One of the great things about the World Day of Prayer is that we catch a glimpse of the world through the eyes of other people. I have no real experience of Malaysia; I know a number of people who were born in Malaysia, I’ve had a few hours in the airport at KL, but no more than that. So I’m uniquely unqualified to preach this evening.
The World Day of Prayer reminds us that we are part of a worldwide family. The borders of the church don’t stop at our congregation or even at our tradition. They are broader and wider—perhaps broader and wider than we can imagine.
The World Day of Prayer calls us to remember that other members of this family are in very different situations from those we find ourselves in.
The women of Malaysia live in a predominantly Muslim land, with very different ethnic and cultural realities to ours. There is corruption on a wide scale, restrictions on Christian worship, churches are burnt, asylum seekers are greatly mistreated—that should give us pause for thought—people trafficking and the forced relocation of poor rural folk. Apart from that, the women have a difficult place just because they are women.
I’m sure they can identify with the woman who kept knocking on the judge’s door much more than I can.
I was very impressed with the story of Irene Fernandez, the social worker who spent thirteen years fighting in court because of official resistance to her work among migrant workers and people in immigration detention camps.
Women like this show us lives given to Christ in different contexts to ours; we need to pray with them and support them. But we also need to see where the justice deficits are in our own situation.
We know about asylum seekers, for example. They are called ‘illegal’, which they are not; they are vilified and kept in detention for long periods. All this is at great cost; it would be cheaper to process them in the community. This is one area where justice, compassion and economics speak as one. Both sides of politics have demonised asylum seekers; one prominent politician recently published ignorant remarks about infectious disease coming into Australia from these people which a public health official issued a public letter to refute.
Why do I talk about this? Because Irene Fernandez has emboldened me to.
Those of us who follow the Revised Common Lectionary may be looking at these words of Jesus on Sunday:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
It seems that we admire most those Christians who seem to put these words of Jesus into practice. We all know about the great witness of Mother Teresa of Calcutta; now we also know about Irene Fernandez, knocking at the door of so-called justice for thirteen years on behalf of the poor. Let us allow ourselves to be truly inspired by her witness, and follow Jesus in our own time and place. Amen.
My name is Irene Fernandez. I’m a social worker. I work among the migrants and other poor and oppressed people in Malaysia. In 1991 I helped establish Tenaganita (women’s force), a grassroots organization committed to establishing “protective tooIs” for women.
I did research and published a memorandum in August 1995 about the terrible living conditions of the migrant workers in detention centres. I interviewed over 300 former detainees who described insanitary conditions, inadequate food and water, frequent deaths from beatings and lack of medical care. Sexual abuse and corruption were common in Malaysia’s immigration detention camps. The government asserted that the memorandum contained errors.
l was arrested for “maliciously publishing false news.” I was on trial for seven years and then was found guilty. I was sentenced to one year of imprisonment. I appealed to the High Court. As a convicted person, the price I paid was high. My court battle took another six years. Finally the High Court overturned my earlier conviction and acquitted me on December 31st, 2008.
During all these years Tenaganita has succeeded in establishing reform amendments to rape laws, model contracts for overseas domestic helpers, and a domestic violence act which opened up complaint procedures for victims. Now we are turning our focus on people-trafficking, the heinous crime of modern-day slavery. We seek a partnership with government to change the systems that support human trafficking. At the same time the survivors of human trafficking need psychological and social support. With our advocacy and help the survivors can restore their lives and regain their feeling of self-worth and dignity.