Review of URM Experiences in Asia and Future Challenges to the Asian URM Movement

Dr. Kim Yong-Bock



In order to understand Urban, Industrial and Rural Mission in Asia, which is now called Urban Rural Mission, one must give a detailed account of its history. The beginning of the story starts with a small consultation in the Philippines in the late- 1950s. The journey began with the question of industrial evangelism, that is, with the question of how to share the Good News with the poor industrial workers of Asia. The East Asia Christian Conference’s (EACC) program for the laity took the initiative to begin the story of Urban Rural Mission or URM in Asia.

During this Period, WCC already had an UIM department with Paul Loeffler as secretary. This stimulated the beginning of URM work in Asia, as did similar initiatives that were taken at the local level in countries throughout the continent. In Korea the Committee for Industrial Evangelism was created in the Presbyterian Church in that country, and similar efforts were undertaken in Japan, Taiwan and India. The central focus of concern was the sharing of the Gospel with Asia’s poor, industrial workers.

Although the work of URM was initiated with the laity concerns of the EACC, the central work of the movement started with the appointment of the Rev. Harry Daniel as the executive secretary of EACC’s Urban Industrial Mission. The URM office did not start Urban Rural Mission in Asia; rather the office was created to respond to the needs of local action groups for expanded sharing and mutual support.

I) One of the truisms of Urban Industrial Mission, then and now, is that one cannot separate the question of evangelization of workers from the whole being of workers in their person and community, including their social rights and welfare as well as their dignity and justice in industrial society. Without considering the issue of dehumanization of the workers in an industrial society, evangelization is out of the question. This is one of the reasons why URM is closely integrated with traditional mission concerns. This is one of the permanent features of Urban Rural Mission work in Asia and elsewhere.

II) In the late-1960s Asian URM groups introduced a new dimension, that is, organization of the poor for power at the local level. The leading philosophy of the organization of the poor came originally from the experience of organizing workers in unions for power to negotiate with managers. Saul Alinsky and his disciples were invited to do the initial training for organizers of the urban poor and to do the work of community organizing. This is democracy from below, or it can be called local democracy. It is grassroots participation from the underside.

The People’s democratic organization of participatory power is the central aspect of the Asian URM movement. From this movement sprang a conviction that the people are sovereign subjects of their own history. This political insight is deeply interrelated to the theological conviction that God’s sovereignty over history and the universe means the sovereignty of the people. The Seoul Metropolitan Mission for Community Organization in Korea and Zone One Tondo Organization (ZOTO) in the Philippines are examples of this type of grassroots community organization for people’s power.

III) The essential feature of the work of URM is the training of organizers and the training of trainers, which rises out of the above concern of the people’s organization. Training of the organizers who organize the people for power is the beginning and the end of URM work in Asia. To this end, the sole purpose of the Asia Committee for People’s Organization (ACPO) is to train organizers at the local, national and international levels.

IV) One of the difficulties in training organizers for facilitating the power of the people from below is the question of how to define the nature of participatory power. In ordinary and religious situations, the realistic understanding of power is not acceptable, for power is a capacity to impose one’s own will or desire upon the other in an arbitrary way. Therefore, the question always arises as to the nature of the people’s power.

The people’s power is, in the first place, a countervailing power over and against the oppressive power. It is a decentralizing and decentralized power over and against the central and centralized power. People’s power is also participatory power, which is usually characterized by direct participation by the local people. This power is based upon the self-affirmation, and even self-interests, of the people. In this sense it defies the pure moralism about power. One should not confuse the nature of this participatory power of the people with popular powers that are spontaneously formed in rapidly changing political situations although there are some similarities in basic tenets.

The actions of the people’s power begin with local issues, such as water supply, electricity, garbage dumping, sanitation and so on. Economic, social and cultural rights of local people are the central concerns, which often bring negotiation, conflict and confrontation and compromise with local authorities and local economic and social organizations of the powerful.

V) However, such local people’s organizations are bound to come into confrontation with the national powers and government authorities, especially under dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, which is often the case. When this happens, local community organizations and people’s organizations come under severe pressure and harsh oppression that is directed by the powerful factions of the country.

This inevitably leads local organizations of the people against two dimensions of power: namely, the realities of national and international power, such as transnational corporations. This necessitates understanding power on the national and international levels, which requires analytical skills, as well as knowledge of social transformation and democratization of the political process at the national level.

