The following is a 5-part series written by Abel, during the journey back to Ba’Kelalan in July 2016.
Part 1: Journey to Ba’Kelalan
6th July 2016
Over the next week, together with some good friends, Jacintha and I will be retracing the steps of the Ba’Kelalan revival. As youth, both of us grew up listening to extraordinary tales of the revival set in the highlands of Sarawak in the 1980s, where God moved in miraculous signs among the Lun Bawang community, transforming their cultural norms, lifestyle, education and standard of living.
Today, the legacy of the spiritual revival lives on: where once the Lun Bawang people were dismissed to be so self-destructive that they would cause their own extinction (they were full-time alcoholics and headhunters – actual head-hunters, not ‘recruiters’), they are, today, some of the most successful, inspiring people around. As second/third-generation Christians in Malaysia, we are particularly interested in this revival as it is our story – a local story, told and lived by locals. It’s a story set in our own backyard, albeit a remote one that is 7-hours away from the nearest town in Sarawak, by four-wheel-drive.
The Ba’Kelalan revival was a consequential event in the history of the Malaysian church, yet despite being inheritors of this great blessing, many do not know much about what happened, or about its significance. As Christians and Malaysians, it is our heritage, both nationally and spiritually. But for Jacintha, this revival is something more. It’s a family story, one that I now get to participate in with both distance and intimacy; as outsider and as insider. Jacintha (and her family) is particularly connected to these tales: she’s the grand-daughter of Tagal Paren, one of the key revivalists and leaders during the time of this revival. There is one more reason why this trip to Ba’Kelalan is important: we are both making important transitions in life in the coming months that in many ways mark the culmination (and start) of an exciting, amazing road.
In the coming days, we will be making our way to Ba’Kelalan — a journey worth a story in itself — and I’ll be writing short reflections and observations here, for you to participate with us in our journey. For some of us, this is a story of significant spiritual importance. For others, this may be a historical mystery, a tale that is both incredible and curious. It will make us believers or skeptics, invested or doubtful. But it is a story worth telling and re-telling, because it is ours.
PART 2: Mount Murud, the Revival Beacon
8th July, 2016
“God had a purpose for the Lun Bawang people to experience and contain the revival. God used a particular man by the name of Pak Agung, who became the prophet of the revival. He received visions and special instructions from God. He gave them new goals… (one of them was) to build a church on the top of Mount Murud (the highest point of Sarawak)”
Our journey begins in an unlikely place – in Sungai Buloh, at the home of Philip Soh, a West Malaysian pastor who, in 1986, upon hearing the news of the revival, made his way to Ba’Kelalan to see it for himself. For the next 10 years, Philip lived among the Lun Bawang tribe, to be their translator and friend.
Prior to meeting him, we enter a corner-lot coffee shop where we are to find him, only to be greeted by twenty other middle-aged, preoccupied Chinese uncles having their breakfast. When we sit down at his table, he recommends, “Order the Char Kuay Teow with duck egg. It’s very good wan!” For a man about to recount some amazing things, he is incredibly down-to-earth, light-hearted and likeable.
We are in his living room, as he sits opposite us, his face lit up by the rays that escape the curtains. He laughs with a mixture of amusement, incredulity and pride as he recounts how God chose, some 30 years ago to visit — in a very tangible way — a humble, unperturbed and mostly uneducated tribe from the highlands.“To build a church on Mount Murud was crazy!”
The mountain, he says, was once unscalable, both because of the sheer challenge of finding a path through the extremely thick forage, and because of the people’s fear of the evil spirits that resided among the woods. This kept the Lun Bawang people from any attempt or desire to reach the top; but God was now telling them to do it, and now He was using the mountain as a beacon for revival. Over the next few years, different villagers would receive multiple visions and miracles from God to confirm His plan and message for the Lun Bawangs.
We listen to story after story, familiar and unfamiliar; some amusing and some bizarre – many of them told exactly as they were recounted to us by Jacintha’s grandfather three years ago, in a candle-lit room in Ba’Kelalan, on a night when the river was low and the dam couldn’t generate electricity. Three years ago, Apu Tagal told us these stories and they haven’t left us since. We are excited that within days, we will revisit them — and him.
But for now, we listen intently to Philip as he continues, “The purpose of the revival was given to us through the book of Isaiah:
“Comfort, comfort my people,”
says your God.
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.
Tell her that her sad days are gone
and her sins are pardoned.”
PART 3: The way up
12th July, 2016
There are two ways to get to Ba’Kelalan from the nearby town of Lawas: by plane or by four-wheel drive.
The former is what I would call a ‘hell flight’: you’d be in a small, aging, ‘analog’ (think mini spinning fans instead of air-conditioning vents), 12-16 seater plane with 2 columns of seats for about 45 minutes — your plane, thrown around in the wind because of its lightness and lowness. The only consolation is the bird’s eye view of Ba’Kelalan and her jungles, which is breath-taking.
