Tony Nichols rejoices over what mighty things God can grow in half a century, even from small and threatened beginnings. Bishop Tony Nichols ministers at St Lawrence’s Dalkeith, WA
From 7- 9 July, 12 former CMS missionaries returned to St Patrick’s Tawau, at the invitation of Bishop John Yeo, the present Rector, to join over 3,000 current parishioners in the spectacular Centenary celebrations.
The remote small trading post surrounded by dense jungle on the border between British North Borneo and Indonesia that I had known, is now a major city of Sabah with a population of over 600,000. But the church and school ministry which was restored in the 1950s by the vision and energy of CMS missionaries, especially Canon Walter Newmarch and Principal Jim Power, has matched the growth of Tawau itself. Praise God for the faithfulness of their Sabahan successors, many of whom were converted at St Patrick’s School.
It is difficult to describe the emotion of sitting down with 1500 ex-students, many of whom had flown in from other countries. Nowhere else in Malaysia would one witness Christian and Muslims (in full Islamic garb) embracing each other and recalling old times together. However, I confess, after 55 years, it was a challenge to recognise many who eagerly came up to reintroduce themselves!
The Saturday night Confirmation and the Sunday night Thanksgiving services were marathons, with choirs, indigenous dances, high tech special effects, sermons translated into three languages—all wonderfully encouraging. The St Patrick’s ‘House of Prayer for All Nations’ seats 2,500, but there was an overflow of at least 500 on the Sunday night. I was invited to join in the confirmation of the 325 candidates, along with the seven Asian bishops present. Bishop Melter Tais, the first Kadazan Bishop of Sabah, preached a fine biblical sermon. The 40 I confirmed were all Malay speakers. I was also asked to preach on Sunday morning in Bahasa to about 200 Christians at Merotai, one of St Patrick’s 12 church plants. Five of these plants are across the border in Indonesia, pastored by men whom Judith and I taught in our retirement in Bandung.
The CMS contribution was honoured and I was asked to convey that to the CMS Board. It was great that Jim and Betty Power were able to be present, escorted by Dr Barnabas Khoo, a former student. Such was Jim’s impact as an educationalist that a street is named after him—Jalan James Power. His esteemed Indian successor, K.M. George also flew in from Kerala. K.M. was a CMS bursar at Moore College in 1948!
Other former CMS missionaries present were Michael and Christine Corbett-Jones, Ray and June Pearce, Sylvia Jeanes, and Ken and Janet Goodlet. Also present were David Newmarch, his two brothers and Mrs Judith Savage, daughter of the Rev’d Ken Perry. Presentations were made to them in honour of their parents’ ministry in Tawau—a lovely touch.
When I returned to Sydney at the end of 1963 to prepare for ordination, the future of the region was very uncertain. The march of Communism in Indo-China and Malaya seemed relentless. There was much social unrest, Communist groups in most schools, growing Islamic pressure, serious attacks by pirate bands from the Southern Philippines (I recall 14 pirates being hanged down the road), and Indonesian guerrilla groups and gunboats. President Soekarno threatened to crush the new federation of Malaysia. One wondered whether the church was just a colonial remnant that would not survive.
Furthermore, Sabah Christians experienced a baptism of fire in the 1970s when Chief Minister Tun Mustapha expelled foreign missionaries, penalized Christians, rewarded converts to Islam with land grants, and allowed a million Muslims to immigrate from the Southern Philippines.
But the church was purified and grew. And in the Anniversary celebrations we were privileged to witness the fruit of God’s word and of prayer, not only in the huge numbers, but also in the vitality and faith of our Sabah brethren. Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed was very much in our minds together with the exhortation of the prophet Zechariah: ‘Do not despise the Day of Small Things’.