MISSIONARIES to Sarawak: Rev Louis R. Dennis started the Iban Gospel Work At Bawang Assan

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Rev Louis R. Dennis was born in Salisbury, Maryland, USA. He graduated from Asbury College with a Bachelor of Arts, a Bachelor of Theology from the Asbury Theological Seminary and Master of Theology from Drew University.

In 1930, he married his classmate, Madeline Kelso who shared the same vision for overseas mission. So after graduating in 1935, they applied for posts as overseas missionaries. At that time, US was facing an economic downturn and the church was short of fund for mission ministry and delayed the plan for sending missionaries overseas. They were posted to pastor a church in the State of Delaware instead.

Experiences gained when pastoring a Church

The experience they gained when pastoring a church helped them greatly in the overseas mission work. Madeline believed that experience in pastoring a church was applicable to what the missionaries would face in the mission field. Hence if a missionary had the experience of pastoring a church that would provide the most practical experience.

In 1938, someone from the Overseas Mission Board talked to Rev. Dennis, asking: “China has great need for missionaries and the Mission Board plans to send a missionary and nurse to China, are you interested to be missionaries in China?”

At that time Rev. Dennis was pastoring a church while Madeline worked in the rural public health department. Feeling their professions met the requirements and that it was the right timing to become missionaries, they applied and were ready for mission works.

At first Rev Dennis’ parents opposed their idea, citing the reason that China was too far away and they might not see each other again. Later they agreed to let their son to be part of this great missionary cause.

China, here I come

In 1939, the couple took a short term advanced course at a seminary. In September, they set sail for China on a cargo vessel. Three weeks later they arrived at Shanghai, China — a totally different country from the US. However, from the sharing by the returning missionaries on their experience and sights in China, things were not so unfamiliar.

After arriving Shanghai, they received nine months of intensive course on Chinese languages, shadowing, observing and learning from how other missionaries worked. In 1940, they were posted to Yenping City (now known as Nanpin), Fujian province. Rev. Dennis was once the District Superintendent of Fujian District and had been to various sub-districts and villages of the Yenpin areas to visit and supervised many church and school building projects. Madeline worked as a nurse in the Nanpin Church Hospital and set up a mobile team with other nurses to provide medical service to the people living in remote areas.

They stayed at the Mission Home for the first year following which they rented a simple home with poor heating facilities. The hospital was poorly equipped and in winter they had to find enough blankets for the patients. They worked in Nanpin for ten years, and returned to US for furlough for a year. They enjoyed their ministry and were grateful that they had joined the overseas mission and experienced the greatness of God’s grace.

Sibu North District
covered a big area

When the Communist Party took over China, Rev. Dennis was secretly arrested. They managed to flee to a neighboring country and sought political asylum. Later, like all other missionaries, they were forced to leave the country which they had served for around 10 years.

In 1950, when they returned home for a year’s sabbatical leave, they returned to the seminary to further their studies. However, their hearts were still with Asia and wished to continue serving in this region. So the Overseas Mission Board sent them to Sarawak. In September 1951, they left America, arriving Sarawak a month later, to work among the Chinese in Sarawak. He came just in time to replace Rev Eugene McGraw as the Superintendent and preacher of the Sibu North District.

At that time, the boundary of the Sibu North District was wide; covering the northern and southern part of Sibu area, from east of Salim to the Cantonese Settlement and to Kanowit, an area of 15 miles from north to south and 60 miles from east to west. At that time the water way was the major mean of transport between these areas. The churches were Sing Ang Tong at Sungai Merah, Tian Dao Church at the Hin Hua Settlement, Shiuan Daw Church at Bukit Assek, Fu Ling Methodist Church at Salim, Kang Men Tai Kung Preaching Point (today Tien En Church), A-Sing-Ba Giu Sie Methodist Church, Doh Ang Methodist Church at Sg. Assan, Toh Ing Methodist Church at Pulau Kerto, Huat Hu Kang Cho Fu Methodist Church, Sg Pui Tieng Lee Methodist Church, Lian He Yuan Preaching Point, Ik Ong Methodist Church at Kanowit , Preaching point at Upper Salim, Rukouk Preaching Point, Giling Gulu Preaching Point, Sg Papu Preaching Point, Naman Preaching Point, Tamin Preaching Point, Tung Kiew Preaching Point.

