Of the over two hundred missionaries who came to Sarawak Methodist Church, Rev Thomas A. Harris was the first and only African American. Rev Harris and his wife, Mrs. Jennis D. Harris were at first assigned as missionaries to Yen Ping Methodist Annual Conference, Yen Ping (now Nan Ping Town), Fujian,China, for about eighteen months, from 1948 to 1950.
However, after the Communist Party took over China and forcing missionaries to leave China, the couple was posted to Malaysia Methodist Annual Conference and they were later assigned to serve in Sarawak on 10 June 1951. By October, they were on their way to Kapit to teach in the school and to farm there. Kapit was then so far in land in Sarawak that even the locals were not happy to even visit.
Rev Thomas A. Harris graduated from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. After graduating, he continued to pursue further education at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) as a work-study student. He also studied language at Yale University and later studied theology at Harford Theological College. So he was a well qualified agriculturalist cum preacher. Before embarking to China as a missionary, he had worked in Levy, Florida, as County Agent to promote rural education and agricultural techniques.
Initiated Experimental Farm Station, Ng Mujong
Rev Thomas A. Harris spent most of his time working in Nanga Mujong upstream of Kapit. In 1952, on the foundation of a church and a school, he started a training centre or Experimental Farm Station for padi (later called training station). He tried to plant two crops in a year so that the local people had a steady supply of the rice. Double cropping was unheard of at that time in Kapit, or even in Malaysia.
In the Nanga Mujong school, he also conducted agricultural knowledge and technique courses. He divided the students into small groups and each group was allocated a plot of land to plant vegetables for the need of the resident students. Mrs. Harris was responsible for training teachers to teach English. Rev Harris was also appointed as the Principal and Superintendent of the local Methodist school.
The farm imported pure-breed pigs, cows from New Jersey and goats from South Africa to enhance the quality of the local live stocks. For example if someone bought a sow he would be given a young boar and he would have to return a young sow when the adult sow gave birth. He also distributed seedlings, fertilizers and pesticides.
The farm was also responsible for the teaching of hygiene. In 1955, they set up a health clinic. Miss Kong Ting Yu was the nurse in charge and later Miss Pearl Lee Pi Chuo took over the post. Besides the Clinic, they also organized a mobile medical team to visit the longhouses. In December 1958, a new clinic which could accommodate 4-5 patient beds and hostels for the nurses was built. Rev Harris believed that farming was the prime source of income for the Sarawakians, especially since 97% of the Ibans were farmers. So promoting productive farming and training was very important.
The Model of Integrated Evangelism Relating to church work, in 1959, the church allocated to a local preacher Alan a motor boat for visiting and The Lost Son serving the longhouses along the Rajang river and its nearby tributaries. The churches also set up Youth fellowship, Woman Fellowship, Adults Classes and so on. In 1960, a new church building and a new hostel for the school was built at total cost of RM17, 700.00.
Mrs. Harris led the women’s ministry, teaching literacy class as well as handcrafts and she was quite successful in her endeavor. She also taught in school. In fact this type of mission ministry was the integration of gospel (church), education (school), medicine (clinic) and agriculture. During the 7th Annual Conference, Rev Harris reported that, “We felt that we have established a balance Christian working plan at Nanga Mujong, Kapit.” He mentioned that more efforts were needed to train local people to carry on the task.
In August 1966, when Rev Harris returned from the debriefing in US for the third time, besides farming, he worked closely with Miss Blanche Apple in the education ministry (replacing Mr. William Funk, who was away for furloughing). Rev Harris was responsible for serving all the Methodist schools in upstream Rajang River. That same year, the office of Ng. Mujong agriculture station was moved to Kapit. However, another missionary couple, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Schwenk, continued to be stationed at the Mujong area, conducting agriculture training and introducing improved hygienic toilets. The Kapit District Agriculture Department invited them to join their Sports day exhibitions.
Of the whole Kapit District, the church activities in the Baleh area (which included Ng. Mujong) developed the fastest. The 1967 Report mentioned that after the first batch of Ibans was baptised in 1949, through 18 years of education, training in farming and medical care, the Ibans had a total of 7,905 believers and 4,043 religious investigators. It had laid a firm foundation for the Iban ministry for the Methodist Church.
After serving 18 months in China (in 1969) and another 18 years in Sarawak, Rev Harris and his wife returned to America. During the 60s, the couple adopted two children, of Iban parentage, Dianna and John Allen. One was from a family of ten children and the other child came from a mother who passed away at childbirth.
The Envelopes in 1965
During the 60s and 70s, besides the post office, some big companies would also print special envelopes when their companies commemorated special occasions.
You can find one of these envelopes on the Internet, printed with “MethodistChurch of Malaysia in South East Asia” and on the back a photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Harris and also photo of some Chinese women and a Kenyah man. The background is East and West Malaysia’s “One People” design. The slogan “One People” was started on 10 May 1939 when the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South and the Methodist Protestant Church combined as United Methodist Church and adopted the slogan “One People” under Methodism. As East and West Malaysia joined to form Malaysia, this slogan was printed on the envelope.
A brief Summary
People have a great respect and love for Rev and Mrs Harris, who came from afar to serve as cross cultural missionaries, in two countries, China and interior Sarawak, especially among the Chinese and Indigenous people. We are extremely fortunate that Sarawak gained so much from their teaching in agricultural and educational sectors, their personal sacrifices for the Gospel and their witness as Christian missionaries.
Compiled by Menglei
Translated by Christina & KT Chew