One little slip and it’s down the river – this is one of the later trips in the 1980s made by the the Light of Jesus Christ Covenant Community based in Kota Kinabalu. Photo courtesy: Anthony Lim

By Journey With us – Asia (Faith Travel Stories)

Nov 17 2020

PAITAN (Catholic Sabah) – With permission graced by then Archbishop of Kota Kinabalu, members of a covenant community in Kota Kinabalu traveled eastward of Sabah to Paitan in the early 1980s, through bumpy and muddy tracks, to bring the Gospel to the people of Paitan. They’ve met with many challenges including dark animism.

THEY had been travelling in a convoy for almost two days from Kota Kinabalu, going eastward across Sabah. The tarred roads had now turned to bumpy and muddy track through a logging area in the interiors. There was no other vehicle or people in sight, only huge sky-reaching trees. There were about 11 of them all crammed up in three 4WD vehicles, and they were on an exploration trip.

Then the vehicle stopped. In front of them was a river with its raging waters and two logs across for a bridge. Joseph Chee got out with the others and looked at what seemed to be an almost impossible situation. Further down on the other side of the river was their destination – a cluster of villages that were so far from civilisation. Each village had about 100 people. No one knew of their existence until a forest ranger came across them just a few months earlier.

“He happened to see them (during one of his treks),” said Anthony Lim, aged 63. He was relating this trip that took place in 1985, which was told to him by Chee and the others. He was 28 then and was supposed to be with them but he had a prior engagement. Lim spoke to Journey With Us recently through video streaming

“We felt there was a need to share the Gospel with them,” said Lim, adding that that was the reason the forest ranger told them about the people in Paitan. Chee, Lim and the other were at that time (and still are) members of the Light of Jesus Christ Covenant Community based in Kota Kinabalu. (more about covenant community below).

“We were young and restless for the Lord. We thought we’d just go and do it. Our community leader Joseph Chee together with the team felt that it was an opportunity from God. We discussed with the Emeritus Archbishop John Lee (then the Diocesan Administrator of the Diocese of Kota Kinabalu and later Archbishop of Kota Kinabalu). He told us to watch out and that it (Paitan) was dark spiritually.”

At that time, Paitan was just a cluster of villages deep inside the jungles where animism was rife. The forest ranger, a Catholic, had told them about how the villagers needed a lot of help from the outside world in terms of healthcare, education and nutrition. This team was to go and assess the situation and see what needed to be done and how.

The vehicles got on to the logs, each wheel on a log, starting with the front wheels and then the back. One by one, the the vehicle managed to get across without the wheels slipping off the log and landing in the river. Lim said the drivers were highly skillful and knew how to handle the rough terrains of Sabah. But this was not the only challenge.

The tracks can sometimes be challenging for even super-strong vehicles like the 4WD. One time, in one of the subsequent trips to Paitan, the vehicles got stuck in the mud. “It seemed impossible,” said Lim who was on that trip. “One of our teammates managed to get a timber truck to come to our rescue. The truck pulled our vehicle out.”

The tracks can be a huge challenge even for the most skillful of drivers. Photo courtesy: Anthony Lim

Double rainbow

“Now when we look back and talk about it, we shiver. They had put our lives on the line.” He added: “(At that time) we felt the Lord speaking to us.” Lim said that the presence of God could not have been clearer on that first exploration trip. “As the team came to the entrance of the a village in Paitan, in front of them in the sky was a double rainbow.” To the team that was a sign from the Lord that He was the One leading them there.

The double rainbow became one of the ways God showed Lim and his community that they were on the right path. “Our community was started on July 31, 1983. On that day, after it was launched and when all of us walked out from the parish home, we saw a clear double rainbow in the sky. And somehow the Lord put it in our hearts that this was His way of showing us that He was with us.”

God has been using the double rainbow as a sign of His confirmation to the covenant community. “Every time we’re off to a mission or embark on any significant outreach work, we would see a double rainbow.” So when the team saw the double rainbow at the village in Paitan, they knew they were where God had wanted them to be.

“They went and shared the good news. Of course, there was a lot of spiritual things happening. Very dark. On that first night, when they started to pray and share, they heard the sound of barking and howling dogs all around them, around the village. But the villagers told them there were no dogs in the village. As soon as they finished proclaiming the gospel with the words ‘This is the Word of the Lord’,  the howling stopped.”

“The people were open. On that first trip, the team spoke to the village people, leaders and the people there expressed their openess to want to know about the gospel and they also told us about their living condition.” Lim said villagers invited the team to come back and help them.

“We kept going back to that village because we felt God saying to help them in the mission. One of the young men in our team felt called and stayed there with the people. Then our covenant community sent different people now and then to support him.”

“We do a holistic evangelistic approach. We started simple schools to educate the children, and each time we went there we brought medical people to teach them about hygiene, and at the same time we gave them spiritual formation.”

Lim added: “Health was bad, their mindset was different. Most kids did not live past teenage. We taught them hygiene, to wash their hair properly, drink clean water.”

The numbers grew

“After a year, they were ready for baptism. There were 30 to 40 of them,” said Lim. “We had been constantly updating the bishop. He then sent a priest together with us to go to the village to conduct the baptism.”

