One of my colleagues at Taylor’s conducted a toy drive at Christmas. The response was overwhelming; in fact so much material was collected that even after all the good stuff had been distributed to the refugee centers that we help support, the staff room has been stocked with the overflow. Last week I bundled up all the excess items and took them off to our church’s outlet in a nearby neighbourhood. It was an unexpectedly humbling experience.
USJ, or Utama Subang Jaya, is the district right beside our own. There are some nicer homes and a good restaurant quarter, but beyond that not much to offer. However, in behind the main street and out of view of the travelling public is a seedy and rundown part of town. The condos are essentially tenement slums, overwhelmingly Muslim, and desperately poor. Washing – if such tatty rags can be considered clothes at all – hung from hundreds of balconies. On the broken asphalt dozens of children – all covered in the stifling dress that is required for religious conformity – played with sticks and deflated balls among the refuse. We don’t often get into such places in our neighbourhood, and it was a stark reminder of the daily reality for many Malaysians. It is to such people that the current government appeals when it trots out its ‘Malays First’ policy that ensures the survival of its regime in the face of the forces of accountability and modernity.
In the heart of this urban jungle is a Christian mission; the only compassionate feature in the midst of acres of squalor. Of course it dare not call itself Christian; that would be an offense to the ideologues that rule this country, so it has to adopt the simple sobriquet ‘J** Station.’ Even within this broken community itself there is opposition to the good it does. M**, who runs the mission with the self-effacing humility that is characteristic of the Asian Christian community, warned me not to park too close to the shop front to offload the donations I had brought, otherwise my car would be hit with the bottles that are routinely thrown at the vehicles that park there by residents above.
This did not keep many hands from helping me to offload my donations once I had found a safe place to park. Nor did it keep the residents who visit the shop regularly from coming out to greet me with their shy smiles of gratitude. I was embarrassed by the meager goods I had to donate in the light of such a visible abundance of need. In addition to distributing goods to the families that live in the tenement – divorced and single-parent families pay nothing, others pay a nominal fee – the mission will also pay the rent for needy families that cannot afford to do so themselves. They also pay for medical and dental treatment for the children of such families, and seek to sponsor students at better schools if one of their children show academic promise. All of this good work is paid for by the tithes and offerings of our church, a church that was recently raided by the religious police for daring to sponsor a community lunch which sought to honour those in the community who were seeking to bring relief to the poor, regardless of religious affiliation.
The ironies and injustices of this country abound. But beyond all the persecution of the entrenched elite and the arrogance and sometimes outright hostility of those who condemn all who profess a faith in the Divine, the Christian church in this country caries out a campaign of compassion to all, regardless of race or religion. Normally I shrink from even oblique contempt for my faith. To witness the perseverance and dedication of the Christians in this country, who face daily persecution in the service of the poor and needy, is a salutary exercise in humility, and one that my Westernized and overly timid soul needs to expose itself to more frequently.