Friday, October 02, 2009

Longest Serving Pastor in Johor Retires

New Straits Times (Malaysia) 2 October 2009

State's longest serving pastor retires

Roger Tan

YESTERDAY saw the retirement of Johor's longest-serving pastor, Reverend Nicholas Yeo, 67, after more than 35 years of faithful service in one of Johor's oldest churches, Holy Light Church (English) (HLCE) at Jalan Gertak Merah, Johor Baru.

Reverend Nicholas Yeo with  his wife, Lee Swee Keng, who faithfully supported his ministry for more than 30 years.
Reverend Nicholas Yeo with his wife, Lee Swee Keng, who faithfully supported his ministry for more than 30 years.
Reverend Nicholas Yeo welcoming Colonel Mustaffa Awang  for the Boys Brigade Awards Day on  March 20, 1976.
Reverend Nicholas Yeo welcoming Colonel Mustaffa Awang for the Boys Brigade Awards Day on March 20, 1976.

The Holy Light Church was founded by a young missionary from the Presbyterian Church of England, Reverend John Cook in 1886. Then, Cook was much assisted by a Scotsman, Datuk James Meldrum, who was the son-in-law of Reverend Benjamin Keasberry, a tutor to Sultan Abu Bakar.

The church grounds in Jalan Gertak Merah were given by the late Sultan.

At the time, the Sunday worship services comprised Chinese (Teochew) and English sessions, and many British civil servants and servicemen based in Johor Baru attended them.

However, when Meldrum passed away in 1908, the English service also came to a halt. It was not until August 1952 that the new resident moderator of the church, Reverend George Hood, revived the English service.

Between 1952 and 1973, foreign missionaries -- Hood, Richard Shad, Robert Elder, Derek Gill, Gilbert Lum, Cecil Gracey, Donald Elliot and Robert Irving -- continued to minister the English-speaking congregation as it was difficult to find an Asian who was prepared to serve as a pastor.

Their prayers for an Asian to take over the ministry were finally answered in December 1973 when Yeo, then 31 years old and a former secondary school teacher who had just graduated from the Singapore Bible College, was inducted as a preacher of the English service.

Hood, 92, who now lives in Scotland, later wrote that when the hopes of getting an Asian pastor were realised, it was like rain falling on dry ground, bringing new life and growth of the seeds that the foreign missionaries had planted.

Then on Aug 31, 1979, Yeo was officially ordained as the church's first Asian minister.

In his more than 30 years of ministry at Holy Light Church (English), the Batu Pahat-born Yeo was ably supported by his wife, Lee Swee Keng, who hailed from Klang, Selangor. Apparently, the couple met in 1969 at a Teachers' Christian Fellowship Conference and soon fell in love and were married on July 29, 1971 in Batu Pahat. In 1977, Swee Keng also gave up her teaching career to assist Yeo in their ministry at HLCE.

Even though he does not undertake aggressive proselytisation, nevertheless the depth and breadth of Yeo's impact on the lives of the many who came to know him is a testimony of the pious life which he leads and a role model which he plays as an exemplary pastor to his colleagues as well as a religious patriarch to his congregation.

Yeo possesses a multiplicity of gifts. He speaks and writes impeccable English, and has a mellifluous voice that always warms the hearts of the congregation whenever he sings.

I find Yeo to be extremely humble despite the many honours and accolades paid him over more than three decades of ministerial service. I still remember how I once informed him that I should write to the authorities to nominate him for a Datukship especially when he was also instrumental in setting up the English Speaking Presbytery (ESP) within the Presbyterian Synod, and was the ESP's first moderator. Yeo declined, for he always seeks to please the God he serves rather than men.

I also remember Yeo as someone who does not retaliate or speak evil of those who disagree or criticise him. Faced with a litany of accusations against him during a church crisis in the 1990s, there was never a single moment when defending himself did Yeo retaliate or attack his accusers -- a virtue of forgiveness which many of our politicians today seriously lack and ought to emulate.

Perhaps his life and service at HLCE are best summed up by Elder Dr Koh Seong Kooi.

"If you look at his life, he is a patient guy. He is kind and does not envy. He is not rude. He is not self-seeking. He is not easily angered," said Dr Koh, 56.

"He does not delight in evil. He rejoices with the truth. He keeps no record of wrongs. He always protects; always trusts; always hopes and perseveres. As a shepherd looking after the flock in Holy Light, we have the best pastor with us."

Paul Juby, 77, a captain of the Johor Baru 1st Company of Boys Brigade in the 1970s and who now lives in England, agrees.

"I well remember when Nicholas came to Johor Baru when I was the Captain of the Boys' Brigade. He gave whole-hearted support to the Boys' Brigade and I know full well that he has been a great pastor for more than 30 years. He is a wonderful man who has done so much for so many people," said Juby.

In his last official sermon to the congregation as their pastor, Yeo reminded them this: "While we move along with change, there are absolutes which we should not let go of. The absolutes are those of God -- do not change His Word which is steadfast as our life manual."

In appreciation of their services, HLCE will hold a special retirement service and appreciation dinner for Yeo and Swee Keng at New York Hotel, Johor Baru, at 5pm on Sunday.

To Pastor and Swee Keng who have been a great inspiration to many as well as my family and I, we thank you and wish you happy retirement and many, many more years of good health and happiness.

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