Another mustard seed miracle

For a week we had been at Sabah Theological Seminary (STS) at Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, making plans to set up a Lutheran Study Centre at the request of the Lutheran bishops of Malaysia and Singapore. This centre is to serve students who come to STS from many parts of South East Asia and to educate people for church leadership in the region.

Planning is well under way so we jumped at the invitation to be taken on a two-day trip. We drove to Kudat, about 190 kilometres north of Kota Kinabalu. Normal speed is possible on some stretches of the road, elsewhere progress was slow. Brahman cattle meandered leisurely across the road that runs between rice paddies – this is the cowboy territory of the Bajau tribe.

Steep ascents through mountain passes, washaways that reduce the road to a strip of potholes, and narrow bridges make the going really slow. Eating local corn, fried in the husk over a brazier at roadside stalls, is a treat. And those creamy little bananas are especially delicious for banana-starved Australians! It’s hot and sticky in July but the sights were magnificent; mountain ridges and plains display a rich palette of varying greens.

Our guide, Dr Wilfred John Samuel, Vice-President of Sabah Theological Seminary in Kota Kinabalu (and a graduate of ALC in Adelaide), took us to visit the headquarters of the Protestant Church of Sabah (PCS). Never heard of the PCS? Well, neither had we.

We soon learnt how the mustard seed has produced another miracle among the Rungus tribespeople, who were headhunters not so long ago. These parts in the very north of Borneo are now seventy percent Christian – in a Muslim country. ‘This is Lutheran country, as far as you can see’, says Dr Wilfred, as we near the end of the trip north. That’s because the PCS is a member of the Lutheran World Federation.

Christian missionaries brought the gospel to the Rungus people in the middle of last century, only decades ago. They came from Europe and also from the Basel Christian Church of Malaysia (BCCM). But the daughter church, with 42,000 members, has now outgrown the mother church and is still growing.

At church headquarters we met the leaders of the PCS, President Jimmy Asam and Secretary Sopirid Masandul, captivated by their warm welcome and excellent English. The building is very basic, reflecting the fact that the PCS is materially poor. But you would never know it from talking to these men. They said the church next door is full of hundreds of young people every Sunday morning, and that student numbers at the Bible Training Centre are up this year.

You would not easily recognise the jumble of rough buildings south of Kudat as a Bible College. Just slab huts and bare concrete set in the eternal green of the forest – termites live here too! The Principal, Rev Jonius, and his wife, Pastor Rosnie, radiate the same friendly warmth and are happy with their student numbers. We saw some of these dedicated teenagers, who come straight out of high school, studying in the basic library that has a few feet of shelving to house the small collection of study materials.

We met one student outside and are struck first by the message on his T-shirt (‘Jesus in me’), then by his beaming smile, and then by his excellent English. These young people study for two years and graduate for service in their congregations without prospect of ever receiving a salary. Tuition and boarding fees amount to about sixty-five dollars a month. If only we could pay all fees for all students! A few will get LWF or BCCM scholarships to go south to the big seminary in Kota Kinabalu to study for ordained pastoral ministry.

Back in Kota Kinabalu the next day, we eagerly caught up with Principal Dr Thu En Yu, since he and his wife Brenda were missionaries among the Rungus people from 1972 to 1981, before he was called to be bishop of the BCCM. Mrs Thu admits to shedding more than a few tears when she was brought, as a bride, from her home in the teeming metropolis of Hong Kong to the steamy heat and isolation of North Borneo.

Our admiration for these dear friends increases as we hear how she produced a family with minimal medical assistance, and how Dr Thu walked hours on end to visit some fifty villages as there were no roads and no vehicles. We remain inspired by such stories of sacrifice and dedication, and we will always remember the gentle Christian friends of the PCS, who radiate a joyful peace and contentment.

This story was also published in the October 2011 edition of Border Crossings, the magazine of LCA International Mission.

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