“Yesu Lei!” A story of 2 early Lutheran missionaries in Malaya

John Nelson and his wife Betty Lou came from America to Malaya in 1955. They came as missionaries. They came during the Malayan Emergency. 

How I came to know and meet them in person is close to a miracle.  I was asked by Nelson Leong to do some research on LCM. Rev John Nelson’s name popped up.

I was given an email and telephone number, but neither led me to him.  “I have to find him,” I said to myself.  I googled and found his name on the website of Bedok Lutheran Church (Singapore).  So, I emailed the church.

That was on Saturday 18.3.2023. To my surprise, I got an email in reply on Monday. They gave me Rev John’s email. On Tuesday, I got an email from Rev John. It read:

“… We are planning a trip to Malaysia and Singapore, leaving this Thursday March 23.

We will be in Malaysia, Thursday March 30 till April 5. We can meet with you sometime during those days.

And that’s how our paths crossed. I first met them in Petaling Jaya on the 31.3.2023. 

When I saw them, it was like meeting old friends. I felt like I’d known them all my life.  I just walked over and hugged both of them warmly. We are bound by an eternal love forged by our Father in Heaven and our common faith in Jesus Christ.

They are both 93 years old (young), mobile and active. Rev John walks without any assistance. Betty Lou uses a walker.  Both of them exhibit the exuberance of youth. The joy of the Lord is evident on their countenances.

Our BLC video team of Nelson Leong, Chin Hor, and Sia came. They did a marvellous job conducting and recording an interview with the couple. I merely sat on the side lines and watched (and brought curry puffs for refreshments).

But I had to see them again as I had a few more questions.  Rev John graciously agreed to see me a week later, on 6.4.2023.

“Is your surname Lam – blue?” Rev John asked me.

“No”, I replied. Its “two trees (林)”.

“My name starts with blue,” he said, and proceeded to write his name in Cantonese for me 蓝以信 Lam Ee Seon. He explained that he was given this name because it sounds phonetically like his name “Nelson.”

He then regaled me for the next hour with insights, anecdotes, and life experiences. He told me a joke about Jesus and Moses playing golf!

He recalled that during the Emergency, he and his team went to conduct Sunday School classes in the New Village in Broga. The gates would be closed. The children would hang out at the gate and upon the team’s arrival they would shout “Yesu – lei! Yesu-lei!” (Jesus comes! Jesus comes!)

He shared his passion for the Word of God and that he introduced the Bethel Bible Series to Malaysian churches.  The Bethel Bible Series was taught to Christians of all denominations, be they Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.

His outlook was ecumenical.  He worked well with other Christian groups. The early missionaries didn’t focus on differences but on what they had in common.  And they could agree on so many things. They prayed regularly together, and they were friends. There was no competition, all worked for the Kingdom.

About life, he repeated his favourite phrase “Where there is death, there is hope.” When we journey with God, what we perceive as failures may be seedbeds of hope.

He breathed a soft sigh of resignation as he began recalling the failure of negotiations with the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church for the formation of a united Lutheran Church in Malaysia in 1963. But out of that “failure,” sprung forth two vibrant churches today. 

The phrase “where there is death, there is hope,” carries an uncomfortable truth: only after the old guard has moved on, the young can arise and make the necessary changes.

He recalled with great warmth and happiness a convention in Malaysia of the Malaysian church and the Singaporean church. Bishop Terry Kee of Singapore was invited to speak. In his speech, he apologized for frictions which had arisen between the Singaporean and Malaysian Lutherans while they were under one constitution.

The then Bishop of Malaysia, Philip Lok, just got up and hugged Bishop Kee. The reconciliation of the two national Lutheran churches was symbolized in that hug. Yes, it’s only in death (of the past) that there is hope (for the future) [my paraphrase].

“How do you explain a good God and suffering?” I asked him. This question has been brewing in my heart, in particular after the recent death of a child to God-loving parents. I choked and could hardly contain my tears.

He looked kindly at me and said “Sometimes you can’t explain that. You can’t make sense of it. We don’t understand, all we can say is – God is with us, Emmanuel.”

I told him how we all prayed for healing and even for her resurrection. Though we know it’s medically impossible, we want to believe. And that’s when it’s so hard.

He said “there will be resurrection and we can look forward to that, of seeing those who have passed on. That’s the joy that we have. That’s what Easter is all about. Jesus came back to life and, we shall too, because we are baptised into His death.”  

His answer was strangely comforting though he didn’t have any real answer to the question of suffering.  He doesn’t know either.  But we do have the promise of resurrection.

That may be a textbook answer from a missionary, yet deep down we know this is a profound mystery of cosmic proportions.  We look at Christ this Easter cycle, we see His death but more than that, we see Hope.  Hope in the Resurrection, in our own resurrection when we die.  In death there is hope. May this be a blessed Easter season for everyone.

1 thought on ““Yesu Lei!” A story of 2 early Lutheran missionaries in Malaya”

  1. There are many whys in our suffering. I’m just glad that’s the journey not the ending. All Glory to God!

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