By Evangeline Dai, Ministry Coordinator
Earlier this year, I attended the AAPI-ELCA assembly and the 11th ALIC (Asian Lutheran International Conference) in Chiang Rai, Thailand. This article is part 3 of my notes and reflections (You may click here to read Part 1 and Part 2 from the past newsletters). ALIC is a network that emerged out of the AAPI-ELCA (Association of Asians and Pacific Islanders – Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Because of cultural and linguistic bonds, Asians in the ELCA looked for an opportunity to engage in theological reflection relevant to our cultural backgrounds and ministries across the globe.
On Friday, January 13, 2023, the second day of the 11th ALIC, we had a Bible study on Isaiah 40: 1-11 led by Bishop Touchkeov Sreyleak, who is the bishop of the Lutheran Church of Cambodia, a very small church with only four congregations, but many ministries going out beyond that, including in rural and urban areas. The urban Church in Jeong Pang has a student center attached to it, in the student dormitory outreach among young people. In the more rural areas, churches have been working with people living in poverty or helping develop various agricultural skills with them to help uplift the people in those communities.
While some context or cultural understandings often get lost in translations, Bishop Sreyleak also reminded us the power of the Word of God is beyond the limitation of one language. When we read the Bible in our own native language and culture, it will bring light to us in different ways.
After prayers and scripture reading in her native language, she reminded us by referencing Isaiah 2:1, 7:3, 13:1, etc. that the prophet is not just a name, it consists of histories, many burdens, and many blessings. The prophecy of redemption brought comfort and hope to people who were suffering.
We will find a New Testament Gospel in this text: the voice of one crying in the wilderness, which we can see in 40:3. This repairs the way of the Lord, thus God built by grace and mercy to bring salvation and deliverance, and when this is done, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed in verses 5. Let the people of God be not afraid, the enemy would not crush them.
In Isaiah 40:11, the text concludes with the Books of Revelation, in which we can find reference to the imagery of the Lord as a shepherd gathering the lambs in the bosom, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. It brings about the comfort, peace, and harmony in the new heaven and a new earth.
After the Bible study, Bishop Thomas Low Kok Chan from Lutheran Church in Malaysia gave a brief but very complicated history of the Lutheran church bodies in Malaysia. LCM, ELCM, FELCM…and somehow Singapore are part of it due to the history, these could be very confusing. He explained that the most significant difference between LCM and ELCM is ethnicity: LCM is 97% Chinese, and ELCM is 97% Indian. LCM has a relationship with ELCA, my seminary colleague is having an international internship in Malaysia. “The weather in Malaysia is hot and hotter, wet and wetter,” he concluded.
Then we learned from Rev. Dr. Paul Rajashekar, professor at United Lutheran Seminary, the resources for Asian Lutherans in various languages, and the future plans for the publication of Small Catechism and other Lutheran books in more Asian languages. It reminded us of the importance of translating words into more languages that more people can read and understand. I reminded myself that being able to read in languages where more resources are available is a privilege; being able to read, write, listen, and speak in two of the most used languages in the world is a privilege.
The keynote for this day was led by Rev. Dr. Sivin Kit, Director of the Department for Theology Mission and Justice at the Lutheran World Federation. He is a Chinese descent Malaysian living in Europe.
“So some of you know that Google is feeling threatened by something called chatGPT.” He showed us the results he got when he asked the AI about God’s presence in pain and suffering, and the Lutheran view of it. “So what do you think is missing? This is an artificial intelligence answer, it’s textbook, it is correct, it is orthodox in many ways, right? It sounds right but is this something missing? The heart of it? Is it ideas without bodies or the heart? Is it a word without flesh? Is it a disembodied answer?”
After we discussed and shared our reflections on pain and suffering in the pandemic and the church’s role, we explored God’s presence and movement to those in pain and suffering in the lights of Mark 5:24-34 through the story of the woman who touched the clothes of Jesus and was healed.
Jesus crossed Gentile territories, and moved out of the so-called boundaries to places considered unclean, to touch the untouchables, so that the healing grace of God can move into those spaces. This woman is one of the people who have heard about this Jesus with healing power and wanted to come to him, as she was getting through the crowds — no social distancing there — that’s for sure she was desperate, because then she was suffering, it’s about life and death, it has been for 12 years and things are worse for her; just like during the pandemic, we thought it was going to be one month, it’s going to be fine, but it took forever, it’s almost becoming worse as we went by. Here she is like the people who are desperate, between desperation and healing, between hopelessness and hope, these are people in pain and suffering moving towards Jesus, yearning for that touch. It’s more than just about her illness with blood, it’s about somewhere she’s seen as unclean in her society, cut off relationally from those around her, she is a nobody in the eyes of those in the crowd, and that’s why she had to fight to get to Jesus. She was socially distant; she shouldn’t contaminate people due to her blood issue. But this is a holy religious teacher, a miracle worker, would he look at her, or even listen to her? She was not even asking for close contact, she was not even asking for a real audience with Jesus. She says to herself, “if I can just touch his clothes I will be made well, that’s all, just touch his clothes, nothing more, just one touch, that’s enough.”
With hope and faith, she was made well. So where are the clothes of Jesus during the pandemic? Where can we see God at work in and through our actions and praxis? Especially for the Asian Lutheran communion, we lost many pastors of ours. But we also learned how many churches rooted in their context were rapid in their responses to a crisis. The experience with SARS in 2003 also made Asian churches quickly implement protective measures for people to enter the worship services.
In the afternoon, we had a panel on “Responding to Suffering and Trauma.”
With Dr. Lisa Choudhrie from India, we learned the stories behind Padhar Hospital, a ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Madhya Pradesh, both before and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nursing schools, community projects, and Intensive Care Units helped people to get jobs, proper treatments, and medical attention. During the pandemic, Lutheran Disaster Response helped Padhar Hospital to purchase an oxygen generator for its COVID-19 ward so it can treat more patients. Dr. Lisa’s presentation interwove the ministries of Padhar Hospital and ELCA with Scriptures that bring people hope, compassion, love, and healing.
Dr. Witoon Yngmethawu, a local professional in Thailand in the medical realm, shared the facts and influences from a perspective of science. He explained the structure and the nature of the virus, and brought the numbers and facts about the impacts COVID-19 virus has brought to the world.
Mr. Subhashis Roy is the Program Manager at Lutheran Disaster Response International, ELCA; he bases in India. He presented “Psycho-Social and Trauma in Humanitarian Crisis,” starting with shocking statistics on the global humanitarian need in 2022. “Do you have any idea how many disasters happened in 2022? That includes the disasters induced by climatic variations. He showed us a huge gap between the current funding and the current need which is existing in the community.” He also shared the growing concern about displacement in the world, “…and you can see that Asia is one of the priority areas for all the humanitarian planners; you can also see that globally 70% of the people affected by the disasters through climate change, 70% are from Asia.” He pointed out that depression and anxiety became increasingly trending; trauma & mental health is under-recognized and under-resourced. He said, “when there is a disaster, when there are people affected, approximately 22% of the total affected population having the symptoms of severe to minor symptoms of psychosocial issues, psychological issues that includes PTSD as well now, in this kind of situation, the trauma is another trauma.”