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Judith Laoyan-Mosomos and Justin Chan on Multicultural Worshiping Communities in Singapore

Methodist School of Music aims to equip and edify worshipers and the church through music and the arts. Staff members Judith Laoyan-Mosomos and Justin Chan talk with Maria Cornou, an associate director at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, about their worshiping communities and practices and issues highlighted in COVID-19.

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This interview occurred in the fall of 2020 as part of a course "Learning from Worshiping Communities Worldwide" offered by Calvin Theological Seminary and taught by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff Maria Cornou and John D. Witvliet.

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Episode Transcript:

Host: 

Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. In this series of conversations hosted by Calvin Institute of Christian Worship staff members, we invite you to explore connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of cultural contexts, including places of work, education, community development, artistic and media engagement, and more. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faithful worship and witness in our own communities. Methodist School of Music, an agency of the Methodist Church in Singapore, aims to equip and edify worshipers and the church through music and the arts. In this episode, staff members Judith Laoyan-Mosomos and Justin Chan talk with María Cornou, an associate director at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, about their worshiping communities and practices and issues highlighted during COVID-19.

María Cornou: 

Today we have two special guests from Singapore, Judith Laoyan-Mosomos and Justin Chan. Welcome, my friends, to our course on engaging worldwide congregations and learning from them about responses to this COVID crisis. I'd like to start this interview asking you if you could introduce yourself, the community you represent, and your roles there.

Judith Laoyan-Mosomos: 

I am Judith Laoyan-Mosomos. I come from the Philippines, but I am based in Singapore. I came to Singapore in 2006, mainly to serve as staff at the Methodist School of Music. I am presently the director for worship and church music, and while at this school I am also attached to a church as the choir director. I live on campus. Our Methodist School of Music is seated on the same campus as the Trinity Theological College. So in this campus, I have been interacting with seminarians at the college, although I don't have a position there; it's because I live in the community that I have contact with them. So in this school, which was established in 1997, I joined them in 2006. Justin?

Justin Chan: 

Hi, I'm Justin. I'm a true-blue Singaporean. I'm trying to speak as slow as possible, because Singaporeans like to talk very fast. I'm a program executive at the Methodist School of Music. I've been here since 2019, but I've been in my church, Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church, since the year 1999. And I've grown from being just a church member to serving on worship teams as a guitarist and eventually becoming one of the music directors here serving in the contemporary service. I also lead worship for both our traditional and contemporary services.

María Cornou: 

And which languages are your worship services ( held in)?

Justin Chan: 

We worship in English, and everything's in English.

María Cornou: 

So English is a regular language in your context; which other languages are represented in your community?

Justin Chan: 

In my particular community , it's English, Mandarin, to a lesser extent Tamil, and to a lesser extent Tagalog. . . . We have a community of international members, I think some of them from China, some of them from Philippines, some of them from India, etc.

María Cornou: 

Good. And what about languages in the seminary, Judith?

Judith Laoyan-Mosomos: 

In the seminary, there are two tracks. We have the Chinese and we have the English, although the students come from different parts of Asia. So either you join the Chinese track or the English track.

María Cornou: 

That's very interesting, because I have been talking to other Asian siblings in Christ, and I have learned that people in Southeast Asia travel to study theology. And so usually your communities are more multicultural. That's a challenge also when we have to blend worship and make worship inclusive for people with different languages and different cultures. Could you describe for us a little bit about your worshiping community, the neighborhood, the consituency , and a little bit of the history of the community?

Justin Chan: 

Our church is situated in a part of the neighborhood that is what we consider---I'm trying to find the politically correct thing to say ... I'm kidding. ... If I'm being perfectly honest and objective, our church is middle class. The profile of our church is that we have quite well-to-do families---majority well-to-do families---and we have maybe, let's say, 20% of people who are what we would consider [unintelligible] community. We have been around for the past 42 years. It started as a teaching point in someone's home, someone's house. ... Essentially it was the pastor's house somewhere nearby in the community, then eventually got a plot of land. We bought the land and we built the church building there. The interesting thing about our church is that we are actually three different churches in one building because of the way that Singapore Methodism is set up. We have Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church English congregation, Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church Chinese congregation, and Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church Tamil congregation: three separate churches sharing one body. And because of the setup, all the facilities in the church are shared among the three different churches. And we live in pretty good harmony. We tore down our church building several years ago 2010. Then we rebuilt the church from the ground up. The new building has been around since 2012. We have the kind of financial resources to pull off rebuilding because I think our church profile is a bit more well-to-do.

