On 08 March 2008, I frantically called my wife from Shanghai: “I’ll call you as soon as I get on the train from KLIA to Sentral this afternoon. Meet me at Sentral. Bring my identity card. Then drive me to the voting centre so I can cast my vote against Barisan Nasional.”
The flight was delayed, but I made it. I was the last to enter the polling centre before it closed for the day. That night the vote tally was announced. The incumbent BN candidate lost to his DAP challenger. And BN, despites much thievery and thuggery, lost its two thirds majority in parliament.
On 09 March 2008, my wife and I went, for the first time, to The Father’s House in Bangsar, the meeting place of Bangsar Lutheran Church (BLC).
We went because we had been invited by a long-time friend and former co-worker of my wife at Malaysian CARE: we felt close to Soo Choo, whom we had visited in Afghanistan, who had introduced us to the abuse of foreign workers in Malaysia and who, when we joined a vigil for Revathy, had shown us how not to get hurt during candle light vigils.
We also went because we were frustrated over our membership of the church which counted us as members at that time – a church whose members considered being a Christian more a personal salvation thing: “I’m saved, I’m blessed, I’m going to heaven, I can show you how,” and less a revolutionary thing: “I’m under God’s reign, and I’m going to work to extend His rule over everyone and everything, which means revealing and opposing injustice.”
My wife and I attended that church every Sunday we were in town, except on occasions when I agreed to preach elsewhere. We never attended a service anywhere else; once I was horrified when an associate pastor told me he sometimes attended services elsewhere ‘to get a boost’! For a couple of years I was even an official leader in that church.
On 09 March 2008 we attended BLC’s Sunday service because our friend was persistent, and we felt our attending would please her.
We were pleased the guest preacher was our former pastor, Dr Tan Soo Inn, for whom we have the greatest respect and whom we call a friend. We were thrilled when the pastor of BLC, Revd. Sivin Kit, asked the congregation to share their experiences from the day before.
We saw how engaged BLC members were with society.
They came across as people who swim against the tide – as disciples. They came across as people who wanted to change the world, who believed their actions could make a difference. We heard stories of how they resisted ‘baddies’ and prevented cheating in the polling centres they volunteered at. We were stunned by how much younger they were than us.
We wondered if we could fit in: we were in the group of 10 oldest people present on that day, and there appeared to be only one other Indian there. Also, the usual thing happened: only those who were the ‘official greeters’ spoke warmly with us – just a few words: and a few who knew us from our then church came up to say hello.
We didn’t feel welcome.
But we know what a church is: it’s not church members who decide who should become church members. It’s God who decides. If a disciple doesn’t feel welcome, he or she has to conclude it’s his or her own fault, never the other way around. We felt a certain attraction to BLC, which we couldn’t quite pin down.
Sivin came and spoke with us. He asked me what I thought of the church.
A thought came to mind. I said BLC reminded me of what was said of the church pastored by the British theologian (and much more) P T Forsyth (1848-1921) in London: it was like Adullam’s cave. I had to explain what that meant.
Before David became King, he was hounded by King Saul. One of David’s hiding places was called the Cave of Adullam. Those who were loyal to David, those who recognized him as a righteous man, and a man chosen by God, stayed with him. They swam against the tide: they were amongst the few who wouldn’t betray David, not even to their lawful King, Saul.
While talking to Sivin I showed him the photo I had on my phone as a screen saver: a photo of another pastor-theologian who has long been a great influence on my life: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). I discovered that Sivin too had been enriched by Bonhoeffer, and that he valued the study of theology: something frowned upon by my pastor at that time.
I’ll cut a 5 year story short.
After Sunday 09 March 2008, my wife and I have attended BLC every Sunday we’ve been in town, except on occasions when I agreed to preach elsewhere.
We attended membership classes and became members. We joined a home group and we came to know and to love the members of that group – despite the fact that the group rarely met, and that we were the oldest members!
We contributed what we could of our time, abilities and finances to spur and to encourage the church. We came to know, to love and sometimes to weep over the mostly younger members.
We remain astonished that we were able to fit in.
I have little in common with most others in BLC – I love “heavy” books, I’m a senior executive in a multinational company, I don’t have a Twitter account, I’ve never played a computer game, I don’t use most of the features on my smartphone, I abhor coarse language.
Yet I don’t feel like an anomaly. I feel loved and valued. I feel I’m in a congregation which understands what it means to identify with the downtrodden, and to be unafraid of oppressors, just like the Messiah.
Joyce, my wife, is much less outgoing than I am. But she is greeted so warmly every time we meet BLC members. She knows there are many in BLC who care about her, and are pleased that she cares about them. She too feels at home in BLC: the church which we could only integrate into after we joined Facebook!
We are now in the Netherlands. We miss our BLC family. We look forward to coming home.