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Interview: Pastor Billy Chang Describes California Church Shooting

Flowers sit outside crime scene tape at Geneva Presbyterian Church on May 17, 2022, in Laguna Woods, Calif. A shooting at the church on Sunday left one dead and five injured.

A gunman, allegedly motivated by a political hatred of Taiwan, opened fire on Taiwanese members of a Presbyterian church in Southern California Sunday, killing one person and injuring five others.

Former Pastor Billy Chang was at the service in Laguna Hills, California. He spoke with VOA’s Mandarin service and described the attack Sunday, which started as members of the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church were having lunch.

Interview: Pastor Billy Chang Describes California Church Shooting
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According to the Los Angeles Times, Chang pastored Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian for 21 years and left in 2020 to lead a church in Taiwan. Chang, who had recently returned from Taiwan, was the guest of honor at Sunday’s lunch, according to local media.

Authorities have charged the suspect, David Chou, of Las Vegas, with 10 counts in the attack, including one count of first-degree homicide.

Police said Chou drove to Orange County in Southern California on Saturday, and on Sunday attended a lunch held by senior parishioners of Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian before he opened fire.

John Cheng, a church member, charged Chou, allowing other church members to act. Chang said he picked up a chair and threw it at Chou, who fell on the floor. Chang said he and several other church members rushed Chou, holding him down and tying him up until authorities arrived.

Cheng was shot and killed during the attack.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: Can you tell us your story with the church and what happened on the day of the shooting?

Former Pastor Billy Chang: I flew back to the U.S. from Taiwan on May 9. Because I have been friends with the brothers and sisters in the church for over 20 years, they were very happy and hoped to see me. Their current pastor also kindly invited me to do a sermon on Sunday, May 15. I was happy to see a lot of people on that day. Then we had a worship service at 11 a.m. and a Sunday school at 11:30 a.m. This time, I shared my good experiences in Taiwan over the past two years. I was away for so long and I had many feelings to share. Then, we went to have lunch.

Before that Sunday, the church would always provide a box lunch. After they finished Sunday school, people would go to the social hall to get a box lunch and eat at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This time, because I recently returned and the pandemic seemed to be slowing down in the U.S., the church announced it would have a special welcome party, and if people were willing to stay, we could set up a dozen round tables in the social hall and have extra food. About 100 people chose to stay and we ate together around 12:30 p.m.

After lunch, some people asked to take pictures with me, so we moved to a stage at the front of the social hall. The stage in the hall is quite modern and not very high off the ground. People stood there, one after another, to take photos with me in groups of four to 10.

It was around 1 p.m. when I heard gunshots. I can’t remember the exact time. I had no idea what was happening outside. When I turned my head and looked to my right, about 10 steps away, there was a man I didn't recognize. He was dressed like a security guard. It was later confirmed that he was a licensed security officer, so he had equipment. He was wearing tactical gear like someone escorting an armored car. He started shooting and the sound was very loud as the social hall is an enclosed space that echoes. Everyone, including myself, was startled. Maybe at first, I did not realize the danger we were in. I thought it was a joke, a prank, someone playing with a toy gun to scare people.

But after he fired three or four shots, I was shocked. Because he was shooting fast and kept shooting, I just stood there and felt that something was wrong. I turned my head to see that all my brothers and sisters were on the ground, hiding under the tables, and some of them were trying to escape.

It seemed like he shot where there was something moving. I felt this was not right and needed to be stopped. We have a majority of older people in the church. I am not that young, but I felt I had to act. When I saw that his gun was not aimed at me, I felt like he was going to change bullets. I am not very familiar with guns, but he already had shot the gun nine or 10 times.

So, I ran over. I grabbed a chair and threw it at him. He probably didn't expect anyone to attack him. He was shocked, falling to the floor, and he dropped the gun. I quickly pinned him down. I was afraid he would pick up the gun again because the gun was on his left-hand side and still within his reach. I pinned down his hands and head. I said, “Hurry up, come and help me hold him.” Three parishioners helped me to pin his neck.

Only then I saw that there was someone lying just in front of us, Dr. [John] Cheng. I could see that he was very badly wounded because he wasn't moving at all, and it was very clear to see the blood on his back. My wife, Yu Ling, came over and quickly removed the gun, but I did not know if he had another gun. Later, they [the police] said he also had a gun strapped to his leg ... that he had two guns. I don't know if he had an accomplice, so my wife hid the gun in the refrigerator in the kitchen. We couldn't find any ropes, so we used an orange electrical cord to tie up his legs and then we called 911. The police arrived in 10 minutes, and they took control of the situation.

