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A Singaporean in Bolivia

They were the first Asian missionaries to Bolivia, and were not expected to succeed. One Christian leader expressed his doubt: “I don’t think this will work because they’re Asians. He is brown and she is Chinese. People here are not used to it.” Still Bishop Raphael Samuel and his wife, Michelle, persevered. To date, they have served in Bolivia for more than 23 years, and in 2013, Raphael Samuel was consecrated Bishop of Bolivia, the first Asian missionary to be consecrated Bishop in the Spanish-speaking Anglican world.

Impact spoke with Bishop Samuel during his visit back to Singapore.

Impact: How did you end up serving in Bolivia?

Bishop Samuel: I grew up in a Christian family and went to a mission school. I became a Christian at 15. But it was not until I had served six years in the Navy that I committed to order my life according to God’s priorities. At that time, I was offered a job in the Middle East and I was excited, thinking I could save money and start a new life in the US. But there was a deep unease. As I sought the Lord, I sensed He was calling me into full-time ministry.

I was drawn to missions. My pastor told me to pursue theological education and see how the Lord would lead me, and to work towards becoming a pastor of a church. So I completed my 4-year degree with Trinity Theological College and I was ordained as a deacon in the Anglican church 1986. That sense of serving in missions was still there, but overshadowed by my busyness as a pastor.

The first mission conference I attended was in 1988 at Seaview Hotel. The only calling I had for missions was to South America. But South America was not even on the radar screen.

Quietly I told the Lord, “If this is really from you, speak through Bishop Moses Tay about the needs in South America at some point in the conference.” Only no-one spoke on South America. I felt a bit foolish. But at the last concluding service, after the holy communion, Bishop Tay suddenly paused before giving the benediction and said: “Actually, we do receive Macedonia calls of help from many parts of the world, even South America.” I was completely taken aback! Also, that same evening, one of the TV channels screened a documentary programme on Peru and Bolivia!

In 1991, a missionary from Bolivia came to the Diocese of Singapore. He shared with us the needs and struggles of the Church there. At that moment, I felt that my time in Singapore was coming to an end. Not only did I feel it was from the Lord, but Bishop Moses Tay was also keen to link up with the church in South America. I gathered my courage to approach Bishop Tay; bishops don’t normally send their clergy into missions because the needs on the homefront are great. But his reply surprised me: “If you go, we will support you as our missionary.” So to Bolivia we went, as a family in 1993.

Impact: What were the challenges of ministering in Bolivia?

Bishop Samuel: Like the Philippines, syncretism is rampant in Bolivia — the people combine Catholicism with their folk religions.Christianity is just one of the cultural forms.

Language was a challenge in the early years. Upon arrival, my wife and I did a six-month cross-cultural training course which involved learning the language. At the same time, we were assigned to live with a Bolivian family. We had to communicate with sign language to make ourselves understood. It taught us patience and humility. It also taught us to not jump into conclusions and to listen attentively.

Of course, mastering a new language takes time and practice. It took me six months just to know how the language worked and I made lots of mistakes. I had to read out my sermon at first. I was only able to speak off the cuff and preach more fluently after close to the third year.

Being the first Asian missionary at that time added to the challenge. Most missionaries in Bolivia came from US or Britain. Treated almost like guinea pigs, it was tough for us. But slowly we discovered similarities in our cultures: we both are family-centered and we both were shaped by colonial rule.

Some family members were fearful for the safety of our 3-year-old son and his educational prospects in Bolivia. Our main concern was the accessibility and quality of medical care. But the two times we had to bring our son to the hospital, the staff were proficient and efficient. God was good and He took care of us during those bad times. Easier said than done, but all we had to do is to put our trust in Him.

Impact: What are the differences between Bolivia and in Singapore?

Bishop Samuel: Here in Singapore, we live to work; work is important to us. So, we organise our lives around our work schedules and our identity is in our profession. Whereas the people in Bolivia work to live. Work is important but not everything; life is living in harmony in relationships and with nature, with oneself, with loved ones and spending time together.

That should also inform the Singapore church which is trying to win the confidence and respect from people of other cultures; we should spend time relating to and respecting them. I think as missionaries from Singapore, our contribution would be to come back and remind the church that we are here to be a witness to God’s love for other cultures, races and languages, whether they are non-Christians, or Christians — learning something of their culture and language would be very helpful.

Impact: What satisfies you the most after all these years of serving in Bolivia?

Bishop Samuel: I have had the privilege of seeing over the past 23 years, the leadership and management of an indigenous work gradually shifting from overseas missionaries to national leaders. It’s not easy but I must continue to mentor and train them, to be with the church at this critical moment.

The other thing is about learning a foreign language, understanding another culture and growing one’s faith through that experience — it has enriched my personal walk with the Lord in many ways.

I think we ought to be proud of the value and strength of our Singapore story. At our best, we are able to relate to people from other cultures, by sharing food with each other, mutually respecting and tolerating one another’s differences. Most of all, we have a set of national beliefs that hold us together. This was helpful as I am managing two sets of relationships there — relationships between Western (American, Australian and the English) and Asian missionaries on the one hand, and also relating to the Spanish-speaking national leaders. My experience in Singapore working with Chinese, Malay and Indian helped a great deal in this respect. So, I think our ethos at its best, is something we can tap into and bless others with.

Impact: Do you see yourself coming back to serve in Singapore?

Bishop Samuel: I hope to come back some time, to share with the Singapore church what I have learnt. But for now, the people there need me; we are raising the first generation or even the second generation of leadership. They need a stable figure, to stay for some time and to see the church grow. I have been there for 23 years and will serve as their Bishop until May 2018. I am thankful for the support and generosity of the Singapore church, without which I would not be able to serve there.

Bishop Raphael has an inclination to sci-fi and avidly reads poetry, short stories and novellas; he is a fan of the Bolivian national soccer team and loves the juicy steaks and spicy “sopa de mani” (peanut soup) from South America. Once in a while he enjoys a Merlot from the vineyards of Tarija (an ancient city in the valleys of Bolivia).

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