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One Year After The Laguna Woods Shooting, The Taiwanese American Community Remembers A Hero Doctor

About 10 members of a church congregation sing from the pews. Most pictured are Asian women wearing white shirts and scarves around their necks.
The Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church choir sings at the service.
(Josie Huang
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At Geneva Presbyterian Church in Laguna Woods Sunday, Dr. John Cheng's smiling face flashed across a giant screen hanging from the rafters. Below, more than 200 people had filled the pews to pray and give gratitude for his sacrifice a year ago.

The Orange County sports medicine physician was shot and killed while trying to stop a gunman from massacring a Taiwanese American congregation meeting at the church on May 15, 2022.

"Not only will you not be forgotten," Peter Chen, president of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs said from the lectern. "You will forever inspire us."

A slide image of a Taiwanese American man in a white doctor's coat, adorned with photoshopped sunflowers. A written message in Chinese reads "You will always live in our hearts. Rest in Peace, Dr. Cheng"
This slide of Dr. John Cheng was projected during the Sunday service for the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church.
(Dr. John Cheng's image was projected on a large screen above the congregation Sunday, with the message "You will always live in our hearts." )
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The shooter had attacked the church during a luncheon last May for a former pastor, the Rev. Billy Chang, who was visiting from Taiwan. Witnesses said after the gunman had shot the doctor and wounded five others, Chang hit him with a chair, then helped to hogtie him.

In a video message played for the congregation on Sunday, Chang said he had not been brave at at all.

"When I think of the incident, on the one hand, I often cry, feeling sad, heartbroken and regretful," he said in Taiwanese Hokkien, the language spoken by most at the service. "This emotional confusion may follow me my whole life."

Chang thanked Cheng and his family for what the 52-year-old doctor from Laguna Niguel did to save others from the Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, which holds services and events at the Geneva Presbyterian Church.

"Because of his sacrifice, I understand better what it means for us to say that the Lord Jesus Christ sacrificed his life for us," Chang said.

A photo of a makeshift memorial of flowers outside Geneva Presbyterian Church after the shooting.
A memorial was set up outside the Geneva Presbyterian Church after the shooting. The Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church holds services at Geneva.
(Robyn Beck
AFP via Getty Images)

The attack by the alleged shooter, David Chou, himself a Taiwanese American immigrant, exposed rifts among some in the Taiwanese diaspora over relations between Taiwan and China, which wants to take control of the self-ruled democracy.

Chou, who was born and raised in Taiwan by Chinese immigrants, supported China's claim, according to writings uncovered by investigators.

Last week, federal prosecutors said they had filed nearly 100 charges against Chou, including hate crimes and weapons and explosives violations.

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“Chou allegedly acted because of the victims’ national origin and religion, and he intentionally obstructed the victims’ religious exercise,” the Department of Justice said in a statement.

Investigators have not explained why Chou attacked this particular church, but experts on Taiwan history have pointed out that the Presbyterian Church in Taiwan is well known for supporting the democracy movement.

Sunday's service featured speakers such as Chen, whose group advocates for an independent and democratic Taiwan. But comments at the lectern steered clear of geopolitics.

Chen referred to Chou without saying his name at the service.

"We also pray for justice, so that this unspeakable evil and hate crime would never ever happen again," Chen said.

The Laguna Woods attack became part of the national conversation on gun violence, taking place between mass shootings at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

Less than a year later, another mass shooter would launch an attack an hour's drive away in Monterey Park, killing 11 people.

The five churchgoers who were wounded in the Laguna Woods attack and range in age from their 60s to 90s have largely recovered, according to church member Jerry Chen.

Carol Lin was among the shooting survivors who spoke Sunday. The 82-year-old retired restaurant owner from Irvine said she was nervous about addressing the large group — normally services draw just about 100 people, mostly seniors — but she wanted to pay tribute to the doctor and her former pastor.

A Taiwanese American man and woman in their 80s sit next together for posed photo.
Ching and Carol Lin both survived the Laguna Woods church shooting but described lasting trauma.

"Jesus sent two angels," said Lin, who vividly remembers the pastor jumping into action to stop the shooter while he was reloading.

Lin's husband Ching said he recognized alleged shooter Chou from the suspect's visit to the church two years prior. On the day of the shooting, Chou had arrived several hours before the luncheon in Simpson Hall honoring the visiting pastor, Ching Lin said.

The Lins were among the 100 or so people in Simpson Hall for the luncheon for the visiting pastor. Cheng, the doctor, was visiting the church for the first time to accompany his mother, who wanted to see the pastor.

When shots rang out, everyone in the room dove for cover but Carol Lin froze, she recalled. Extreme lower back pain forced her to use a walker and made it difficult for her to get down without assistance. Standing just about 10 to 15 feet away from the gunman, she was certain she would be shot next and prayed to God for help. Then she said she heard the shots stop as the shooter stopped to reload.

Safe at home, Lin received hundreds of calls from friends and family in Taiwan where the attack was widely reported. She said they told her, "since we couldn't get through to you, we assumed you were still alive."

In the year since, Lin said she has struggled with loud sounds, and found herself crying as firecrackers went off on New Year's Eve during a trip to Taiwan.

But she and the congregation have been trying to get back to normal. Just a week after the shooting, congregants met in Simpson Hall to sing hymns and reflect on what had happened.

A crowd shot of older Asian adults leaving a church service.
The Irvine Taiwanese Presbyterian Church draws a congregation of people mostly in their 60s and up.

Over the last year they've continued to meet in the hall for meals and weekly lectures from speakers like local historians.

"They've changed the carpet," Lin said. "The holes in the ceiling have been repaired."

Lin said it helps knowing there's now armed security at the church. A guard stood watch over Sunday's service, pacing back and forth by the doors. She was hired after the shooting.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.

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