the cloth.

Sure, he wears the elb and chasubles typically seen on Catholic clergymen at Sunday Mass and other special church observances.

But Tang Kai, parish priest of St Joseph RC Church, Scarborough, Tobago, can just as easily don a pair of washed-out jeans and a T-shirt, a trendy, slim-fit suit or an African-inspired outfit, complete with headpiece, if the need arises.

During Tobago’s inaugural carnival last October, Tang Kai, who normally has short hair, sported chest-length braids in keeping with the spirit of the festivities.

He can also be seen walking briskly along the Scarborough beachfront on mornings, enjoying mouth-watering dishes at village harvests and participating fully in the island’s annual heritage festival.

Tang Kai’s homilies have sometimes deviated from what many may consider standard fare within the Catholic community. His sermons have tackled everything from youth alcohol abuse and domestic violence to crime, political turmoil within the Tobago House of Assembly and “caring for the earth and God’s gifts to humanity.”

Tang Kai acknowledged he may not fit the mould.

Fr Leslie Tang Kai says he is very much involved with all of the cultural activities on the island. - Photo courtesy Leslie Tang Kai

“One may say I am a different priest,” the outspoken clergyman told Sunday Newsday. “I am not the traditional priest, and yes, I am very much involved with all of the cultural activities on the island. So you will see me at Carnival, Emancipation, the ancestral walk hosted by the Anglican church. I have visited numerous harvests.

"I am very much involved, and one may think that it’s controversial. But it’s me. It’s natural, normal.”

He believes the “Jesus ministry” is one that engages people at every level, and makes no apologies for his free-spiritedness.

“I seek to be that type of person where I will interact with people on every level.”

Noting there are priests who “may not be as vibrant or as open as I am in my activities,” Tang Kai said others, like him, are also very much involved in the culture and life of the parishes in which they serve.

Assigned to Tobago on September 1, 2016, Tang Kai is single-handedly responsible for building the church’s flock in two parishes comprising eight communities.

In the west, there are five communities: the main church, St Joseph RC, with outstations at Our Lady of Lourdes, Patience Hill; Our Lady of Fatima, Mt St George; St Anthony’s, Mason Hall; and St Peter’s, Castara.

Fr Leslie Tang Kai, right, with relatives. - Photo courtesy Leslie Tang Kai

The Sacred Heart parish, Delaford, Our Lady of the Assumption, Roxborough and St Dominic’s RC, Goodwood, make up the remaining communities.

Of his tenure in Tobago, thus far, Tang Kai said, “It has been a very rich and rewarding one, sometimes challenging because I am the only priest assigned on the island as a resident. We do get assistance periodically from Port of Spain to fulfil some of the major liturgies.

"But my experience, personally, has been quite rewarding.”

The priest, who grew up with eight siblings in a staunch Catholic home in Diego Martin, said Tobago’s natural beauty and resplendent beaches have enriched his experience.

“As children, we enjoyed many adventures, with my father working and my mother, a housewife. Most of our holidays were either spent down the islands in Gasparee or in Mayaro. So I have often been exposed to the sea. That is why I love Tobago and the beaches.”

Despite being considered a “minority faith” among the Methodists and Anglicans, both of which have significantly larger congregations, Tang Kai believes the RC church has been holding its own and continues to be a “beacon of hope and light."

Fr Leslie Tang Kai, right, with chairman of the National Carnival Commission Winston "Gypsy" Peters. - Photo courtesy Leslie Tang Kai

“We have been growing slowly but continuously in terms of our ministry and all of our assigned activities.”

But he said the church in Tobago, like many other parts of the world, faces the challenge of dwindling youth population.

“Young people today are so caught up with the social media that faith becomes very challenging for a lot of young people, not just within the Catholic church, but on the island and the universal church.”

Nevertheless, he said, it has not lost hope.

Last week Friday, the church held a programme in which young people between the ages of 12 and 35 from the parish were invited to “come and chill” through open discussions on where and how they saw the church and what, they believed, were its shortcomings.

“So we are encouraging the young people to become more and more involved.”

Tang Kai observed the challenges confronting the average Tobago youth, specifically, are ongoing.

He said the moment a young person becomes involved in further education and accepts job opportunities outside Tobago, the island loses them.

“They either go to the other islands to study, they go further north or they go to Trinidad for further studies. We don’t have a per-se university that will cover all of the disciplines.

"So is not just a matter of church and how we could change that. It is a more generalised perspective, where we have to be able to engage our young people in a more holistic way.”

Tang Kai continued, “Education is very much key to the formation of our young people and we cannot deprive them. So when a young person who is actively involved in the church decides to go for further studies, you cannot really deprive or debar them but encourage them to do their best and hope that they will come back, not only in service to the church but the wider community.”

Ordained on December 20, 2008, Tang Kai is still at a loss as to what drew him to the priesthood. He recalled, though, being a self-employed businessman when he was invited one day to the seminary at Mt St Benedict.

“I was always involved in the church. But I was just visiting naturally, and I was invited and given an application form.

"I filled out the form and dropped it back, not expecting much.”

Fr Leslie Tang Kai, who normally has short hair, sported chest-length braids in keeping with the spirit of the festivities at Tobago's inaugural carnival last October. - Photo courtesy Leslie Tang Kai

Lo and behold, he was accepted into the seminary.

In hindsight, Tang Kai said the priesthood seemed a natural progression, as his family was always involved in the church and their community’s activities.

“But to say that there was something that drew me, I still don’t know that there was anything that drew me but a love of God and a love for God’s people. I have always been involved in church and church ministry, from youth to young adult.”

He believes his late entry into the seminary has been a plus.

“Coming out of a discipline of business studies and accounting to now study philosophy, theology and psychology was a big challenge, but I embraced it.”

He credits his close-knit family for not only providing the foundation and support that has sustained him over the years but which has enabled him to genuinely reach out to others in a spirit of love and truth.

“Our childhood was really centred around family. So Mummy, Daddy and all of my eight siblings, we did everything together, and that has enabled me to be more involved in the life of the people that I encounter and I work with on a daily basis.”

Tang Kai added, “That openness and communal reality started from within the family from as early as I can remember – going to church or being taken and being involved in parish activities. So what you see today is a product of my childhood and my upbringing from my parents, which I am forever grateful.”

He said after 15 years of ordination, he has no regrets.

“I have enjoyed every moment of my priesthood and my formation. It is a lived experience, an adventure that I would not exchange for anything in the world.”

Reflecting on Lent, Tang Kai said his wish is that people truly become ambassadors of Christ not just to the disciplines of prayer, fasting and alms giving but to reconciliation and love.

He lamented that Tobago, with its population of over 60,000 people, is plagued by family disputes, land squabbles, domestic violence and other issues.

Tang Kai, who begins his second week of retreat in Mayaro tomorrow, said Lent presents an opportunity for cleansing and renewal so that people can become more united in their love of God and one another.

“We must be able to respect one another for who we are, embrace each other in our limitations, in our greatness, in our challenges and be willing to forgive. The Christ ministry is embracing humanity wherever they are and seeking to help people become their better selves.”


"Fr Tang Kai breaking the mould"

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