Origin, Vision and Tasks of the URM

by Rev. Ron O’ Grady


There are two people who are specially qualified to give this address. The first is Professor Masao Takenaka from Kyoto whose leadership since 1958 qualify him to be known as the father of URM as we know it in Asia today. The second is Rev. Harry Daniel who was one of the earliest to catch the vision of URM while he was still the Presbyter of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Bangalore and who became the first EACC/UIM secretary in 1968.

My only small qualification for this task is that since 1964, I have been present at almost all of the meetings where critical EACC/CCA decisions have been made. I have watched history from the inside as it were and so I hope I can be reasonably objective in presenting a sympathetic view of that history.

Two weeks ago, when Rev. Kwon asked me to speak I had forgotten what a mountain of publications have flowed from the URM organization over the last 20 years. Just scanning through them quickly was a reminder of what a huge tree has grown in such a short time.

URM is a movement not an institution. It has its roots in ideas rather than structures. The central idea which started the process was the discovery by people in many parts of the industrialized world that ordinary, simple working people were no longer attending church and saw it as increasingly irrelevant. By the 1940’s the church in many cities had begun to move out of the inner city and the industrial centers and was growing mainly in the comfortable middle-class suburbs.

As people asked questions about this, they came to many similar conclusions. In France, a number of Catholic priests realized that they had almost no contact with the growing number of factory workers and didn’t even know how to talk to them. It forced many to leave their comfortable parishes and begin the worker-priest movement. It is an action which seems simple today but it shocked the Christians in France.

In both the United States and England, parishes began appointing industrial chaplains.

In Asia, the country which was wrestling hardest with industrialization and the growth of cities was Japan and the churches, already weak in numbers, found problems in adapting to this new industrial scene.

Toyohiko Kagawa became an important voice for the churches when he went to the Shinkawa slum in 1909. He wrote numerous books on the plight of the poor, but often seemed to be more preoccupied with events in USA and other centers. His strong anti-Marxism was well known and he showed a lamentable lack of appreciation of the persecution suffered by the Buraku people. Despite his courageous witness he is probably better seen as a forerunner of the moral majority in Asia than of the URM.

The motivation of the URM was quite different from these isolated European and Asian initiatives. URM from the beginning attempted to identify completely with the aspirations of the poor and the oppressed and to do this it had to reject entirely the cult of personality. There was to be no place in URM for charismatic individuals who work on their own and build their own empires. Today, while we recognize the contribution of certain individuals, the history of URM is best understood by other names where the community lived its mission: TONDO, Janata, Seoul Metropolitan Committee on Community Organization, SoCo and Zotto, Christian Worker’s Fellowship, Igorots and Dalits, the Church Labor Center, the ICI, the Peace Market, Jurong and Minangkabau, DAGA and ACPO. This is the vocabulary of the URM in Asia.

URM as an organization, began in Asia in 1958 when forty people from fifteen Asian countries met together under the auspices of the East Asia Christian Conference to discuss Industrial Evangelism. They looked at the social implications of industrialization and urbanization and the responsibility of the church; the industrial worker and the church’s program of evangelization and training the ministry for the churches responsibility in industrial areas. As you see the thinking was still preoccupied with the church, but at least there was the beginning of the recognition of wider issues than before.

Political and economic ferment in Asia in the 1950s and 60s was intense. Countries which had just become independent were faced with cultural revolutions and political immaturity. Masao Takenaka said at that time; "In many parts of Asia, the rapid transformation from feudalistic and agrarian society to modern industrial society, new emphasis on the dignity of personality, emancipation of women, enactment of land reform, development of industry and a labor union movement, and resurgence of traditional religions, etc., are going on. It is not an over exaggeration to say that the five great revolutions which took place in Western history between the 16th and 19th centuries - namely: Reformation, French Revolution, Industrial Revolution, Declaration of Independence and Civil War - are all going on in Asia today at the same time."

Takenaka gave one of the key addresses at the 1961 Assembly of the World Council of Churches at New Delhi. This was a definitive meeting for many reasons. It was the first time the WCC had met in a Third World country. Delegates from rich Western churches left their hotel each day and had to experience at first hand the sight and smell of real poverty and need.