María Cornou: 

What are the sizes of these congregations, these different congregations that gather in the same building?

Justin Chan: 

Broadly speaking, and to round up the numbers , the English side is around 1,000, Chinese is around 700 or 800, and the Tamil side is about 100.

María Cornou: 

That's a large number of people gathering every weekend. Well, before the crisis, then, you will tell me what happened after COVID, and what about your worshiping community shifted?

Judith Laoyan-Mosomos: 

Since I'm talking more about our school, it was founded in 1997 as an agency of the Methodist Church in Singapore. We seek to be a center of resource in the area of worship and church music, not only for the Methodist church, but also for other denominations. So we serve as a resource center. And this has developed---I came in 2006, and this was the same time when the team from Calvin Institute led by Dr. Emily Brink came and led the first worship symposium, which we hosted. Yes. And from there we copied that format and organized our own in 2009, and thereafter, it has been every two years. And every time I come to Calvin and ask that you send somebody to be a resource person for us, they happily send one or two. And that has been the relationship that we've had with Calvin. And for this also we continue to develop courses that we can offer to worship leaders. And we've always looked up to your college, your institute, as a model, and we are very blessed. So basically that's our main ministry. And because we are an agency of the Methodist Church in Singapore, we also help in developing liturgies for worship services; that is organized by the Methodist Church, the larger church. For example, we are now looking at preparing a service for the consecration of our newly elected bishop. And when we do this, we always have to keep in mind that we have the Chinese, the Tamil, and the English congregations, because that's the community that's around the Methodist Church.

María Cornou: 

So these worship services are trialing well?

Judith Laoyan-Mosomos: 

On paper, but when it's executed, it's mainly Chinese bilingual. It's bilingual.

María Cornou: 

And do you have chapel at the seminary weekly, or chapel services for the students?

Judith Laoyan-Mosomos: 

Although we sit in the college campus, we are an autonomous body. Our faculty and staff, we hold our worship services only once a month.

María Cornou: 

With the student body also?

Judith Laoyan-Mosomos: 

No, because our students are worship leaders who are in their respective churches.

María Cornou: 

I see. So everyone is expected to worship in their own worshiping communities. Interesting. So in the US , the COVID crisis started in March , around mid-March, but I know that probably for you, things started earlier. And my question is about the impact of this new development, this new situation that is affecting the entire globe. How did your worshiping communities respond to the crisis, and how this situation has affected, in positive and in challenging ways , your worship services, your preaching, and your community engagement?

Judith Laoyan-Mosomos: 

At the Methodist School of Music, we developed a series of liturgies for the season of Easter through Pentecost. So it was like a supplemental worship service online, which people who were interested in would log in and join us. So we don't [unintelligible] together on the Sunday service. Otherwise it will clash with the regular Sunday services. While it served as a supplementary worship service to the community, it was also a worship resource for people who are looking for ways to do these online services. And of course being a resource center, we had to come up with courses---webinars---that we could offer to the community and webinars like praying through the time of crisis of responding to COVID - 19. And we even got Rev. Dr. Glenn Packiam do his Worship and the World to Come, and the team of Dr. Lester Ruth, where they talked about the book Flow. The whole team was there and they shared also, because we were talking to worship leaders. In the meantime, we also had to quickly adjust---we have a program which is a certificate in Christian worship. So we had to move this online and adjust so that the modules will be more relevant to the present situation. And our resource persons were also sensitive to this adjustment. So everybody was flexible and open to what was going on. And the good thing that happened was we had participants coming from Malaysia, China, Philippines, and India. So because it was online, they don't have to wait for worship symposium to come. In fact, on Saturday is Module Four.

María Cornou: 

For your regular students, classes went online very early?

Judith Laoyan-Mosomos: 

No, this [October 2020) is the first time we have online.

María Cornou: 

So you have [to have been] very, very fast to move from residential program to online teaching. That's been a challenge in most places. It happened to us too.

Host: 

You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, check out our website at worship.calvin . edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.

María Cornou: 

And Justin, what about your congregation, your community?

