Happenings, News

Evangelising outside the comfort zone

The Rev William Shellabear recounts a brief evangelistic visit in rural Singapore 105 years ago. It wasn’t up to five-star standards, but he shared the Word with those who came to listen, in company with the pigs and fowls and their peculiar odours!

homepage-Nov 2006

‘…A VISIT to the homes of the market gardeners of Singapore affords many new opportunities of studying the people and their manner of life.

In a district recently visited in the company of a native preacher, I found almost every inch of ground under cultivation. Tapioca and such vegetables as beans, chillies, onions, etc, were the chief products.

Owing to difficulties on the road we did not arrive at our destination until dusk. We had intended to try and gather a congregation immediately on our arrival, but as the darkness made that impossible, we thought it best to look for a night’s lodging and evening meal, intending later on to do some visiting in the moonlight.

The master of the house seemed glad to see us, and offered us a large plank bed big enough for two, covered with a dingy, old blue mosquito net, which was quite as good accommodation as we had expected.

His wife, who had a baby six months old strapped to her back in the Chinese style, immediately put some sticks into the hot ashes of the furnace under an iron cauldron about two feet in diameter which forms the ordinary Chinese cooking stove, and blowing through a bamboo stick soon had a roaring fire to cook us some rice. We then gave the man half a dollar to go to the little shop near by and purchase some vegetables for our meal, which the preacher told me was the proper way to repay your host for his hospitality.

Our friend promised that after we had eaten he would call in a number of his acquaintances to hear “the doctrine”, so while the cooking was going on, we strolled off to a neighbouring housewhere two unmarried men were living; neither of them could read, so they would not buy our books, but they appeared to listen with interest to the preacher, and some passers-by came in to listen and afterwards bought three gospels.

On returning to our friends’ house we found they had prepared the usual weak decoction of tea, which they drank without milk or sugar, and we were offered the inevitable bamboo tobacco pipe, which most of these men appear to use constantly at intervals of a few minutes, inserting a small pinch of tobacco which is consumed in five or six long draws, filling the air with dense clouds of the foul-smelling smoke; they seemed surprised to meet anyone who did not use tobacco …

The rice was soon ready, and the vegetables followed in several  earthenware bowls. The preacher and I were made to eat first by ourselves on the bed, then the master of the house and his hired man carried the things off and ate by themselves at a rough table, and finally the wife ate what was left, having got the baby to sleep and laid her down in a basket-work cradle hung from the roof.

… The preacher had already begun to converse on the subject of religion with some friends who had come in. Sin and salvation were the preacher’s main themes, the love and power of God were contrasted with the insensibility and impotence of the idol, objections were carefully answered, and much of the ignorance and prejudice of the hearers dispelled in the conversation which followed.

All of them expressed a wish to hear more, but the hour was late, the visitors left, and the home being shut up we prayed with the members of the household and retired to our plank bed, on which our host had kindly spread a clean grass mat.

Presuming that I was not accustomed to the wooden pillow on which the Chinaman rests his neck, he had also borrowed for me what looked like the bolster from some dilapidated old sofa.

Taking off my white coat I laid it over this and found it made a very good pillow. In fact, I slept much better than the preacher, who told me afterwards that he was cold without a blanket …

I found we were under the same roof as the cocks, which had disturbed me somewhat by their crowing in the night, and also under the same roof as the pigs, which were on two sides of the bed on which we had slept and certainly not more than six feet away from us.

Their grunting was more bearable than their odour, but they were clean pigs, as Chinese pigs go, and had a better sty than I have yet seen in Singapore … – Malaysia Message, June 1901, p.101- 103, slightly edited.

Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.