Not surprisingly, the Assembly was very receptive to any word about service and development (the CCPD was born there) and any address which treated seriously the suffering of the people. (Quotes from Takenaka’s address). The WCC set in train the actions needed to establish a UIM desk in their organization and they located it within the "Missions" section - CWME.

The EACC met in Assembly three years later in March 1964 at Bangkok. Although there were some strong voices for a UIM type committee to be established, it never happened. I have searched my memory and the minutes to find out why this was so. There were probably a number of key factors.

1. The EACC was short of money. There was not sufficient overseas funding to keep the work floating and EACC was milking the Fellowship of the Least Coin to survive.

2. The size of the organization was getting out of hand. There were only four full-time staff inadequately paid, a further four people were given a small honorarium to work part-time, and seven others were called cooperating or program staff with no financial obligation. These people lived in 12 different countries and seldom came together.

3. The leaders in the EACC were not convinced of the value of UIM which they still associated with Industrial Missions of England.

4. The only entry point for UIM into the EACC was through the laity committee and this was already dominated by a number of people (Kyaw Than, Norman Perry, Preman Niles, Won Yong Kang) who had a fixed idea of what the laity work entailed, in retrospect I think UIM should have tried to enter EACC structures through "Mission" rather than "Laity" and it may have had a better reception.

Fortunately, Masao Takenaka was appointed chairman of the Laity committee and in the next four years brought the committee to the point where in the 1968 Assembly (also at Bangkok), the EACC appointed its first full-time Urban Industrial Mission secretary, Harry Daniel. Three months later (September), the first UIM committee met in Hong Kong and the rest is your history (Today is the 20th UIM meeting).

In those first two years, the secretary was constantly traveling. Harry’s great strength it seems to me is that he always recognized the overall importance of what we now call networking. Networks, he would say, are fluid and must be always changing and open to meet new needs. At first he picked up a number of already existing projects many of them modeled on Industrial Mission programs in USA or England and most of them established by missionaries. In Malaysia, Philippines, Pakistan, Taiwan, Thailand and Hong Kong, among others, the first UIM workers were Western missionaries. In his two years of intensive travel with UIM, he laid the ground for an Asia wide community of grassroots projects.

In 1970, Harry Daniel joined the staff of the World Council of Churches (CWME) and his place as staff of UIM was taken by Oh Jae Shik from Korea.

By now, some new voices were starting to be heard. American Herb White from the National Institute of Urban Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea and Mr. Ron FujiyOshi on the staff of the Singapore Industrial Mission, attended the second UIM meeting in Calcutta 1969 and for the first time introduced the concept of Community Organization (Quote p15,16 Minutes UIM, 1969).

Some sections of the Catholic church had been thinking along similar lines and recognizing that community organization would be threatening to the traditional churches the Catholic OHD and EACC/UIM established a joint body, ACPO in 1971 with a specific mandate to organize grassroot communities of people for empowerment.

With considerable enthusiasm, ACPO immediately plunged into the training of organizers. The TONDO foreshore areas was one of the first CO laboratories and its story is still a source of inspiration when people reflect on the empowerment of people. The TONDO story is so well known it does not need to be repeated here.

Some victories were won and some people’s lives were made better. Some who were victims discovered great sources of strength within themselves and became new leaders. But there were also many new casualties along the way. Some burnout, others were psychologically destroyed by the military and some were salvaged. The overall structure of injustice continues and new Tondos are always emerging.

In its time, TONDO became a model and a source of strength to many people.

In March 1973, Oh Jae Shik gave a report to the WCC/CWME advisory group meeting which was a prophetic statement on the role of URM and introduced many of the concepts which have now gained popular currency throughout the UIM world. These include: The recognition that ruling powers in Asia have allied themselves with new-colonial powers in powerful nations against their own people. The second liberation has now begun through the power of the people. A proper analysis of the meaning of power must be made for its nature is determined by who wields the power and how it is exercised. The people must become the subject of their own history. The church in Asia has been part of the colonial heritage and has not yet been decolonialized. The church will be liberated as it shares in the concrete struggles of people in Asia who are working for liberation, justice and peace.

