Voices from the Communion: Bishop Thomas Low reflects on the role of the church in a multi-religious society
(LWI) - Neither of Thomas Low Kok Chan’s parents were Christian but, as a young boy, he grew up next door to a Lutheran church in Kuala Lumpur. It was there that he learned about the faith and later, as a teenager, first felt the call to train for ordained ministry.
Half a century on, in December 2021, Bishop Thomas was installed as leader of the Lutheran Church in Malaysia, the youngest of country’s four Lutheran churches, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.
In this Voices from the Communion, he reflects on the changing face of the church and its role in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious society. Looking ahead to the LWF Assembly in Krakow, he shares his hopes of bringing that distinctive Asian perspective to the global gathering in September.
You come from a non-Christian family – how did you first discover the Lutheran church in Malaysia?
That’s right, I am a first generation Christian. Both my parents were traditional Chinese but when I was six, we moved to a new residential area where the church had planted a mission point right beside our house. We were a big family - I had eight siblings - and like many parents, my mother and father sent me to church to learn English and to learn some good behavior. That was my first encounter with the Lutheran faith at Sunday School in Kuala Lumpur in the early 1970s.
What influenced your decision to train for ministry as a pastor?
For both my generation and my culture, the decision to be ordained was not a career choice, but rather it was the response to a lifetime calling by God. I was 15 when I felt that call and realized that I wanted to respond by bringing the Gospel to people and studying the Word of God. The only problem was that the seminary did not accept students under the age of 21, so after finishing my school exams I registered to study business administration until I was old enough to start training for ministry.
You contracted polio as a young child – how did that affect you and your decision to become a pastor?
In the 1960s there was a polio epidemic and the vaccination was not mandatory. My parents were illiterate and did not know anything about it. I grew up with this disability in one leg, but I feel fortunate in the sense that I never experienced any bullying or discrimination. In our culture, people are very compassionate and respectful, both towards their elders but also towards the disadvantaged. Using crutches never bothered me, but my physical disability gave me an incentive to focus on developing my mind.
You trained at Trinity Theological College in Singapore which has a broad ecumenical program - how would you describe relations with the other churches in Malaysia?
In Malaysia, denominational identity is not very distinct, except between the Catholics and the Protestant churches. The seminary was started by an Anglican, a Methodist and a Presbyterian pastor who were in jail together during the Second World War. In general, all our theological training is ecumenical and the main distinction would be between more traditional and more charismatic ways of worshipping. In Malaysia, the churches work very well together as we are basically all on the same page, with the same challenges as minorities living in a majority Muslim country.
What do you see as the key role of the churches in this interfaith context?
The most important role of the church is to foster a sense of harmony among the different religious and ethnic groups. The majority of people are ethnic Malays but there is a substantial Chinese population, about 22 percent, and around 6 percent are Indians. Mostly, until the 1980s, people lived in harmony, until the politicians got involved and used religion as a tool to divide and conquer, especially at election time.
During COVID-19 we built a lot of bridges between the ethnic and religious communities responding to the so-called white flag movement. During lockdown, many people were very isolated, with no work and no money or food, so they started hanging white flags or blankets outside the door to show that they needed help to survive. We have a lot of immigrant workers who were especially hard hit as they live in cramped conditions and police barricaded them into their buildings, so together, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, we started food banks and began distributing to those most in need.
Tell us more about the Lutheran Church in Malaysia?
We have four Lutheran churches in Malaysia, two in the West and two in the East. Ours is the youngest and is celebrating its 70th anniversary, recalling its founding by missionaries from America in the early 1950s. At that time, before independence, the British government was concerned about the threat of a communist insurgency, so they isolated the Chinese community by putting people into so-called 'new villages’ with a curfew to cut off all contacts with the communist party.
Missionaries came to these new villages to plant churches so today we are still about 97 percent Chinese. We started with worship in Cantonese and Hakka dialects, whereas the second generation learnt to speak English and Malay, so we moved towards bilingual services, with most of them using English and Mandarin.
You were elected as bishop in 2021 - what are your priorities for the church?
I would say my priorities are twofold. Our church has matured and we have a lot of educated people in our congregations. The earliest groups of pastors were trained by the missionaries on the job, they did not have seminary educations, but now we need leaders who are well educated and equipped to respond to the complex pastoral needs of the congregations. We also need theologians who can teach in the seminaries and develop our Lutheran theology, so I am giving a lot of emphasis to training our pastors.
My second priority is lay leadership, reactivating the ministry of deacons to serve alongside our pastors. Since COVID, online learning and training has become much easier, so I have started a one-year program and received a good response from the churches. I believe this is where we should be focusing and I hope to see at least one deacon in every church at the end of this first year.
What does it mean for you to be a part of the global communion of churches and how are you preparing for the Krakow Assembly?
We are a relatively young church but we are growing in our understanding of being part of the global communion. We have two members of our church seconded to work at the Communion Office (Rev. Dr Philip Lok and Rev. Dr Sivin Kit), while others are taking part in different programs and helping to develop this global perspective.
Krakow will be my first Assembly so it will be a great learning experience for me, a steep learning curve. I hope I may also be able to contribute something about what it means to be a Christian in our very diverse religious context in Asia, learning to respect differences and to work together in dialogue and harmony.