Witnessing Under Suspicion - Diakonia and Religious Segregation in Malaysia

Children at the Good Hope congregation in Petaling Jaya. Photo: LWF/ C. Kästner
Children at the Good Hope congregation in Petaling Jaya. Photo: LWF/ C. Kästner

“I learn to take care of myself. I learn to discipline myself” says 16-year old Lilli in impeccable English. She has one more year of school before she plans to study accounting. The girl who looks much younger lives at Rumah (house) Hope, an orphanage run by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Malaysia (ELCM) Good Hope congregation in Petaling Jaya, close to the capital Kuala Lumpur.

Weak Family Ties

Lilli, however, is no orphan – like the majority of the 35 children living there. She was brought by a pastor and sent by her parents, so she would grow up in a stable environment and get an education. However, the home started out as a place for neglected children.

“Family units are not strong anymore. We have become a society where there is not enough time for the children”, Jacob Matthew, chairman of Rumah Hope explains. “Normally both parents work. In many cases, the fathers are absent from the family. There is drug and alcohol abuse, and single mothers working multiple jobs. The children end up on the streets.” It is hard to say which of the many reasons Matthew gives is to blame for the situation. But in the end there are children who need to be taken care of, and several homes like Rumah Hope.

In its treatment for the most vulnerable a society reveals itself. In Malaysia like in many countries, faith communities see it as part of their vocation to care for the poor, children, single mothers, people with disabilities and HIV. The children of Rumah Hope pray before meals, attend church on Sunday and have their daily devotion time. “Our hope is that they will do well in life, come back and support our mission work” chairman Matthew says.

What is striking though is a strict segregation between the different faith-based welfare systems. "The government's written policy doesn't segregate under the pretext of belief, but in practice it is so", one of the pastors says. In other words: If a child is taken in by a state orphanage, pastors say, it is unlikely that he or she will learn a faith other than Islam. Therefore Christians, Hindus and many others have set up parallel institutions – and operate under constant suspicion.

As proselytizing –converting Muslims – is a major crime in the country, children’s homes are watched by state officials who check that the congregations are not hiding Muslim children. Muslim children have to be sent away, however difficult their situation. Pastors and bishops tell stories about unannounced police visits and interviews with the “special branch”, the secret police.

Hand in Songs Before Caroling

The causes may seem trivial: One minister tells that he planned to do Christmas caroling in the neighborhood. He had to get clearance from several police stations and hand in the songs beforehand. Pastors who wish to remain anonymous say their phone calls are being recorded. Soup kitchens are being checked. It is also due to these working conditions that the two member churches on the Malaysian peninsula, the Lutheran Church of Malaysia (LCM) and ELCM, claim a shortage of pastors. Rumah Hope receives some state money for the food, but nothing for infrastructure, as chairman Matthew explains. It mostly runs on donations, not enough to employ professional caregivers.

The situation is even more difficult in Rumah Chrestus, another Christian home a few kilometers away. It is small compared to Rumah Hope, but radiates the warmth of a little house blessed with many children. Five boys and five girls aged six to sixteen share two bedrooms, a living room and a little study full of books and a small overloaded children´s desk. The only personnel here are Rev Eliezer Peter, the minister of the Chrestus congregation, and his mother. Volunteers come in a few hours a day.

Good Interfaith Relations

This evening, they receive a dinner donation. A Hindu family brings bags with fried chicken, coleslaw and soft drinks. It is a Hindu custom to honor a dead child. “We have good neighborhood relations” pastor Eliezer explains. “But now the young people are kept separate”. The fault line runs between a state which equals Malay with Muslim, and citizens with other religious backgrounds who, apart from the indigenous Orang Asli, trace their roots back to immigrants.

Therefore, the diakonia work done by Christian churches is also a well-intended fight for souls. This becomes most obvious in Port Klang, the infamous neighborhood of the “crab people”, migrants who work low-paid jobs in the fishing industry. The district is known for prostitution, violence and “baby-dumping” – desperate mothers leaving their newborn in streets or in the garbage.

Headlines of this atrocity decorate one of the walls in the ELCM Holy Cross congregation. Sister Elizabeth Gopal has collected newspaper clippings of dead babies found in the area. She counsels women with unwanted pregnancies. “There is no health education in school. Many of them are also divorced” she explains. “If there is no family support, we care for them until the baby is born”.

Saving Souls

Although Malaysia is a modern country, single mothers face discrimination additional to the challenge of earning a living and caring for a child. New partners often do not accept older children, sister Elizabeth says, and the women, forced to choose between what is considered a socially accepted life as a married woman and their child have been known to decide in favor of the new partner. The children are sent to their grandparents – or to places like Rumah Hope.

The religious divide in the country provides additional opportunities for fathers to neglect their duties, as Dr. Hermen Shastri, General Secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, explains. In Islamic law, a man can divorce his wife without going through a court process. By converting, men are free to take a new wife. “We see a process of Islamization in schools and universities” Shastri says. “It is affecting non-Muslims as well, especially when it comes to interfaith marriages and women’s rights”.

Sister Elizabeth cares for those who are left. “If a single mother wants to take care of the child, we try to convince them to give him or her up for adoption” she says. “It is better for a child to grow up in a complete family with enough food, protection, education and a future, and the young women can find a job or get an education”. Her initiative also makes sure the children grow up as Christians. If a baby is found by the police, the child is referred to state orphanages. If a baby is born under Sister Elizabeth´s care, the mothers can make an arrangement with a Christian family. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of Lutheran World Federation policy.