The statement raised many immediate issues for the church.

Those working in the area of "development" saw the emphasis on people as a threat to their empires.

Churches dependent on "Projects" as a way of dealing with complex issues were unable to respond directly when faced with something as nebulous as a movement. Commitment requires strategy and planning.

And finally, the relationship between giving and receiving is brought into a new focus when seen from the people’s perspective and when the dependency mechanisms of aid are analyzed.

By the time the EACC met in Assembly, Singapore in 1973 and changed its name to the CCA, great changes were in the air. Until that point the Urban/Industrial emphasis had predominated but after

Singapore new visions were foreshadowed for UIM.

1. The change of the name from UIM to URM recognized the reality that the majority of Asian people are agrarian farmers and peasants and despite urbanization, this situation will continue for many years to come. Millions live at subsistence level as a consequence of injustice and discrimination.

2. The Assembly gave URM a mandate to examine unjust economic structures.

3. A documentation center (DAGA) was established to monitor specific areas of concern to URM.

4. For the first time, race and minority questions were introduced into CCA as part of the URM program.

In the midst of many staff changes at Singapore, Harry Daniel was called back from Geneva to become an Associate General Secretary of CCA and Oh Jae Shik was the only former staff person to continue to hold his position for the next quadrennium.

Of considerable importance to the thinking of the churches was the holding of a People’s Forum in connection with the Singapore Assembly. This marked a change in style for both URM and the Asian churches. It had been commonplace for churches up to that point to talk a lot about other people’s suffering. There was a degree to which church leaders used the stories of other people’s lives to build up their own mana or importance. Reading a series of talks by John R. Mott recently reinforced how strongly that approach was evident in the churches.

We exploit the suffering of others for our own purposes. (This is certainly strongly evident in the area of overseas aid). It costs little for people in a comfortable situation to champion the rights of the poor and they get recognition and adulation for it.

It means in effect that you can use rhetoric in place of life style. The church encourages this because clergy are all trained in rhetoric.

In a number of Asian conferences this situation became evident. At a conference convened in Hong Kong to look at the exploitation of workers, a factory girl was asked to speak and then she remained for the discussion. After some time of bewildered listening to the grand words of the official delegates, she finally burst out: "What are you all talking about? I’m the only worker here! All the rest of you are exploiting me."

At the People’s Forum, there was a conscious attempt to bring together the people who were directly victimized so they could tell their own stories. The participants were mainly community organizers and union workers from local communities.

The introduction to the report stated, "we came to understand that if the people are asked to join a conversation, the topic of which is neither chosen by them nor their own, the people as a subject themselves will be lost. Furthermore, unless there is a platform, only quasi-people, that is, those who pretend to be advocates of the people and who attempt to speak on their behalf will be heard."

In the next few years, the concept introduced at Singapore was developed further. For the first time, churches and the wider community in Asia were able to hear some of the authentic voices of those who had suffered most directly. Through the help of organizers, many of the victims analyzed their situation and found their own voice to speak in public gatherings. Representatives from racial and ethnic minority groups were given a platform from which to air their legitimate grievances.

In planning for the CCA Assembly in Penang in 1977, it was proposed that in place of the usual bureaucrats and bishops giving all the speeches, there should be space for the people to speak. Some executive members of CCA objected to this quite strongly (They will need interpreters. They will not be experienced enough to speak to a large Assembly, etc.) but in the end the idea was approved. The "testimonies" which were given to the Assembly were accepted by most delegates as the most helpful and certainly the most authentic part of the Assembly.

It was a small contribution of UIM toward bringing the churches into a new understanding of the people in Asian society.

In the late 1970s the work of Asia’s URM become internationally known and respected for its work in many Asian communities.

When the Far Eastern Economic Review prepared a cover feature on The Christian in Asia it mentioned URM organizations and their work in three different countries - Korea, Philippines and Hong Kong. Not a bad achievement for an organization that was only 15 years old at that time.

