I recently had the great honor of spending some time with this gentleman in the video (linked above) as he welcomed me into his home following a day-long conference on the sacraments. He and his wife live in a small house on a dirt road in a small village about half an hour from Kudat, a small city near the northern tip of Borneo. He was among a group of eight people baptized on Christmas Eve, 1952. These eight people were the first among the Rungus people to be baptized, forming the basis of what eventually became the Protestant Church of Sabah (PCS), an indigenous church that is a member of the Lutheran World Federation. He eventually became a pastor in the PCS. The Rungus people live in the northernmost parts of the island of Borneo. Today nearly 90% of the Rungus people are Christian, with the PCS the largest church among them. It was truly incredible to hear his stories of converting to Christianity. The video is a bit of the conversation, where he is talking about working as a gardener for the early missionaries, which eventually led to him taking on a life of ministry.
This elder told us how the missionaries drove from village to village in their small Range Rover, often following mere trails. After converting to Christianity, they had to wait one year before being baptized. By the time he was baptized, many others had converted and were baptized soon after him. During our conversation, I asked him what changes becoming Christian brought to his life. I have to be honest that I expected to hear something about rules that he had to follow. That is part of the image that many of us have of missionaries; they came giving rules for following a Western Christian morality. But that is not how he answered. In fact, he said that his father had turned down earlier missionaries that came insisting on a variety of dietary rules. Instead, what he said was that Christianity brought freedom. Before, his life had been filled with rules that must be followed so as not to make the spirits angry. Some of the rules he shared were about not bringing paper into the kitchen or limes into the house or planting coconuts in the ground. All these things were said to make the spirits angry. Christianity, he said, freed him from having to constantly worry about following all the rules. Instead of living to avoid angering the spirits, he could live in the freedom of the Holy Spirit.
For many of us, the history of being Christian goes back a long way in our families. Even if recent family members have not been Christian, often we know that somewhere in the past our families were somehow involved in the church, and Christianity has influenced the cultures that have formed us. It was in many ways a shock to hear about the Christian message from the viewpoint of a new hearer, coming from a cultural tradition that at the time was just introduced to the freeing message of Jesus Christ.