By James Gough
They wore crown headdresses (‘pelilit kepala’) and costumes made of palm fronds. Mellifluous melodies of Christmas Carols were coming from their mouths and yet, “is that Bahasa Malaysia I am hearing?” Such was my initial confusion when I first saw the Orang Asli christian community from Gopeng perform during the state government’s annual Christmas celebration a few years ago. And thus began my fascination with this indigenous group.
“Developing Leaders for local Ministries is the challenge for the Future” – Rev. Eduan
Christmas 2010 saw me at a Christmas service at Gopeng’s Shalom Church. It was a Sunday Service on December 26 and the afternoon service was a lively affair with the congregation of Orang Asli singing carols and reciting testimonies.
For Christmas 2011, determined to meet the Orang Asli parishioners from Gopeng, I contacted the Pastor of Shalom Church, Rev. Jack Mongudai, a Sabahan, and had the pleasure of caroling with Shalom Church parishioners over two nights at Kg Pos Raya, Gopeng and Kg Ulu Jelintoh.
Ethereal Scene for Christmas Carols
The Orang Asli community at Gopeng live at 4 main villages of Kg Ulu Groh, Kg Ulu Kampar, Kg Ulu Geruntum and Kg Ulu Jelintuh. The total population at these 4 villages is over 5,000 of which 1,000 are Christians.
An evocative scene of flickering candles at Kg Pos Raya, where a parishioner had recently shifted into a low-cost house, was ethereal as the carollers sang and read by candlelight since electricity had yet to be connected. Kg Ulu Jelintoh was a kampong setting and the magic of Christmas was emanating from the Christmas carols at their homes, culminating with the entire group of carollers congregating at the Ulu Jelintoh Chapel with the rest of its Christian community for prayer followed by a fellowship pot luck meal prepared by the families there.
I had felt that my assignment would not be complete if I didn’t witness a Christmas service right in the heart of Gopeng’s Christian Orang Asli territory, Kg Ulu Groh where 95% of its community is Christian.
Hence, on Christmas morning I drove up to the chapel at Ulu Groh a good 15km from Gopeng town. There were over 120 parishioners in the congregation that morning, all smartly dressed, children included.
This morning was also the first time I met Reverend Eduan, a born and raised member of the Ulu Groh community, who led the chapel service that morning.
The praise and worship service as always was lively and inspiring but this time I witnessed dancing girls with tambourines in hand dancing to Christmas carols which added another dimension to the meaning of joy associated with Christmas.
The Gopeng Shalom Church is an Anglican denomination church which was part of St Peter’s parish, Fair Park, Ipoh. The Shalom Church was opened in 1999. Fifteen years later in 2011, it was classified as a Missionary District Church and has over 2,000 parishioners. Its ministry services 17 locations bordering from Gopeng to Kg Air Denak; Tronoh to Kg Choh; Tg Rambutan, Ulu Kinta and Gua Musang (Kelantan), and its services are conducted in Bahasa Malaysia.
According to Dr Teoh Soong Kee, St Peter’s Church advisor in charge of the Bahasa Malaysia Ministry, the villages of Kg Ulu Groh, Kg Ulu Geruntoh and Kg Ulu Kampar in Gopeng are the main locations where their congregation is located, and the Orang Asli Christians have been in the area for over 50 years.
Teoh could not indicate when the Orang Asli were converted but it is documented in the book Kinta Valley by Khoo Salma Nasution and Abdur-Razzaq Lubis that the “Anglo Chinese Boys School on Lahat Road was the first English school as well as the first Christian Mission School in Kinta.”
The school was founded by Reverend W.E. Horley who also opened other Christian Mission Schools in Kampar, Telok Anson, Taiping and Sitiawan and also took charge of the schools in Tronoh, Tapah and Gopeng.
Home Grown Leaders
Over the last 50 years, explained Teoh, the Missionary District has produced two Orang Asli pastors, Lizune Bah Chong who was born in Kg Air Denak, Tronoh and Reverend Eduan Bah Chimpok, 42, a third generation Christian born in Kg Ulu Groh, Gopeng.
According to Eduan, his grandfather Bah Nuyop was the first Semai resident from Ulu Groh to be converted to Christianity in 1962. “At that time the missionaries were Methodist. When I was 7 years old I was sent to board at Anglo Chinese School, Kampar where I lived till I returned after Form three”.
Eduan recalls that there “were around 50 Orang Asli youths at the school then from throughout the state, Teluk Anson (Teluk Intan), Sungai Siput, Tapah and Sitiawan. Besides Sunday service we participated in other activities in the youth ministry.” At age eleven Eduan recalls being asked to become a pastor but he never gave it a second thought then.
Eduan only considered becoming a pastor in the late nineties after a serious illness. When he recovered he decided to become a pastor and enrolled at the Malaysian Baptist Seminary, Penang where he received a Bachelor in Theology. During his nine years with the seminary he continued to serve his parishioners around Gopeng.
Eduan is now based at St Peter’s Church, Ipoh and takes care of the Bahasa Malaysia speaking parishioners. “These parishioners are mostly from East Malaysia, are educated and comprised of army and police personnel and students. Our service is in Bahasa Malaysia, so we also attract Indonesians.”
Eduan describes his mission work with the urban and rural community as challenging because their needs are totally different.
The rural community is generally uneducated and the service is to teach and build a foundation while the urban community is educated and requires more than the “Sunday service which was all that was available when I started in 2009. Now we provide classes for children, discipleship and theology, all in Bahasa Malaysia and I am currently training leaders to help in these Ministries.”
With all these activities Eduan still has time for mission services which is currently at Sungai Siput and Chenderiang.
So my last Christmas was time well spent getting to meet another community living around the fringes of Ipoh, the smiling and friendly Orang Asli Christians of Gopeng. Gathering from the way Reverend Jack and Eduan are going about their mission services I dare say we can anticipate an increase in their community.