It is clear that people’s organizations on the local level cannot deal with national power realities, and therefore, they seek the support of various national bodies and try to form a national network of solidarity. Furthermore, to defend the local participation of the people, it becomes necessary to build democratic power within the country based on coordination of local democratic initiatives in a comprehensive manner.

VI) The local community organizations of the people cannot be isolated from international power realities either. Transnational corporations penetrate localities as economic, social and cultural powers. They make local people cheap laborers, move them around with bulldozers to execute their urban development plans and use them as objects of cultural services for tourists in collusion with national power elites.

In order to deal with international power realities, it has become necessary to build international solidarity links. International contacts, communication/information and transportation are monopolized by the multinational powers to create exclusive links among the power centers. To counter this trend, it has become essential for people’s organizations to build an international network of contacts and communication across nations and regions as well.

URM in Asia has carried out exchange programs to share experiences and to provide mutual training among URM workers. Training through itineration is one example; sharing of information is another form of solidarity action. When workers in the Bata Shoe Company in Sri Lanka were struggling to be paid under a monthly wage system instead of pay-by-piece work, the URM in Toronto, Canada, provided necessary information about Bata’s labor contract in North America to the workers in Asia. This information was crucial in the workers’ successful negotiations with Bata in Sri Lanka.

VII) It became clear in the early-1970s that documentation for local action groups was an essential feature in the building of people’s organizations and their actions. DAGA (Documentation for Action Groups in Asia) was created in 1973 to support local URM action groups in Asia. Basic beliefs about documentation were that information is an important element of power and that people were systematically denied access to necessary information. Therefore, people must have access to information in order to build power.

URM has consistently been against elitist uses of information, not necessarily against anti-intellectual pursuits. The elitists regard knowledge, science and philosophy, and technology as their property to serve the powerful. Technocracy, which regards science and technology as the major instrument of the rule over society, has often been used against the people, as it has manifested itself in transnational corporations, in military applications and universities and research centers.

People have their own stories to tell about their perceptions and experiences, and the wisdom they have gained from these concerning daily events, social situations and historical changes. URM believes that the voice of the people, which expresses their own understanding of history and society, is the criterion for the truth about historical experiences. Hitherto, history has been written in terms of achievements and failures of the political rulers from their perspective, and society has been analyzed in terms of modernization, which strengthens the powerful and modern elites. Therefore, telling the stories of the people in their own words and means of expression has been an important feature of the URM movement.

VIII) In the 1980s the URM movement faced the important issue of the vision that people held for their future lives. Part of this issue dealt with questions of ideology, which is the critical understanding of the present oppressive and exploitative social reality (analyses) and a statement of the goals for the future society in which justice will be realized. Furthermore, it contains strategies for realizing such goals.

There were two tendencies: one was to emphasize the need to have a clear and scientific analyses of historical reality in ideological terms, and the other was to recognize such a need with still more emphasis placed upon people’s own selfhood, even on the matters of historical understanding and articulation of their vision for the future. This debate continues. It has become clear that the URM movement in Asia cannot avoid ideological questions, for the people themselves are struggling in the midst of ideological struggles, be it capitalism or socialism.

IX) In addition to ideological questions, there is the issue of faith in the life and struggle of the people. Christian faith has been articulated within the context of the URM movement in Asia. Evangelism has been redefined as sharing the Good News that affirms all the people, not as Christian religious colonialism. Mission has been redefined as God’s work among the suffering and struggling peoples of Asia. Minjung theology in Korea and other similar theological reflections have emerged among the URM communities. Fundamentally URM communities have been reading the Bible in the context of their struggle and have been rediscovering the power of the Biblical stories among the poorest of the poor in Asia in their quest for a just life.

This is not all. A more important development may be the notion that the people themselves have FAITHS of their own, which become the source of liberation, overcoming not only religious shackles but also socio-political bondages as well. URM has begun to affirm strongly the people’s religious faiths and cultural wisdom for liberation. In India faith movements for liberation have been an integral part of the URM movement

X) The People Have Come of Age - this has been the core conviction of Asian URM. This was articulated during the service of Mr. Oh Jae-Shik as URM secretary of the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA). The conviction was that the people in Asia are being awakened to take charge of their own destiny. The people are no longer passive objects of rule, but they have begun to struggle to be active participants of society in order to shape their own life and destiny.

