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Berdine van den Toren link letter no. 9 August 2017

Dear friends,

And this time, the greetings come from… Kuala Lumpur! Hello to you all! Thank you so much for your interest and support, especially following my last link letter. We have had a lot of feedback, showing that these letters are read indeed! We feel encouraged.

Four months in Malaysia!

It has been a long-standing wish for both Benno and I to spend a longer period of time in Asia. Benno, teaching intercultural theology, felt that it would be good for him to discover and learn more about Asia, especially since many of his students hail from different countries in Asia. I have also keenly felt the need for a better and deeper understanding of Asian culture, while teaching in Malaysia and Nepal for AsiaCMS.

How does one go about learning culture and finding a common understanding? By walking the streets, meeting the people, eating the food and living the daily life with an open eye, ear, heart and mind.

Walking the streets

Kuala Lumpur is truly a multi-religious and multi-cultural city. Within a distance of less than 500 metres of the AsiaCMS office, we have seen a Chinese temple, mosque, Tamil Methodist church, Hindu temple, Buddhist temple and a charismatic Evangelical Lutheran church with services in Tamil, English and Indonesian. The latter we discovered during a walk early on during our stay here. Since then, within the same neighbourhood, we have now also discovered a Krishna centre and another small Hindu temple, and we would not be surprised if there are still more places of worship on the smaller side streets, which we have not seen.

Top and above: The gods are carried through our streets in Kuala Lumpur for the Wesak Day procession.

And then, of course, there is also the big mall of KL Sentral, which in our eyes comes very close to a temple of mammon. One of the first shops one sees, on entering the mall, is a jewellery shop with the motto: “Believe in God. Invest in gold.” It makes one think of the apostle Paul in Athens. What would he say in KL?

In a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur – worshipping mammon?

Fusion on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. MacDonald’s goes halal.

Meeting the people

Sitting on a terrace next to the road, having a good cup of ice coffee, we see people walk by. People with many different shades of skin colour and many types of dress, from fully veiled to skinny jeans, from Indian Shalwar Kameez to very short shorts and skirts. Old people, young people and all in between.

Malaysia is not only a multi-religious society, it also is a multi-cultural society. Its population consists of the original people – the Orang Asli who mainly live in the rainforest, the Malay Malaysian people – a people group close to the Indonesian population and with a strong Muslim culture, the Chinese Malaysian people – who arrived in the 1800s to work in the mines and the Indian Malaysian people – who also came for work. And then there are the more current work immigrants, such as people from Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, etc.

People speak of Malaysia as a “melting pot” of cultures. Yet, walking through the city, it is clear that the different groups mainly live in their own neighbourhoods, according to cultural and ethnic backgrounds. There is a China town, an India town also known as Little India, and areas where mainly the Malay Malaysians live. Still, there seems to be an attitude of “live and let live”, of accepting the differences, and allowing space for each other, even though this is not without tension.

I have met several younger students who seem rather proud of the multi-cultural society. However, the older people especially voice worries about growing intolerance, and particularly growing suspicion towards the Christian population.

Eating the food

Just as the English like to talk about the weather, so Malaysian people like to talk about food. When meeting a person for the first time, there is a great chance that you will be asked which food you like best. And then people will start telling you about the specific dishes of that particular area, which you must have tasted. You have to try Cendol, Rodjak, Siew Pow, Nasi Lemak, Poppiah, Biriyani rice, Roti Pisang, and many other dishes…

Since Malaysia is such a multi-cultural society, there are also many different types of food. And people celebrate this diversity with joy and pride. We are happy to join in this celebration!

How does God speak into this society?

Up to now, we have visited several churches, all very different. Some of them are very media savvy, while others are more traditional in their worship. But what we have noticed is that all these churches seemed to have a good representation of every age group and had multiple services on a Sunday that catered for different language groups. Through the week, lots of different groups also met, all of them passionate about being salt and light within society, living just and faithful lives, welcoming the stranger, caring for people in need, and sharing the love of God. God speaks through his people, even though they are a small minority within society!

Apart from learning culture, what else keeps me busy?

During the month of May, I had the privilege of teaching at the Bible College of Malaysia. I was there to teach a module on Christian Education to a group of 23 students, mainly from the younger generation, with several of them being the first generation Christians within their family.

During the month of June we were at Asia Gateway, a training for mission leaders from Asia working in Asia. Benno and I were the trainers in residence, responsible for the group, for community life and learning, mentoring and care, while also teaching a module each. Benno taught on engaging other religions in Asia, and I taught on gospel, culture and integral mission.

On a fieldtrip with Asia Gateway

The participants of Asia Gateway came from Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, India, Thailand, The Philippines, South Korea, Malaysia, the UK and, of course, the Netherlands (us). As you can imagine, much was learned through the discussions and conversations, while we all tried to apply the learning to our own contexts. Each morning we would start with a time of worship and one of the participants sharing their testimony. Laughter and tears, joy and grief all formed part of this sharing but above all, we were awed by the faithfulness and goodness of God displayed in each other’s lives.

How to keep Malaysian seminary students attentive in class: allow them to use their gadgets during an exercise.

What next?

While Benno is in Bangalore, India, at the moment, teaching the same module again but this time at the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS), I am still in Kuala Lumpur, wrapping up some marking and doing some organisational work and writing. I hope to also have some time for my research and PhD. The first week of August I will travel to Australia, to visit CMS Australia, with a view to sharing resources on mission education. And then we hope to have a bit of holiday here in this beautiful country of Malaysia, before we return to the Netherlands towards the last week of August.

Food for thought

Stories of discrimination because of faith. Stories from a prison. Stories of injustice and violence. Asia Gateway participants told them from experience. Throughout the month of training, suffering and persecution became a recurring theme. And yet, at the same time, there was much laughter and joy, gratefulness and testimonies of God being present in it all, giving strength, healing, speaking of his love.

Rather than becoming inward looking and self-protective, the church, deeply convinced as she is of the love and power of God, seems to become more determined to live faithfully, as witness of the love of God, even to those who have hurt them. Am I allowed to compare this with the Church in Europe?




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