In 1979 Oh Jae Shik left URM to concentrate more directly on human rights questions as part of the International Affairs desk in CCA. The new URM secretary was George Ninan already well-known in URM circles through his pioneering work in Bombay with BUILD (Bombay Urban Industrial League for Development).

When Jae Shik finished his time with URM he reflected with a few of the staff on what had happened and I made these notes:

"When we began with URM the notion of the people and people’s organization was considered subversive and communist. Now it appears in many places even in UN and ESCAP documents.

Our model was to help people discover their own strength. After the TONDO experience, ACPO withdrew from it within 3 years and moved on to another battle. Our question was, how do we help these tiny people to emerge into their own community? We cannot send in urban guerrillas of they will swamp them with their methods and their rhetoric.

The fear structure in such communities prevents the people moving so we develop many fronts and many strategies to help them get rid of this fear. This means using conflict, but we must use conflict in order to educate. How else can you make the powerful hear you?"

The new initiatives begun during Jae Shik’s team were continued and developed further by George.

The new emphasis on rural work proved difficult to implement. Manuel Mondejar from the Philippines became the first rural consultant in 1975 and was followed by Bantorn Ondam from Thailand 1980-82. By their very nature rural communities are isolate from centers of a communication and developing an authentic network of rural people was major headache. Both workers concentrated more on certain areas and tried to develop programs which were less Asia-wide.

1978 saw the first consultation on minorities held in Auckland, the largest city of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Representatives of 15 minority groups from eleven countries in Asia brought their stories. In the 10 years since that time the voices of indigenous people have been heard with increasing frequency throughout Asia and the world. The demand for recognition of their identity and dignity as a people, including the rights to ancestral land and in some cases self-determination, have become recognized as legitimate by a growing number of people.

URM subsequently appointed a staff person, Kurata Masahiko, to work on minority questions and other meetings have been held.

In late 1978, a consultation on women workers led to the appointment of Sr. Teresa Dagdag of the Philippines in 1979 to head up women’s concerns. Several smaller sub-regional consultations were held to explore a specific questions related to the exploitation of women.

The 1981 Assembly of CCA at Bangalore had considerable significance for URM. After some internal debate, the CCA chose as its theme a statement which owes much to the influence of URM: "Living in Christ, with People." Some very creative papers on the theme preceded the Assembly.

At the Assembly itself, some mysteriously anonymous person organized a few hundred real people to march into the Assembly and make a presentation on the theme as they understood it. The group said they represented "harassed slum dwellers, poor tillers of the land, helpless casual wage labor in the village and cities, pickers of rags and diggers of roots, exploited women, marginalized fisherfolk, outcaste-untouchable-downtrodden dalits, persecuted adivasis and workers in ‘Christian’ hospitals and schools."

The last group caused a problem for the Assembly. When they accused the Church of South India and CASA of not being Christian in their attitudes to their employees, it caused a minor battle on the Assembly floor with threats to resign and the Assembly was forced to make an apologetic resolution when the officers (like Pilate) washed their hands of any responsibility by saying they were misled when they gave permission for the group to march on the Assembly.

Reading again the statements which were prepared for that Assembly, one marvels at how completely the ideology and language of URM has been translated into the life of the churches.

Once again, there were some deeply moving testimonies, not least being the witness of Father Ed de la Torre who was out of prison for a few months to be disciplined but was about to return to the Philippines to be arrested yet again. His words still remain:

"We must learn to live through a season of...gathering and being scattered and regrouping. And in this process of being tempered through crisis and our ability to regroup, to forget and still remember, we hope in Christ with people, we may grow into a body that is strong so that, in the end, the same mailed fist that seeks to shatter us, will in fact, be the one that will shatter.

But now is the time to live with the fact that although we do believe in people’s power, we must live with people’s weakness."

The early 1980s is a good time to end my brief history of UIM. The events which have taken place in recent years with George Ninan joining the General Secretariat and Kwon Ho-Kyung accepting the secretary’s job are well known to you all. In the next address, Jae Shik will raise some of the questions for the present. generation of UIM leadership.

[This paper was presented at the CCA-URM Committee Consultation: 20-26 January 1989, Taipei, Taiwan]