The latter is a 6-7 hour journey by trunk road. It’s a bumpy ride because of the poor road conditions, but a worthwhile one, because it affords you the chance to pass other Lun Bawang villages and meet the locals, and even eat with them.
The road to Ba’Kelalan bears many stories. After the first Ba’Kelalan revival in the 1930s, there was a new way of thinking in the Lun Bawang psyche. The spiritual revival spilled over from the churches into the homes and schools. Parents started to raise their children well and spurred them forward in life. Education was now the great new hunt, and the boys and girls of Ba’Kelalan and her surrounding villages were expected to go to school, and come back educated — much like how hunters were expected to return with game. There was, however, a huge limitation to this new ‘hunt’: the nearest secondary schools were downstream — in the valley — and would take around 5 days to reach by foot.
And so, an entire generation of Lun Bawang youth traversed this 5-day long path from the highlands of Ba’Kelalan to the lowlands of Lawas, to attend school and to make their villages proud. Many experienced hardships, being poor and young. Amazingly, this generation would later go far: some became magistrates, some doctors, some lawyers, some teachers and pastors.
One of them went particularly far in life.
We listened today, to a story of how he used to search for lost coins in the drains of Limbang, to buy a bun to be shared with 5 other boys his age. This boy later became the first medical surgeon from the village and eventually the State Assemblyman for Ba’Kelalan. He was widely revered and well-loved for his kindness, joy and humility.
He was kind to the very end, and on this day, 12 years ago, he got unto a helicopter for the last time to search for possible sites to build electricity dams that would serve the people in the interiors of Sarawak.
Dr Judson Tagal was a shining light – a fruit of the revival.
PART 4: An unlikely movement in an unlikely place
15th July, 2016
For as long as current Lun Bawangs remember, the Lun Bawang people lived in violence, debauchery and destitution. They practised headhunting and were drunk 200 days out of the year; the children were left to themselves, parent-less. A correspondence between British officials at the time reveals that the colonists deemed the Lun Bawang so unsalvageable as a people — they wanted to leave them alone to die from diseases.
But God had different plans. For a period of 50 years, a great spiritual transformation took place – starting in the 1930s with a group of Australian missionaries who moved to the village and built libraries, schools, taught the people how to read and write, and pray. They told them about a personal God who loves them and has a plan for them.
This was transformation phase 1. Slowly, the community changed: prized chopped heads (the currency of the Lun Bawang warriors at the time) were destroyed, the drinking stopped, and so did their animistic practices.
But God did not stop there. In 1973, a revival broke out in the village of Bario, where school boys experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in their school. The reality of their sinfulness and need of God struck them hard, and with their repentance and desire to turn to God, a movement of prayer and changed lifestyles began to spread across Borneo.
Months later, 7 Kelabits from Bario walked across the mountain to bring this good news of God’s move to the village of Ba’Kelalan, and on 6 November, 1973, revival broke out in the church of the village. Hearts were convicted, relationships reconciled, evil practices broken and the people were given a new identity. This was transformation phase 2.
Then the people received a grand new goal – to build a church on the peak of Sarawak, Mount Murud. For 12 years, the villagers prayed about this, keeping close to the changes already evident: a new push for education, a love for people, a heart for prayer and faith in a God more powerful than their circumstances.
The prayers have continued since. Today was the 31st revival prayer gathering of Ba’Kelalan since the commencement of the church on Murud. Approximately 1400 were in attendance, from villages, states and countries, near and far.
PART 5: Epilogue
18th July, 2016
Our journey in Ba’Kelalan ends here. The past week has been an amazing time of connecting with friends and family, with God and with nature, with past and with present.
In Ba’Kelalan, the population is aging. Most of the young have left for Lawas and other parts of Malaysia, where there are more job opportunities. The older remain, steadfast to their land, way of life and homes.
Apu Tagal Paran is one of them. His grandfather was a headhunter who found God, and Apu Tagal, now at 83, has witnessed extraordinary things in his lifetime: missionaries with an appearance different from the Lun Bawang, the education of his people, multiple waves of revival, signs and wonders that occured along with the revival – both glory days and those that we have today.
Not everything remains as it was in the past. From the sampan in the paddy field, to the free roaming buffaloes, to Carly Rae Jepsen playing on the phones of the kids wearing Metallica t-shirts, Ba’Kelalan is today a turning chapter. Over the past week, we have found ourselves in the intersection between the young and the old, the urban and the rural, the faithful and the searching. What happens in the next 40 years? What will our generation’s legacy be?
I am praying about the nation that we are and will become. I believe the revival of repentance and reconciliation with each other and with God is not a story of the past, but one for today, for us.
– This trip has been more than a holiday — it was a project to document the legacy of the Ba’Kelalan revival. We are excited to share the result of this in the month of December, through a short video
– I hope the pictures and story (bite-sized as they are) have inspired some to consider visiting Ba’Kelalan. See for yourselves how beautiful the people and place are!