Justin Chan: 

Similar to Judith, we had to move everything online. The thing is in Singapore, we [very much] follow the government guidelines given to us. And when the government guidelines came out, it was a complete---religious services were not allowed to take place on premises, so we all had to shift to an online format. And the way we did it was we were doing everything prerecorded, which is ... the worship band, each of us will record our instruments and put it together for worship videos, sort of like---are you familiar with YouTube worship covers? That's kind of like what we're doing with the worship team. You know, the preacher has to, to record a sermon from his home. Worship leaders and prayer leaders have to record their various parts from their homes. And there's a full-time staff at church to compile all these videos together to put together to form one service video. And so what has happened is a lot of the operations that were concentrated on Sunday become dispersed throughout the whole week. In fact, the way the operations go now is that everything starts from the Sunday evening---the service is barely finished and the staff has to give out information like the songs to record for the week, the various parts of the liturgy for the people to record parts for, and so what this really does with our online presence, our YouTube channel, our social media, Facebook, Instagram, [we didn't] utilize that much, but with COVID-19 , all of our portals, all of our channels, utilization went up 300 percent, and it became a lot easier to share sermons and to share links to the service video to our unbelieving family and friends. I've heard testimonies and reports of how some members find it easier to share, to talk about their faith with nonbelieving family and friends because now they can share links and they can [say], "Hey, check this out; listen to this; hey, check out this song that I'm playing on." Quite a fun thing for us, actually, but the main problem that we have with engagement. While we increase our reach , the problem is the technology makes it quite limiting for those who are non-tech-inclined. So while we're able to recall services, the people who are involved are those who can involve themselves, those who know how to record themselves, those who know how to use audio/video technology. We have not been able to get our older folk in our ministries to serve because they don't know how to use technology and stuff like that. And so while our worship ministry is maybe thirty people, [we're] only really engaging ten people on a weekly basis. So every week there's a rotation. We try to alternate, but essentially there are ten people in my ministry who are recording every single week. And that's a kind of pace that even some professional recording artists don't put themselves through. It can be a bit of a burnout we are experiencing; some of the people who have been recording week in and week out, there's a bit of burnout because this has been going on for about four months now. Also the problem now that we have is we need to try and find a way to, to spread out the recording assignments, to give scheduled breaks and to make sure that the people who can commit to this don't get burnt out over the long run.

María Cornou: 

Are you still in lockdown, or are you able to gather for worship? What is the situation there?

Justin Chan: 

As of today, the situation is that you can gather [up] to a hundred people, but there are some restrictions in place. For example, there's no singing in services, and there's no fellowshiping, no mingling about, and in my church in particular, you need to register your attendance before coming down to church. ...

María Cornou: 

Record your presence in order to be tracked if some situation develops?

Justin Chan: 

Well, the thing is the services that are allowed on premises right now [we] decided to make Holy Communion services for those who want to receive communion, go down for the service. And the service is short, like thirty minutes. There's no singing; there's one pianist in the background. That's about it. But for the regular Sunday service experience, the leaders still want to use the online service video as status quo.

María Cornou: 

And Judith, which are the main resources the congregation request from you, or need assistance from the center?

Judith Laoyan-Mosomos: 

Prayers. So the resources that we use, we are really blessed that we have your institute to refer them to. Sometimes we write some of our own, we translate them to Chinese and then have them available, accessible on our on website. We have not developed much, but we are encouraged to do this because the only time that they would come to us was when the services weree not online. So now that it is online, we also look up other resources that we can refer to.

María Cornou: 

One of the topics we are trying to explore while we travel virtually to visit different worshiping communities around the globe is to reflect on worship and culture. Which would you say is a cultural, typical feature, typical element from your own context that is relevant or has made it into your worship services, something that is not imported or was not brought by the missionaries, but some cultural element that is a form of contextualization for you?

