Christ calls, Asians respond

Lent series 2024


From the brink of suicide, Malaysian walks to the shore of faith

By Vanitha Nadaraj

March 27, 2024 03:48 AM

Francis Ahleong says he felt at peace when he started attending the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in 2023

Francis Ahleong along with some 1,700 catechumens will be baptized at the Easter Vigil 2024 across six dioceses and three archdioceses in Malaysia. (Photo supplied)

Francis Ahleong along with some 1,700 catechumens will be baptized at the Easter Vigil 2024 across six dioceses and three archdioceses in Malaysia. (Photo supplied)

A very distraught Francis Ahleong once stood on the third-floor balcony of his home in Petaling Jaya, a Kuala Lumpur suburb, ready to jump to his death.

That was three years ago, and now he is preparing to be baptized during this Easter Vigil.

“I was depressed, wanted to kill myself,” the 27-year-old, said.

It was in August 2020, during the height of a nationwide Covid lockdown. At the time he was working in a scuba equipment shop in a mall close to Kuala Lumpur.

The lockdown forced the shop to temporarily close, just like many other businesses.

His salary was also cut by 10 percent. The reduced income, lack of socialization and the resulting anxiety pushed him to the brink of jumping from his balcony.

Just as he was about to jump, “I heard a voice telling me to get off the balcony, go inside and read my Bible. I don’t know if that was God or an angel,” he told UCA News.

Although not baptized, Ahleong was familiar with the Bible as he grew up in Tamparuli, a Christian-majority village in Sabah province. Most of its 30 families are Catholics, while a few are Protestants.

His parents were born Catholic but did not practice the faith. They registered their son’s name as Francis, although he was not baptized.

The village is in the mountains of Sabah and is about a 40-minute drive from Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Borneo. Most villagers make a living by leasing camping essentials for holidaymakers who come to the area.

Others are rubber smallholders and vegetable farmers.

In the village, he lived with his maternal aunt and her husband, who is the village head and a catechist at St. Pius X Church which comes under the Kota Kinabalu archdiocese.

They regularly took him to the church for Mass when he was a teenager.

“They are like parents to me. They asked if I wanted to be baptized but I said no,” he said. “Although I went with them to church, I didn’t learn much about the faith.”

However, he had been reading the Daily Mass Scriptures online. He wanted to know their context and bought a Bible after he went to Petaling Jaya in 2017 for work.

When he returned to his room from the balcony, he took the Bible and read it. Since then, "the urge to kill myself has been no longer there,” he said.

But there was still something unsettling within him even after the lockdown was lifted and he returned to work and began collecting his full salary again.

That’s when Ahleong’s girlfriend, also from Sabah asked him to join catechism classes at St Ignatius Church, near his home.

“She told me to go. She said I would meet new people and it was better than being alone,” he said.

Ahleong said he felt at peace when he started attending the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) in 2023.

His girlfriend was a baptized and confirmed Catholic. “She wants both of us and our children [when they have them] to be Catholics too,” he said.

The parish’s RCIA facilitator, Eric Fernandez, said Ahleong is “eager to know Christ, but he has missed many sessions” because of his work schedule.

Ahleong works 12 hours a day till 10 p.m. and only has Monday off. The RCIA sessions are on Sunday afternoons.

Fernandez has now added one-to-one online sessions with Ahleong to make up for the missed classes.

Mary Thien, who has been heading the Malay language Apostolate in St Ignatius Church, said some 30 people had been baptized and confirmed since the apostolate started there in 2017.

Most were Protestants or children of Catholics who deserted the faith.

Dioceses in Malaysia have special language apostolates for Chinese, Tamil and Malay. Each language conducts RCIA concurrently along with English and all the catechumens get baptised together.

Ahleong is just one of the 1,700 catechumens preparing to receive baptism at the Easter Vigil 2024 across six dioceses and three archdioceses in Malaysia, according to Vatican agency Fides.

When his contract at work ends this December, Ahleong plans to return to his village and start a food business.

“I have a desire to be a catechist like my uncle in my parish there,” Ahlong said, adding that he is eagerly awaiting his baptism.

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