Yes, you read that right. Yes, for the very first time too. More context and insight is necessary of course. Carry on reading if you are interested ...
If you're wondering how did it happen, it's not much of a story really. We've been having a little course called the "Young Pastors' Academy" (YPA) at my church and we got an opportunity to visit the International Islamic University of Malaysia via a contact of the person in charge of the YPA program. What I learnt from the trip though, is something worth telling.
The biggest thing the trip did was break misconceptions. The first thing that I was proven wrong on was the nature of the institution itself. I had in mind that this would be a seminary or Bible college equivalent, but it is a full fledge university with programs in Engineering, Medicine, Computer Science as well as Theology/Divinity. The facilities were fairly up to date and well maintained, and there were a host of nationalities represented amongst the student ranks. I didn't just meet and see Malay Malaysians, but people from China, Yemen, Syria, Iran etc.
I will be honest, when I came to the university I thought I would find a place riddled with conservatives (and even fundamentalists) but instead I discovered the students and lecturers here were not only progressive in their thinking, but warm and friendly people as well. (I regret my ignorance!) Everywhere I walked I wasn't met with suspicious looks but greeted with friendly nods and smiles. I saw flyers on Interfaith Dialogues pinned to walls, a lawn occupied by students running a International/Intercultural event and a cafe playing RnB music.
Things became even more enlightening when I got the opportunity to attend one of the classes by the hosting lecturer. Both the YPA contingent and the students took turns introducing ourselves. When it came to my turn, I boldly declared "My name is Jon, from SIBKL - and we come in peace." This was on a dare by my colleagues who were lacking courage - and of course a joke. My little wisecrack was met with a fitting reply by our host: "And you will not leave in pieces." The ensuing chuckles all across the room set the tone for a friendly get-to-know-you-session.
We asked questions of each other. Questions ranging from religion to politics. We clarified that when Christians prayed "Let Your kingdom come" we do not mean a literal takeover by Jesus or Christians over the physical government - why one would without any biblical knowledge would think that is understandable. We explained what pastors do, they told us how Mosques operate in Malaysia. We asked them what their political stance was, they said they were against corruption and oppression. We enquired about their hopes; they told us they wanted equality for all - the freedom to express one's religion no matter what that is.
While it has been portrayed that there are many things that separate us, what I saw and felt was a great desire to build bridges and tear down walls.
We have more in common that we are led to believe. We didn't compare our differences, we looked for our similarities. We hold to different faiths, but we have the same belief - we are not just Chinese, Indian, Malay, Muslim, Christian, Hindu - we are Malaysians. On that, we should stand united.
Our visit concluded with a meal with our host lecturer as well as an academic dean (who was a former politician with the current ruling party). Our conversations reinforced what I have come to know is true - change is not just possible, it is already here. We talked openly about what has been going wrong in our nation and agreed for the future of our children certain things need to be done ... and mindsets have to be changed.
At this time of writing, the 14th General Election of Malaysia is a mere 17 days away. Sentiments and emotions are high, and many are desperate for a change. There is almost a certain sense of "it is now or never for Malaysia". Leading up to my visit here, I found myself caught in this wave of thinking too. Yet, God does indeed work in mysterious ways. It was in the place of a different faith that the Holy Spirit spoke gently to me: "regardless of what happens on Election Day, there is hope."
I stand in the hall of a Mosque that has a capacity of 9000, and I wonder what is the capacity of our hearts? Can we reach out, understand each other and establish relationship? It is easy to judge something and someone we do not fully know, but assumptions and misconceptions can only be dispelled through an understanding formed through relationship.
Is not just about what happens on Election Day, but rather what happens after. The future, contrary to popular belief, is not only in the hands of the government - but ours. What will we do with people are who are different than us but living in the same country? What will we speak of them? To our children, to our congregation, to our students, to our communities? Let us continue building bridges and tear down walls - for a better Malaysia.