The Mission to the Iban people begins to reap a harvest for the Kingdom
At the beginning of the century the Methodist Church sent the Rev. James M. Hoover to Sarawak, Borneo, to begin work among the Chinese Christians from Foochow, China, who had begun to settle there in 1901. Under his brilliant and practical leadership the Methodist Church established churches and schools in every new settlement that was opened, with the result that now, nearly fifty years later, our Church is firmly established with 6,000 members among the Chinese in the great Rejang River Valley area of that land.
My first visit to this land was in 1930, when I was invited by Mr. Hoover to hold a Pastor’s School for his pastors. During that stay in Sibu, Sarawak, I had my first opportunity to visit the longhouse of an Iban (usually known as Dyak—the headhunter of Borneo) village. An old dirty Iban father presented his son to the writer and said “You white men have brought the Christian church and schools to the Chinese people in this country; can’t you do the same for us?”. Not until 1939 could that Macedonian Call be answered.
In 1939, the Division of Foreign Missions allotted support for a missionary family, and we secured from the Sarawak Government land for a Mission Station to minister to the Iban people. We chose Kapit, a village far up the Rejang River from Sibu, a village which served the Iban people from down-river as well as much further up-river, and there we built a substantial residence, an assistant’s residence, and a boys’ dormitory. The Rev. and Mrs. P. H. Schmucker were sent to open the work and in late 1940, the residences being completed, they moved in, together with Mr. and Mrs. Lucius Mamoera (Batak Christians whose forefathers only two generations ago were cannibals). They opened a school for boys, having spent the previous year in making contacts with friendly Penghulus (chieftains). About 15 boys came to the first school and all was going well when the Pacific War put an end to it. The Mamoeras remained at the station during the Japanese occupation and maintained the contact with the Iban people, and helped them to start a little shop of their own in the town where the Ibans might trade.
At the close of the Pacific War, Allied planes destroyed Kapit Town and our buildings were almost burned down with incendiary bombs and riddled with machine-gunning, and the furniture and school equipment looted. As the previous missionary family was unable to return to Kapit we had no one to send there at once, but in early 1948 another Batak couple was sent over from Sumatra to assist in the school that Mr. Mamoera had re-opened.
Finally, late in 1948, the Rev. and Mrs. Burr Baughman were free to go to Borneo because local banditry prevented them from carrying on their work among the Sakais in Malaya (the largest aboriginal group in our Malayan Hills, very primitive, and animists like the Ibans). Their first task was to visit and gain the confidence and friendship of the Iban chiefs and the people of their longhouses or villages, and to repair the Mission buildings and re-equip them. Crusade funds made this rehabilitation possible and in a few months the Mission program again was being pushed forward.
The Baughmans resolved to make the school co-eductional and, by persuading some of the Penghulus to send their own daughters, effected this plan. In the amazingly short time of eight months, Mr. Baughman was speaking easily in Iban, a language related to the Malay language in which he was alreadt fluent, and with a portable projector set he was showing slides and film-strips in the longhouses.
On two occasions I had invited some of the chiefs to visit me in Singapore and three of them had a memorable visit in my home in October 1949 when Mr. Malcolm MacDonald, the Commisioner-General, also shared in their entertainment. It seemed by this time that these men were ready to declare themselves Christians and that we ought not hold back any longer in inviting them to be baptized. Thus on the day before Christmas, when four of the Penghulus, their families, and others were at the Mission Station in Kapit to celebrate Christmas with the school children, Mr. Baughman put the problem frankly before them. It was obvious that they had been thinking about it seriously for some time, realizing that the new way of life offered by the missionary and his assistants was something they must either sooner or later accept or refuse.
Finally, after asking many questions about what becoming a Christian would mean to their mores, their manner of dress and their superstitions, these four Penghulus decided that they and their families would become Christians. Others followed their example, and on Christmas Day, in a solemn Act of Worship, twenty-nine of these former headhunters were baptized, the first Ibans to become Methodist Christians in Borneo.
The missionary in deciding on this step was faced with many questions, for obviously these people still knew very little of what it meant to be a Christian. But he reasoned that the missionaries of the early Christian Church as they went into Gaul and Germany and the British Isles, found just as superstitious people and that one must make a beginning somewhere and sometime, giving them opportunity to grow in the Christian life as time went on. This assumption on his part has been well justified.
Since 1930 the annual Pastors’ School has been held in Sibu, Sarawak, and this year it was decided to take the Chinese pastors and faculty to Kapit for the school period of a week so that they might see our Mission to the Iban people and meet some of them. Thus on Sunday, August 13, we were in our new Kapit church, just built with the help of Crusade funds, plus great personal sacrifice on the part of the local Chinese Christians, and it was my privilege to dedicate it that morning as the Kapit Methodist Church (James M. Hoover Memorial).
The Malaysia Message
Vol. 54 No. 10