1951 was the year that the Sarawak Methodist Mission Conference was in transition to become Sarawak Provisional Annual Conference and was also the year for celebrating its 50th Anniversary. It was also then that many foreign missionaries were transferred from China to Sarawak. In his report to the Annual Conference the following year, Rev Dennis said that for new believers to be confirmed as members of the church, on top of the interview by the District Superintendent, there should be a solemn liturgy marking the acceptance of membership. The liturgy should include: the believers kneeling at the stage, the placing of hands by the Superintendent and pastors and the commemoration of the dedication prayers.

Rev. Dennis also remarked that Dennis White, the Resident of the 3rd Division, and the District Officers of Sarikei and Kanowit had requested that the church increase manpower so that more areas could be developed. However, because of financial constraints, it was impossible to do so. Nevertheless, Rev. Dennis hoped that more youths could join the work force and that a seminary should be set up in Sibu. He was pleased that the Methodist Church had set a clinic at Sungai Teku which was a new record in Sarawak history.

At that time, Madeline set up a Maternity Clinic and Infant Centre. In two months’ time five rural health clinics were also set up, two in the Iban rural communities and three in the Chinese villages. These were joint projects between the Methodist Church, the Sarawak government and the Rural District Council. Madeline was the Superintendent in charge of public health.

Iban Churches Being Set up at Bawang Assan

During this time, Rev. William Overholt who had worked on agricultural projects in China for many years came to Sibu to assist the Chinese in farming while Rev. Thomas Harris was in charge of helping the Ibans.

When Rev Dennis first became the District Superintendent (in 1953), the Tuai Rumah of the longhouses at Bawang Assan, downstream of the Rejang River, came to see him, expressing that the Ibans would like to accept Christ as their Savior and were willing to be baptized. Rev Dennis visited and taught them and baptized Tuai Rumah Guanak Baring as well as 258 other Ibans. Within half a year, there were over 400 baptisms.

The Iban leaders set up a censor committee to scrutinize the conduct of the adults and the consent of the parents of children before allowing them to be baptized. A new woman believer offered her land to build a church, a parsonage and a primary school. The villagers donated most of the building materials and offered labour force. Rev Jaleb Menurung, an Indonesian Batak Pastor, was posted to pastor the church in December that year. This is the story of the Ibans who were first baptized in Kapit in 1949 and by 1953 the Gospel was gradually spread to the Ibans in Bawang Assan.

In 1954, Rev. Dennis, the District Superintendent, in his capacity as the concurrent bookkeeper in Sibu for the Oversea Mission Board reported that the Women Mission Board and the Overseas Mission Board had jointly set up the Methodist Theological School and had enrolled the first batch of students for a three-year course. Miss Ivy Chou was chosen as the Principal of the school. At that time she held a Master’s Degree and in May 1955 obtained her Ph.D.

In the same year, the Methodist Church began its work in Kuching. A half-acre sized plot of land and a house were purchased. The first floor of the house served as the parsonage while the ground floor was the sanctuary. Before that the Kuching Methodist Christians had been using the Anglican church building for their worship and used the Anglican hymnal.

In 1955, Rev Dennis mentioned in his report that the Sarawak Methodist Church which was originally the affiliate of Malaysia Methodist Church had officially registered with the Sarawak government and hence the Sarawak Methodist Church could handle all legal matters, including properties, at its own discretion.

The Methodist Theological School also built its first school building which included a hall, classrooms, office, library, temporary hostel for male students, a dining hall and kitchen. A one week short term mission course was conducted in September and 13 Iban pastors and lay preachers were trained. The Youth Fellowship groups, especially youths in Salim, preached to the Ibans.

In 1956 Rev Louis and his wife returned to US for debriefing and a year’s sabbatical.

In 1957, they were transferred to Singapore and served in Singapore for two years. They were later posted to Petaling Jaya, Kuala Lumpur for two years, one of the duties being translation and some publicity works for S. E. Asia region. In 1961 they were posted to Sitiawan, Perak. In Sitiawan, Rev Dennis met with a traffic accident and was badly injured. After a long and careful treatment, he recovered slowly but his physical movements and thinking ability were affected. Later they returned to the US.

On October 1985, Rev. Dennis met with another accident; he had suffered a fall and hurt the back of his head. He passed away later.

They had adopted a child, from a poor family, called Doris. They brought her back to US and brought her up in Delaware USA.
Compiled by Menglei
Translated by Christina & KT Chew

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