Rev Dr Apwee Ting found wonder in diversity from an early age.
“Growing up in Indonesia was such a happy time for me,” recalls the Uniting Church in Australia’s (UCA) newest national director.
“I remember playing outside from morning to night – flying kites, playing soccer, badminton and marbles. We had many friends of different ethnicities and everyone always left their doors open.”
Half a century later Apwee will be looking to share that same sense of wonder across the Uniting Church in the area of Multicultural and Cross Cultural Ministry (MCCM).
While Apwee’s national role commenced in July, his preparation for the role has been a lifetime in the making, and begins with his own migrant journey.
The Ting family settled in Solo in Central Java in the 1950s.
“My parents were farmers who migrated from Fujian Province in China looking for a better life,” he explains. “For them the diversity of Indonesia meant opportunity.”
There was hardship too. By 1962 when Apwee was born, Java was gripped by severe poverty and increasing political tension ahead of Suharto becoming Indonesia’s President. The chief concern of Apwee’s family was day-to-day survival.
His father, Amie, worked in a small shop owned by friends to support the growing family. Like any migrants, Apwee’s family had the added challenges of mastering a new language and adapting to a new culture.
One of Apwee’s strongest memories was an extra plate of food placed on the table every night. Whether there was money or not, his mother Djit Pang would always serve a plate for any guest or stranger that might need it. If no one came, they would eat the food the next morning.
“I learnt early in my life from my parents that we can live strongly with what we believe and still live in a diverse community,” says Apwee.
Because his family was so poor, Apwee never expected to finish high school. However, at the end of high school, with his older brothers already working, he had the opportunity to pursue his love of education.
Despite the first stirrings of a call to ministry, Apwee felt he owed it to his family to choose a financially secure career path. He went to study accounting in Yogyakarta.
Apwee became a leader of campus ministry. He led young committed Christians who were active in social programs and building intercultural faith relationships in the community. He was also able to build good relationships with local Islamic organisations.
On finishing university, Apwee began work as an accountant and joined a Gereja Kristen Indonesia (GKI) congregation in Solo. He became a lay preacher, youth leader and an elder.
“Growing up on the margins in a pluralistic society was important in shaping my approach to ministry later in life,” Apwee explains.
“When I read the gospels the ‘transplanting’ of new and unexpected perspectives into the narrative – like the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak (Matthew 9:18-25) and the paralytic man who was healed (Mark 2: 1-12) – bring fresh insights into the nature of God’s kingdom.
“The multicultural and cross cultural community are not the original part of the Uniting Church in Australia but when we are ‘transplanted’ into the wider church, by our presence we will bring new life to the whole body.”
“And I hope by transplanting my own intercultural perspectives into this national ministry, I can bring new life and show the whole UCA how blessed we are in our own diversity.”
At a risk of extending the transplant analogy, bodies are sometimes known to reject the transplants meant to sustain them.
Apwee experienced rejection first hand when he migrated to Melbourne in 1989.
Like so many migrants who settle in Australia, without Australian work experience it was impossible for him to find a job in his field. He spent four years working in a steel factory.
Like many other migrants, Apwee found inclusion, fellowship and inspiration in his church community. The Mulgrave Indonesian Uniting Church was connected with his home church GKI in Indonesia. It was at Mulgrave that Apwee met his wife Anastasia. They have three children, Vanessa, Ivan, and Keziah.
“One morning after I finished preaching, a senior member of the church who I respected very much said to me ‘I can see you will become a minister one day’.”
“I felt humbled by this. At that time I was working in a factory, I had one child, and there were a lot of things happening at home. Her words really affirmed to me that somehow God did not forget about my calling.”
In 1994 Apwee became a Candidate for Ministry at the College of Divinity in Melbourne. He was ordained in 1998 and his first placement was at Camberwell Uniting Church in Melbourne’s east in partnership with Rev Dr Tony Floyd.
Not long into his placement, the Indonesian and English-speaking congregations at Camberwell became a single congregation, pooling their ministry and financial resources.
“That was the first time, particularly in our synod, that two different communities became one congregation – it was very significant.”
Apwee served in Elsternwick and Bundoora before being called to Dandenong Uniting Church where he has been for the last four years. The Dandenong congregation includes Fijian and Hindi-speaking ministries and is also home to Christian communities whose cultural heritage is Arabic, Ethiopian and from the Cook Islands.
Spanning these ministries has made Apwee one of the Uniting Church’s most experienced leaders in cross cultural ministry, both in local congregations and at a national level with the Indonesian National Conference and the MCCM National Reference Committee.
Deeper engagement with his faith also led Apwee to deeper inquiry. In 2005 he completed a PhD at STTIP Jakarta (Sekolah Tinggi Teologi International Philadelphia.) The title of his thesis was ‘Cross Cultural Ministry is the fulfilment of missional mandate in the areas of Church Unity and Growth’.
“My thesis was that the Bible itself is very diverse, and therefore the kingdom of God is for all people. The only way to do mission and to grow the church is to do it cross-culturally, for all people. ”
The 14th Assembly of the Uniting Church has set as a priority the ongoing journey of living out what it means to be an intercultural Church. In Perth this July, the Assembly agreed that the Church enter into respectful consultation with culturally and linguistically diverse members of the UCA.
The Assembly Standing Committee has been given the task of finding the ‘space for grace’ that truly values, includes and respects the diversity of all God’s people.
Rather than responding in church-speak, Apwee Ting explains what he thinks that might look like using a typically Australian football metaphor.
“If you think of a football game, each cultural group is there with their own small football club and they are running around playing in their own suburb. We already have the structure – a code or league for these teams to come together. Now we need to provide the venue where these teams can play alongside each other.
“And when we play with different cultures working together, our whole Church will be transformed,” said Apwee.