Judith Laoyan-Mosomos: 

Generally in Asia, worship services are really, as you mentioned, patterned to what we have inherited from the missionaries coming from the West. And I would say in Singapore, many church members have converted from other religions. So taking something from culture is a very, very sensitive issue. In the Philippines---I come from the Philippines---I have seen how my culture, my church has transcended this issue of syncretism. I belong to a tribe that is called the Igorots. So everything---our gongs, our dances, our chants---those were all pagan. And then later eighties, toward the nineties, I was then in the Asian Institute for Liturgy and Music. And this was where we were developing songs, liturgies, and trying to convince the church that these are not pagan elements. So slowly, now the Episcopal Church in the Philippines has adopted these cultural elements. For example, there's a lot of chanting. So we use that for the songs, for example. During the offering, we use the gongs to bring in the offering elements to the altar. But you will still see that the structure is the same structure that you have in the West; the prayer book, that's the same thing. So friends from the West, when they come here and then they want to see something different, will be disappointed that it's still the same thing. So this is something that we hope to develop in the Methodist School of Music, where Justin and I are. It's a very tall order because ... you notice that Justin is in an English church, an English congregation; to make the English congregation sing a Chinese hymn will be a challenge. So, in other words, it's still something that we need to develop, appreciate, embrace.

María Cornou: 

I think it's a challenge for many communities around the globe, even though enculturation and contextualization is not a new topic. We are still in the process of reflecting on cultural elements around us that could be brought into Christian worship that make sense and is not offensive. And, as you have mentioned , overcoming all the concern about syncretism and this kind of thought. Resuming the topic of COVID, what wisdom has been especially important for you during these months, and if you were asked to share some new learning or challenge to people in other parts of the world, what would be your contribution or a resource, a new finding, a new learning that you could share with people from different parts of the world about this particular COVID situation?

Judith Laoyan-Mosomos: 

I would say the merging of the sense of social holiness and personal holiness is very important for us to deal with. You know, when we talk about worship like it's a personal experience, we tend to forget the social element, [and] this actually manifested in the intercessions that we have. So when you hear an intercessory prayer, you can see also how much, how sensitive the worshiping community is to the wider community or to the global community. So I'm very much glued to what's going on in America. All my siblings are there and it's really, really crazy. But even if I say that, it also is happening here, you know. So as a church, how are we responding to the social issues that have been highlighted in this COVID- 1 9. [They have] been existing, but they were just highlighted because this thing happened. So how are we now responding as a church, not just in intercession, but also when we go out in the community.

María Cornou: 

One of the things that has been highlighted in many parts of the globe is social inequality. In our perspective, as someone [who has] never been in your country, the perception we have is that Singapore is a wealthy country or a country where most people have a means of life, but this could be an assumption that is wrong. Do you experience also this inequality, this concentration of wealth on the one hand and poverty on the other hand, or is it not something that is typical of your community?

Judith Laoyan-Mosomos: 

I'm a foreigner here. So , probably I come with that lens. So things that were highlighted during this COVID-19 were how the Singapore structure is being built by a lot of foreign workers. And that's where COVID - 19 cases were really, really concentrated. Why? Because the dormitories were really, really packed. So then after that, it was highlighted to us the living conditions of these foreign workers. Oh, my. While you are in this very good structure, there is something going on out there, which I think the church will have to pay attention to in terms of its mission, in terms of its outreach. And not only that, if you talk about the privilege of the wealthy, for example, then you see cases that are being highlighted. Again, there was just a recent case [of] a maid employed by a very top official, things like this. So how is the church responding to issues like this? I'll leave it to Justin.

Justin Chan: 

I'll just cite one example that my church has been doing. I think what happened with COVID-19 was ... the social issues [unintelligible]. We realized that there has been a homeless issue and my church responded (after being pushed by our pastor in charge) that we should let our church be a building--since it's not being used---we should open up part of the building such that we could have a shelter for homeless people. It was part of a program where several organizations got together. So it wasn't just a religious thing. ... But my church ended up housing, few of these homeless people, and they set up bunkbeds in an area that was ... essentially the whole building's not being used much at all. This was done pre-COVID-19. I don't think it would have ever gone through because our church has in particular, I think . .. m y congregation is always a bit wary on security issues and "What if they come and take something from here," ... or "What if they end up being freeloaders of the church building," those kind of sentiments. Those sentiments were not pronounced when COVID-19 hit and we saw these things happening in our community. Certainly I think this has softened a bit, humbled us a bit, because we realized that we have so much more than some people in our community.

María Cornou: 

Thank you very much. This was a wonderful conversation. If I have to say a key word now for our students, it's this social engagement through worship and through service. Thank you very much, Judith. Thank you very much, Justin. God continue blessing your ministries and your lives and all the people in Singapore and in the different countries that your community represents. Thank you.

Host: 

Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at worship.calvin.edu to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.

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