It has been a season of seminars for me (Eric) here in Malaysia. Several of the past few weekends I have been doing daylong seminars for the Protestant Church in Sabah (PCS) on Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, and then this past week I was in Kuala Lumpur for a seminar on Lutheran ethics that was attended by pastors from the two Lutheran church bodies in West Malaysia, the Lutheran Church in Singapore, and one of the Indonesian Lutheran churches. It has been quite the experience of the diversity of Malaysia!
The night before my first PCS conference, I found myself huddled under mosquito netting in a traditional longhouse made mostly from bamboo, surrounded by my laptop, my Kindle, and my cell phone. I actually had better reception there than in my apartment! This mix of worlds is typical of these experiences. The PCS congregations are mostly near the northern tip of Borneo, primarily among the Rungus people. The Rungus are a rural people who have kept many traditional ways of life, and yet I have also had conversations about Star Wars and Jackie Chan movies with some of the people. The church as a whole has some 30,000 members in over 300 congregations, but there are only about 50 pastors. Some of people still live in longhouses, and church is one of the few public places that they can still speak Rungus. Nearly 100 people came to the seminars I was leading to learn more about the Small Catechism. It is quite new to them, as it has only been in the past year that a translation has been made available to them.
Only a few days after leaving the longhouse, I found myself in the brand new ecumenical center of the Council of Churches of Malaysia. It is across the street from the massive University of Malaya hospital. It even has a Dominos Pizza a few doors down the street. The neighborhood could pass for any big university area in the U.S. Most of the participants at this seminar were from the huge, wealthy cities of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Everyone spoke a significant amount of English, and many had read quite of few of Luther’s writings over the years. The kinds of concerns raised were quite different from the ones I had heard at the previous seminars. The pastors from Singapore deal with land pressure and costs for church buildings that exceeds even what you would find in Manhattan. In West Malaysia, meanwhile, Christians are a small minority who must figure out how to engage a world that is at best indifferent to the church’s existence.
Southeast Asia is such a complex, varied region. From one roomed churches in the middle of rice padis to church campuses with multiple building in the middle of world class cities, I’ve founded myself addressing groups in places I could hardly have ever imagined. Yet simple divisions like urban/rural don’t quite work, either. Sure in the city there was a 24 hour KFC down the street while in the rural areas I had to hurry to the nearby restaurant before it ran out of food for the day, but at the same time the best wifi hot spot I found was in the longhouse. The world usually doesn’t divide into easy categories. Most of the time we are probably better off simply being amazed at how the wonders and contradictions and varieties find a way to hold together to fill this world with constant surprises and new adventures.