It was Dr. Cheng’s first time to come to the church. He was accompanying his mother, and I didn't recognize him at first. He was lying on the floor, face down, and so I didn't immediately realize that he was his mother’s son. She was taking pictures with me on stage. After the scene was under control, she couldn’t find her son, and then when she turned around, she cried, "That's my son, that's my son.”

Later, we found out that the murderer was preparing for a massacre. When he was locking the door, some of our parishioners saw him and thought that he was security who had come to lock the door, because we had rented this place and we had to leave by 1 or 2 p.m. There were two entrances that he had managed to lock, but there was also one in the kitchen that he probably didn't know about. Some people escaped from that door and called 911. On one of the main entrances, he used chains to lock the door and he nailed the other door to the parking lot shut. I later heard that the keyholes were also sealed with super glue.

VOA: Did the shooter say anything while he was there?

Former Pastor Billy Chang: He didn't speak a word or shout, that's why I thought it was a joke and it was a toy gun, and other people thought the sound was a balloon popping. After he was subdued by us, he only spoke one sentence, that’s how I realized he was Chinese. At first some people thought he was from the Middle East. I knew he was Chinese when he said, "I can't breathe" in Chinese, probably because someone was holding his neck, and then they loosened up a bit so the gunman could breathe.

VOA: When the shooter arrived at the church on that day, did any parishioners see him or have any interaction with him?

Former Pastor Billy Chang: I heard that he had come in during our worship. Our receptionist asked him to leave his name so that we could welcome him to our service, but he said he had been to the service before, and so he didn't leave his name. Some of the church’s parishioners are very enthusiastic and every week they bring last week's newspaper to give away for free. I heard the shooter took a Chinese newspaper and read it during the service. He didn't seem to be serious about the worship service, and then he left. When he showed up again, that is when the shooting happened.

VOA: Do we know anything about why the shooter drove from Las Vegas to Irvine, California, specifically to target this church?

Former Pastor Billy Chang: Now that I think about it, he didn't just do it randomly, he had a plan. I don't know if he had relatives or friends in Irvine or around Orange County, but he probably knew that our church was one of the more crowded Taiwanese-speaking churches. I don't think he only started to prepare on the day of the shooting. He brought chains and explosives, so he had already planned the attack. He had observed us, maybe he had even been here before. He may have picked us because he wanted to slaughter the most people possible. If I had not subdued him, I think there would be a dozen, or even a hundred people wounded or dead.

These days there are many people who wonder if our church is preaching about Taiwanese independence or Taiwan politics. I welcome everyone to read about us on our church website. Whether it is Pastor [Albany] Lee or me, we all are preaching the gospel of God. We spread love, peace, charity, compassion and inclusion.

VOA: Now we know the motive for this crime is politically related. Are you surprised?

Former Pastor Billy Chang: In fact, this reflects the horrible situation Taiwan faces right now geopolitically, the threat of Chinese military. ... [China considers self-ruled Taiwan a breakaway province and has not ruled out the use of force to reunify the two sides.] We very much hope that the international community can pay attention to it, from the security of individuals to Taiwan as a whole. At least we need to be able to defend ourselves, like we did with the chair, and not to be treated in such a ferocious way.

VOA: We know that there is not much interaction between Taiwan’s pro-independence community and Taiwan’s pro-unification community in the U.S. What do you think will happen between the two communities after the shooting?

Former Pastor Billy Chang: Honestly, I worry that confrontation between Taiwan’s pro-independence groups and Taiwan’s pro-unification groups will become more severe, and it is unfortunate that this incident happened. I hope that in Taiwan's society we can have different political positions and be tolerant of each other. We really are one island, one life. If there is an external force to invade us, no one will be spared from such a tragic end, so we hope to learn from this incident to respect each other and to not use this incident to instigate confrontation.

VOA: The suspect is facing 10 counts in the attack, including one count of first-degree murder. If you had the chance to see the gunman again, what would you say to him?

Former Pastor Billy Chang: The victim has already sacrificed his life, no matter what, using the murderer's life to pay for his life would not be able to heal the grief in our hearts. Of course, justice needs to be done, and I hope that justice will be used to let everyone know that this kind of act is unacceptable to the whole of society. As for the murderer, I really can't understand what kind of message he wants to send, because he can hate some innocent elders and kill such a peaceful group for his political philosophy. He wanted to exterminate all of us. If I take a step back and think about it, if I advocate that Taiwan should become independent, is this a capital crime? Is this an unforgivable sin that must lead to the death of the other party? If I think that if I want to love someone, I must pay the price of life. What is the reasoning behind this? I don’t understand his logic and I have no words to say to him.