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‘Healthy Church’ in Taiwan is a blessing for mission co-worker

The Rev. John McCall celebrates with members of Taiwan’s Amis culture

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. John McCall, second from left, is pictured with a church elder, the chief, and the pastor, his former student. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — When a mission co-worker is invited to speak at a Sunday service, the road that takes them there and the service itself can look very different than what we are used to.

The Rev. John McCall, who has served in partnership with the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan for more than 20 years, has learned that each invitation is different and sometimes challenging to navigate. But when he leaves, he always feels blessed.

In a letter to supporters, he talked about one of those experiences, pre-COVID-19, when he was asked by an aboriginal pastor from one of the pastor leadership groups he works with to speak at one of the church’s weekend retreats. The plan was to speak on Saturday afternoon and preach on Sunday morning. He was told to take the mass transit system to the last station and a church member would pick him up.

“We left the station and began to wind up a mountain road,” he wrote. “I had taken this road many years before, but ever since the new highway was built, this road has been the road less traveled. I found that it is now traveled by many motorcycle enthusiasts, so on Saturday morning there were lots of people out enjoying the fresh air. Since Taiwanese are unable to travel abroad this summer, the island is packed with individuals and families who want to be out and about.  Since the virus has been well-controlled here, the government encourages people to go out and spend their money as long as they wear masks and practice social distancing.”

They arrived at the retreat center, down a narrow mountain road to the river, to meet church members of the Amis tribe, one of 16 official tribes in Taiwan. The Amis tribe is the largest tribe numerically in Taiwan and traditionally have lived along the ocean, making their living as fisher folk. McCall has been a clergy member of the Western Amis Presbytery (which includes most of the urban Amis churches) for 20 years, so he immediately felt welcome.

After lunch and worship, McCall stood up to teach.

“From the meeting room we could see the river and the white water flowing through big boulders.  As I looked out at the faces, I saw many folks whom I have known for many years,” he said. “The name of this church is the ‘Healthy Church’, and it truly is a group of healthy Christians. I talked about the depth of God’s love for each one of them, and how God can use them to be a blessing in this time of uncertainty and challenge.”

After worship, McCall said the women worked on traditional beadwork while the tribal chief spoke to the youth about traditional ways of fishing and hunting.

“Since these youth have grown up in the city, they don’t have much experience with the traditional ways of finding food. It was a joy for me to see these city kids learning from the wisdom of their elders,” he said.

Later, McCall met with a young couple whose daughter he would baptize the following morning. The father is working on his doctorate in political science at the University of Hawaii. His focus is the self-determination of Taiwanese aboriginal people, including the issue of land rights.

“He grew up in a Christian home and celebrates the identity of aboriginals who are created in God’s image with a unique and precious culture,” said McCall. “But he also recognizes how the indigenous people have been oppressed. It was a delight to talk with him and learn of this educational opportunity which God has given him.”

Part of the thanksgiving celebration among the Amis people of Taiwan. (Photo by John McCall)

That evening the group gathered in an open pavilion for an evening of thanksgiving and celebration of the Amis culture. Every rural village has a harvest festival, but this group of urban aboriginals leave the city to every year to come to this location by the river to join in traditional songs and dance.

“It was a privilege for me to participate with them in this intergenerational thanksgiving event. Each fellowship group in the church presented its own unique dancing and singing. Then at the end of the evening the chief led all of us in a huge dance which moved us through the pavilion,” he said. “There was joy on each face, and it was a beautiful thing for me to see the way as marginalized people in Taiwan, they embody dignity in their identity as indigenous people and as God’s children. Their natural sense of belonging and community is powerful in our isolated world.”

As a gift, they presented McCall with a new Amis vest and handmade shoulder bag to carry supplies. Before retiring, the chief put his net in the river and the next morning harvested a full bucket of fish.

On Sunday morning, McCall preached and conducted the baptism.

“Her grandfather is an elder in the church and has been a friend of mine for 20 years” he said. “It is wonderful to see how he and his wife have passed on their strong faith to their children and now to their grandchildren. There was a depth of joy in that service in the singing and praying and in the responding to God‘s Word, which is always such an encouragement to me.”

After worship, church members walked among eight different grills of fish, pork and chicken in order to fill their plates.

McCall said when he returned to the city to get on the train, it was with a full heart.

“It was full of the love which these people share with each other. It was full of the beauty of that place beside the river. It was full of faith which is being passed from generation to generation in true and authentic ways,” McCall said. “Every time I am with them, they continue to teach me so much.”

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