Mill Hill Missionaries in Sarawak, Malaysia (7)

Mill Hill Missionaries in Sarawak, Malaysia (7)

A photographic exploration: Sarikei

The pastoral responsibilities in Sarikei, a large and well established parish in the diocese of Sibu, are shared by Frs James Ting and Vincent Oates mhm. Fr Vincent Oates mhm returned to Malaysia after many fruitful years of missionary service in Pakistan, Britain and India. Together they also minister to a considerable number of longhouses in the outlying district.

Fr Vincent Oates mhm

In Sarawak, Malaysia, the longhouse tradition has a centuries old pedigree. All along Sarawak's many rivers you find them, groups of related people living in tightly knit longhouse communities built as one unit with a large common veranda – a 'rumah' in local parlance. One such longhouse may count 60 or more 'doors' – individual families. Traditionally built of hardwood they are now often constructed with modern materials and accessible by road. Longhouses afford their inhabitants a unique experience of communal living. For most native Sarawakian that is where your roots are. Urban parishes deplete during the Christmas season and also for Gawai, the traditional local feast around June 1st. City dwellers return to their roots for these occasions.

Visiting such longhouse communities to celebrate the Eucharist, as I have done on a recent visit to Sarawak, is a unique experience of what the early Christians called a ' domestic (house) church'. To a first time visitor like myself the welcome extended to a guest of honour – as was my fortune – is quite overwhelming.

Of course, modernity has brought its own challenges and opportunities.

How will the present globalising and modernising tsunami affect the Christian communities? Now that many young people are leaving their longhouse communities and establishing themselves in the burgeoning cities for purposes of education and work, how will this affect their sense of belonging? I put this question to Fr James Ting, the parish priest of this flourishing Catholic community in Sarikei, Sarawak.

Fr James spent five years in a parish in Sidney, Australia. I asked him about his experience of Church in a secularised environment. He confirmed the high degree of individualism in Australian society and concomitant estrangement from the Church. Did he think secularisation would come to Sarawak? "It will!" was his unequivocal answer. "But I think the communal culture of the longhouses will be a powerful buffer against the individualising influence of secularisation. That aspect of the traditional culture here is a real asset". Even in the towns? "Our cell groups (Small Christian Communities) are an urban continuation of the longhouse tradition. They help keep the community spirit alive and hopefully present a barrier against the individualising tendencies of modern culture".

But for this to be effective the urban communities will need to make a concerted effort to nourish and deepen the faith of their members. Cell groups affirm and strengthen the sense of belonging through prayer (most commonly the Rosary) and sharing meals together. "Their faith often is not firmly rooted, it remains superficial, based on social belonging", Fr Varghese SJ, a psychologist working in Kuching tells me. This is particularly evident when people migrate to Muslim dominated West Malaysia. Many, particularly from the East Malaysian state of Sabah, when left to their own devises easily fall prey to proselitising Islam.

So the question remains: How to forge this precious asset of a strong communal sense into a viable answer to the enticing influences of both Islam and secularisation? The Malaysian Church is facing a tough challenge.

Fons Eppink mhm

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