The number of Catholics in that village grew and a chapel was built using the timber grown there. “We collaborated with the parishes in the east coast and slowly built the Catholic community there.”

In the first year, Lim’s covenant community decided to foster three children and have them grow up in Kota Kinabalu. “With clear permission from the parents, we brought them and gave them education.” That was 30 years ago and one of the children has returned to his village and is a cathecist there while the other two are leading their own lives in Kota Kinabalu.

Lim said: “Our volunteers also taught the kids there. Slowly the Franciscan Sisters came in and supported them. They built kindergarten in one kampung and then in the different kampungs.” The nearby villages also wanted what this village had, which was formal education for their children.

Today they have 10 kindergartens in Paitan and its surrounding areas. “The Sisters have done a good job and we as a community support them.”

The covenant community also realised it was necessary to have homegrown teachers to help the Sisters. They arranged for some of the children in their late teens, who had gone through the education system, to take a diploma in childhood education. “This is for those from the villages who are called to be teachers. We sponsored young people to do their diploma and to go back and work with the Sisters in the kindergarten.”

Teaching materials, books and meals had to be provided while they were at school. The covenant community had a system for this. They organised sponsorship for each child where their members paid for the expenses for one child every month. They roped in other Catholics for this.

After a while, the covenant community decided to pass the responsibility of providing further spiritual guidance and community development back to the Church. When they started their mission work in Paitan, there was only the Diocese of Kota Kinabalu but in 2007 the Diocese of Sandakan was set up and so Paitan and its mission work came under this new diocese. There is now a parish in Paitan and the parish priest comes from the Sandakan Diocese.

“We are a community within the Catholic Church and we are not independent of the Church. So we serve the Church and we give our allegance to the Church, the bishop and respect the hierarchy,” said Lim.

“Today there are more than 1,000 parishioners there (in Paitan) and more Catholic communities have been set up in nearby areas – in Sonsogon, Mengandai, Batutai, Gosusu and others,” said Lim, adding that several villagers have been trained to be catechists.

 “We continue to support and sponsor some of the schools there,” said Lim, adding that they help provide food supplies and teaching materials for the kindergartens.

The first trip to Paitan took them two days, today it is just a four-hour drive.

What is a covenant community?

“In 1974, the Catholic charismatic renewal came to KK (Kota Kinabalu) and that is when we had our first LSS,” said Lim and he attended the Light in the Spirit Seminar. “After that most of us felt renewed and felt we wanted more. More than just coming to church on Sunday, cleaning the church and doing what was needed.” That yearning deep within him led him to a prayer meeting with like-minded people on Friday nights. They would sing worship songs and pray. They grew in numbers and in their spiritual walk.

“We still felt there was more and we sought to find how we can experience more. So in 1980, four of us attended the annual Asian Leaders Congress in Charismatic Renewal held in Manila. We met Brian Smith, the leader for the Emmanuel Covenant Community in Brisbane. He said they would help us and support us. ‘We will send people to you.’ When we got back, we shared it with (the late) Bishop Simon Fung and he had no objection to this.”

Covenant communities are lay communities that spun off from the Catholic Charismatic Renewal (CCR) that began in the late 60s. The CCR website says that it is a spiritual movement within the Catholic Church that emphasises on the availability of the power and the many gifts of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, and the need for a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The CCR consists of thousands of prayer groups and communities all over the world.

The purpose of a covenant community is: to help members live a fervent Christian life; be of service to the Church; carry out the work of evangelisation; and encourage spiritual ecumenism under the guidance of the Church.

So Smith visited the prayer group Lim belonged to and stayed with the leaders of the group for one week to share with them about covenant community. When he returned to Australia, he would send batches of three to four of his members to Kota Kinabalu and they stayed with members of the group for two to three weeks at a time and this went on for three years until the prayer group felt they were ready to go on their own.

And so on July 31, 1983 the Light of Jesus Christ Covenant Community in Kota Kinabalu came to be with 72 adults. “We now have 250 adults and children. said Lim. “We are close to the heart of the Church, and serve actively in the church. And we try to live out a calling together as Catholics through greater support for each other.”

It is not a commune. “We don’t live together. We have separate lives. We have jobs and take care of our families, pay bills and taxes. Except we come together as a community on Sunday afternoons. We gather together – teaching, sharing. The children are in different groups and this is the children ministry.” They recently celebrated their 37th anniversary.

Lim (right) and Joseph Chee posing for photo when they were both in Wales to conduct an Inner Healing and Transformation Seminar from Oct 20 to Oct 23, 2016

Lim, who was originally from Kudat, is married to Celine and they have five children aged between 20 and 31. He runs an education consultancy for student university placements and works with various international universities.

Eight years ago, nine covenant communities in Malaysia came together to form the Fellowship of Malaysia Covenant Communities was formed. The aim is for fellowship and sharing of resource, and is non-executive in nature. Each community is answerable to the Catholic Church.

Lim is the chairperson of this fellowship and the Presiding Elder of the Light of Jesus Christ Covenant Community. He became the community’s presiding elder eight years ago, when he took over from Joseph Chee, who was the first presiding elder. – Journey With Us Asia