By Grayson Hester
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden…In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16)
When God created the heavens and the earth and proclaimed “let there be light,” God didn’t have to deal with an electric company or pay bills. (The creation of the world predated industrial capitalism by a few years, after all.)
Keeping the lights on or having lights at all in rural parts of Southeast Asia proves more difficult than a simple proclamation. The church might be more than a building, but it certainly helps to be able to see what is going on while inside one.
Enter Alfons, an irreplaceable part of the ministry led by Brooke and Mike, two Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel called to Southeast Asia. Alfons’ engineering expertise helps their church worship at all hours of the day, whereas before, the absence of light meant that nighttime was no time for congregating.
“Before I became a pastor, I asked Mike to come with me to preach at churches; he spoke about his willingness to build a solar panel system for churches in the village,” Alfons said. “So, in 2019, Mike gave solar panels for five different churches.”
In a developed country like the United States, it might seem unfathomable to most worshipers to have to worry about the lights staying on, or whether there was any electricity to begin with. But in rural areas of the Global South, like Southeast Asia, these problems remain perennial and persistent. Having solar lights, as opposed to expensive (and dangerous) kerosene lamps, can spell the difference between crisis and community, worry and worship.
“These very simple systems mean that not only can the church worship at night, but also that children can come and study at night,” Mike said. “In their homes, they may have only kerosene lamps that are barely bright enough to read by, but also too costly for these families who cannot afford them.”
As anyone who has gone camping, or who has endured a power outage, knows, a reliable, consistent light source is quite literally a lifeline. This remains true thousands of miles away, and arguably more so. Light means life. Light also means security. What holds true in major U.S. metropolitan areas—that more street lights generally equate to less crime—also plays out in rural Southeast Asian areas, too. We are united, theologically and practically, in our very basic need for light.
“So, after the solar panels are installed at the churches, they are very useful for the people and the kids around the churches,” Alfons said. “See the church with the lights—that place used to be dangerous because it was dark and far. Now the ministry in that church is still going on.”
Safety represents a basic need. Once worshipers, women and children particularly, feel a relative sense of protection—a sense afforded to them by a well-lit church building—they can then open themselves up to reading and learning and growing. That is its own kind of light. To enlighten, to elucidate, is another form of letting there be light—shining knowledge about spirituality and humanity into corners of the world denied such education by systems committed to (and exploitative of) their ignorance.
Alfons brings this holistic approach and enlightenment to the churches Brooke and Mike serve in Southeast Asia. He lends his engineering expertise to the installing of solar panels as surely as he lends his theological training to the teaching of the congregation. “From Tuesday until Friday, I teach at the seminary. Friday afternoon, I minister for the youth near my campus,” Alfons said. “Then, at night, I will come back to my family. On a Saturday, I must prepare a sermon for Sunday. Sometimes I visit some churches if they need me or if they asked me to lead their ministry.”
Alfons sees education as a key to a better life, one he strives to help the people of Southeast Asia achieve. This passion for education runs deep in Alfons’ life, stretching all the way back to his parents. His father was a Christian education teacher and his mother was an evangelist. In him, his parents’ passions became his purpose, a dual approach toward Christ-focused education that represents both his calling and his daily occupation.
In his and Mike’s view, a lack of information helps fuel division and antipathy, both of which are antithetical to the Kingdom of God. “We work together with international partners to promote peace and reconciliation between different religious groups,” Mike said, “to combat extremism and just promote a peaceful atmosphere of coexistence between many religious communities.”
Education and lighting are fundamental to this cause. So is Alfons. Many churches in Southeast Asia do not staff pastors. And if they do, their ministers have not been afforded access to seminaries and therefore can’t enjoy the educational privileges U.S. clergy might take for granted. Related to this issue is a low literacy rate among people in Southeast Asia. Given that Western expressions of religiosity prioritize the written word, this effectively disenfranchises millions of people from engaging with the Gospel. Alfons is one of the lucky ones: he has gone to and graduated from seminary.
“My experience with God’s presence here in this community is that I feel that God always helps and guides me to minister to the people that I never expected,” he said. “And then I see how God opens the way for me and that makes me a believer, and I have to share that belief to the people who aren’t believers yet.” Partnering with Brooke and Mike allows Alfons to share this belief in concrete, sustainable ways, such as the publishing of simple theological handbooks. “We are working with a seminary to create a very simple theological handbook so that these lay leaders serving these churches can read through this very simple theological primer,” Mike said, “and can know, ‘How do I start a children’s ministry? How do I write a sermon? How can I deal with the issues of violence against women in my church and in my community?’”
Through turning on the lights, both metaphorically and literally, Alfons and Brooke and Mike’s ministry helps engender true belonging in Southeast Asia. Solar panels ensure the banquet table is welcoming to all; theological handbooks set the table with nourishing spiritual food.
In short, their combined efforts craft an invitation worth receiving.
“A place at the table means that everyone should be invited and eat equally, together, like a family. My family, we like to eat together. I don’t eat by myself. We eat together, we work together—everyone has their own role to play,” Alfons said. “Mike and Brooke’s presence is very helpful. Children can now read and mothers can weave. So, I am very happy for the help they provide to my ministry here.”
This article first appeared in the Winter 2022-2023 issue of fellowship! magazine. Check out the issue and subscribe for free at www.cbf.net/fellowship.