MISSIONARIES to Sarawak: Rev Vinson H. Sutlive, Jr, Missionary, Anthropologist and Linguist in Sarawak

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Vinson H. Sutlive was born on 29 October 1932 in Alabama USA. He graduated in psychology at Asbury College in 1953 and in 1956, he obtained his Theology Honour degree from Vanderbilt School of Religion. Later, he and his wife Joanne Sutlive, a teacher, went to Hartford Seminary for a year.

In 1955 he was ordained Deacon and two years later, he was promoted as Elder. He accepted the posting of the Board of Global Ministry of the Methodist Church in America to come to Sarawak. Although his dream was to go to China or Japan, he agreed to come to Sarawak, an unknown land. So the family with two children set sail to this far-off and unfamiliar land. His mission was to work as the acting principal of Methodist Theological School (MTS) in Sibu where he later set up the Iban Department.

After nine months of learning the Malay language, Rev Vinson encountered another language barrier when facing the Iban students at the seminary. The latter could only converse in their mother tongue. He found that he couldn’t at all converse with them. Only then he realized the two languages were totally different. Being gifted in languages, he picked up the Iban language fast. In fact he had inherited good linguistic ability from his parents.

The First Batch
of Iban Students

In January 1959, Rev Vinson set up the Iban Department and the first intake was 11 students. One of the students is Joshua Bunsu who was to become the President of the Iban Methodist Churches. The students were volunteer lay preachers assisting in leading gatherings at their respective longhouse. They came for formal theological training to enhance their ministry. They would go back to their longhouses each week-end to serve there and Rev Vinson often accompanied them home to understand the lifestyle of Iban folks. Such understanding also helped in his teaching. In six years he had visited 150 longhouses along the Rejang River which marked the beginning of his involvement in the literature and academic studies of the Iban people.

While Rev Vinson was away visiting the longhouses, his wife Joanne would stay at the Seminary to teach Sunday school. The living standard in Sibu in the 60s was not bad. Given the availability of electric supply and electric fan at the parsonage (the present parsonage of Wesley Church), the couple and their children adjusted well. When their children went back to USA to study, though couldn’t remember much about this place, they had loved the simplicity of their special Sarawak childhood.

The Mission Board of the Methodist Church in America had described the Ibans as a nomadic group of people during 1950-1960. The couple had witnessed hundreds of Ibans accepting Christ Jesus, and helped set up many longhouse churches. With the assistance of foreign missionaries from America, Indonesia, India and England, the Ibans managed to build churches from 18 in 1957 to 150 in 1972 (the year Rev & Mrs Vinson left) in Sibu alone.

In 1959, Rev Vinson was appointed as the superintendent of the Iban churches, taking charge of 54 churches. During his first four-year term of service, he had developed great interest in the culture and language of the Ibans. This had in turn led to the publication of “A Handy Reference Dictionary of Iban and English” in 1994. In various meetings, he shared the differences between the gospel of Christ and the traditional beliefs of the Iban people. His messages were later compiled into a book called “Pebanding Pengarap Kitai (Comparison of Faith)”.

On his first furlough in 1961, he continued his studies at Scarritt College for Christian Workers in Nashville, majoring in foreign languages. He graduated with a Master’s degree. In 1966, he enrolled at the University of Pittsburg during his second furlough and he obtained a PHD degree in Anthropology, a then new course, in 1972.

In 1962, when he returned to Sarawak, he worked as the secretary of the United Churches Bible Translation Committee. He translated seven books from Hebrew into Iban language and the complete Iban Bible was published in 1988.

Chief Editor of
the Iban Encyclopedia

From 1967 to 1972, Rev Vinson was appointed as the Principal of MTS. He then retired with his family to America. However his work with the Ibans did not come to an end. The couple came back to visit almost every year and they even helped to compile an Iban-English/ English-Iban Dictionary as well as the Iban Encyclopedia, a set of five books. This bilingual dictionary was completed in 1994. He spent eleven years to finish the encyclopedia (1990-2001).

After Rev Vinson returned home to America in 1972, he was appointed as the Chairman of the Anthropology Department for The College of William and Mary for eleven years. From 1993 to 1998, he was the Chairman of the International Anthropology and Ethnology Association. During that time he was also the executive director of the Borneo Research Council founded in 1968. In addition he was the Chief Editor of the Iban Encyclopedia.

In February 2004, when he was over seventy, Rev Vinson and his wife were invited by Tun Jugah Foundation to translate the Burial Songs of the Ibans. They further compiled the Comprehensive Iban Dictionary. Rev Vinson’s publication works were mainly concerning the culture of Malaysia and Borneo. He wrote “Cultural Responses to Natural Disaster “(1968), “The Contributions of Men and Women in Borneo and the Gender Challenge” (1991).

During his frequent travels to Sarawak, Rev Vinson was sad to see that many Ibans who have moved to towns are more materialistic. But he was convicted that God loves every one of us including the Ibans. He encouraged the Iban pastors and leaders to stand firm to their faith.

Conclusion

At first, Rev Vinson studied psychology and then he took up theology education to prepare himself to become a missionary. He was posted to Sarawak where he partook in theological training and the administrative work of a superintendent. Due to his contact with the indigenous people, he changed his course of ministry. In 1972, he sought to enhance his academic studies in foreign languages and anthropology which were useful in his future missionary works. Due to his love for the Ibans he did not only consider them as his field research objects but also an impetus leading him to be involved in translating and publishing books about them. He is recognized as an authority in the cultural studies of Borneo.

Though retired from missionary and theological field, as a scholar Rev Vinson continues to serve in the cultural world and academia. His achievements in the secular world serve to demonstrate a beautiful witness in the marketplace. In other words, we as Christians can use our knowledge and gifts to serve our Lord in different ways in different places.

Compiled by Menglei
Translated by Christina
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