You can't get around the Home Cell Groups in the diocese of Miri, Sarawak, Malaysia. They are the life blood of the Catholic community. Functioning like Basic Christian Communities with a strongly charismatic flavour they have brought vitality and new inspiration to the parishes of the town of Bintulu in particular.
"My participation in the home cell group has enlivened and deepened my faith. From a passive consumer who would dutifully go to church most Sundays I have become an active participant in the community", Thomas Ankoh tells me.
"We come together as a group once a week to share and reflect on the Gospel reading of the following Sunday. The insights and reflections of other members of the group really inspire me and nourish my faith. Our families are involved too, and each group has its own ministry in the wider community".
The home cell groups in the town of Bintulu (pop. 250.000) are not inward looking, content with their own cosy religious well being. Far from it! Their focus is on the wider community. In accordance with the talents of the members each group takes on a particular ministry in the larger community. Initiation into the Catholic faith (RCIA), Sunday school for primary and secondary school students, preparation for confirmation, visiting the sick, assisting those in need, you name it, the home cell groups take care of it. This definitely is a 'bottom-up' church. Each Sunday a different cell group takes charge of organizing the Sunday liturgy including the singing. And lively celebrations they are. A recent visitor from Germany to St Anthony's parish in Bintulu was absolutely bowled over by the vibrancy he witnessed, a parishioner told me.
Hillary Mawan, one of the early pioneers and a solid 'pilar' of the home cell groups enlightened me on the origins if this amazing revitalisation of the Catholic community. "The original inspiration came from South Korea. In the 1980's a delegation of two priests, and four lay people, among them two catechists, went to visit South Korea. We were intrigued by the vibrancy of the Pentecostal movement in that country and wanted to know how it had spread so quickly and had managed to re-invigorate Christian communities across denominational divides".
They came back full of enthusiasm and started to apply what they had learned. The inspiration and encouragement of Bishop Anthony Lee (now retired) were of determining influence on the fledgling community renewal. From its humble beginnings 25 years ago the charismatic home cell group initiative has witnessed an explosive growth in Bintulu. Organised along linguistic lines there are now 60 or more Iban language cell groups, with a smaller number of Chinese, English, and Bahasa Malaysia language groups.
Thomas Seo, one of the core leaders, speaks with contagious enthusiasm of his experience of leadership in this exhilarating process of church renewal.
"The cell group leaders are of critical importance. They are chosen and appointed by the core group of leaders. The core group itself regularly meets with the parish priest".
What is particularly significant is the changing role of the priest through the empowerment of the laity. The ordained ministers are now less distracted by auxiliary tasks. They can focus on their sacramental ministry, spiritual and pastoral accompaniment, informing and deepening the faith, training leaders.
Thomas has himself produced a book called 'Imanuel' in Iban with daily gospel readings and comments which is being used through all the dioceses in the region.
Meeting of Home Cell Group
What is arguably the most significant activity of the home cell groups is their outward radiation. Mission is not a theoretical concept here but a lived reality. The living faith of the members of the cell groups does not go unnoticed. Regularly friends or workroom colleagues are invited to participate in cell group activities. Not infrequently this is the beginning of a faith journey leading someone to embrace Christianity.
Thomas relates the experience of one cell group who accompanied a 'Twai Rumah' (Head of a longhouse) on his sickbed at his request. When he died the other households in the longhouse, impressed by this faithful service, indicated their desire to become Christians. Last year there were 300 baptisms at Easter at St Anthony's, most of them adults.
Is this a story without shadows, too good to be true?
Of course, these cell groups are made up of human beings, with their flaws and failings, like the rest of us. But to a first time observer like myself what has been growing here is a truly remarkable work of the Spirit. The home cell groups build on the vigorous community spirit prevalent in the longhouse tradition of most if not all the people who live here. As a consequence the groups are organised along ethnic and linguistic lines – Iban, Chinese, English, Bahasa Malaysia. One could argue that in future further integration and cooperation between these groups is called for.
And, of course, as elsewhere, the handing on of this beautiful communal missionary spirit remains a challenge. Will the next generation of Sarawakians be touched by the same spirit of fellowship and participation and come to deep personal faith?
One thing is certain: if we listen to the the Spirit we will never be allowed to rest on our laurels and settle in our comfort zones!
Fons Eppink mhm