There is a broader understanding of "the people" as well. When the Asian URM movement talks about "the people," they are referring to industrial workers, rural farmers, urban poor, racial, ethnic, national, cultural and religious minorities. The people in Asia struggle against various and complex forces that create bondage, oppression and exploitation. It is in these struggles that their justice, identity and liberation are realized as vision and reality.

Indeed, the entire Christian Conference of Asia has taken this theme as an Asian reference for mission as well as the Biblical heritage of Christian faith.


It is not easy to clearly define the future challenges for the Asian people and for URM in a rapidly changing world. Although there are several visible changes that are taking place, it is impossible here to spell them out in detail. We can only identify them for our own purposes.

In recent years there has been a rapid emergence of an information society in which hi-tech communication has come to dominate the peoples of the world. Science and technology in the information industry has revolutionized the whole world. This drowns out the voices of the people. The people’s perceptions are drastically affected, their minds are crowded with the information of the powerful, and their ideas and conscious life are actively manipulated through the mass media and other means of communication that processes information. This is a source of power, and it is becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of the powerful. The information gap between the information have and have not is said to be far more serious than that of the poor and rich.

This means that the cultural life of the people in developing regions of the world will be thrusted into the economic and political vortex of the post-industrial globe, not merely in industrially advanced societies.

The other change is the reordering of the global order from the East-West polar axis to the North-South axis. The policy of perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union and subsequent changes in Central and Eastern Europe have brought about colossal changes, not only in those areas, but also within the entire global order.

The global military order of East-West confrontation is rapidly thawing, and it might be axially shifting in a new constellation of conflicts and confrontations. The axis of conflict might change from ideology to socio-economic power and cultural differences.

The formation of great economic power through the introduction of market mechanisms and the 1992 integration of the Common Market will emerge in Europe. This might bring about an economic imbalance between the North and South in a more dramatic way than before. This will intensify the pressures against the poor in the developing countries, in formally socialist countries and even in the northern countries.

Furthermore, the collapse of the official socialist state economies and their polity in Central and Eastern Europe is creating a far-reaching impact in the ideological map of the world. Although perestroika was meant to be a restructuring process from the top within the socialist system, the movement of "people’s power" has surged from below and overthrown a number of socialist states in Europe. This has raised the question of democracy from below in a most important way.

It also has become clear that such changes are taking place because of the inability of the socialist systems to secure the socio-economic, political and cultural life of the people. The people in Central and Eastern Europe are searching for a viable political economy that will not only secure democratic participation by the people but also the socio-economic life of the people as well.

A far more important change is the introduction of market mechanisms in Central and Eastern Europe. This will bring quantum economic growth to this region because of market expansion, but this may have serious social and economic consequences for these societies as well. It also concerns us too, for the economic growth in Europe may become so concentrated that growth in the developing world is undercut.

In the context of such global development, the security of the rich will be diametrically opposed against the socio-economic security of the poorest of the poor in the world. Within this context, the people, who are poor and marginalized, will demand their rights to be subjects of their own future more than ever.

Furthermore, political developments all around the world indicate a historic development of the democratic movement from below. Political changes have manifested themselves in the power of people in Eastern Europe; in Africa the people are no longer accepting the one-party system; and in Latin America civilian society is actively sought for democratic participation.

The rising nationalisms and religious and cultural differences are becoming new foci of confrontation intertwined with socioeconomic conflicts. This may be a great challenge for the people of Asia as Western culture seeks to dominate others through the control and use of communication and information. Some regard this as a "cultural war" waged against the non-White and the non-Western poor.

In this global situation, political and economic pressures will be tremendous against Asian peoples. Internal security issues will take precedence over external security concerns. The fronts of battle are open and will be expanded in the cultural and religious arena. It is in this context that justice and participation will be critical challenges to the people in Asia and those who are in solidarity with the people.

URM in Asia needs to strengthen and reinforce the principles and programs that have proven effective during the past several decades; and at the same time, it must meet the new needs created by the struggles of the people for justice and participation.

To respond to these challenges, URM needs to broaden and deepen its programs for people’s participation from below. The training of URM workers in this area needs special attention. In this connection, the sectors of industrial workers, rural peasants, ethnic, national and racial minorities, urban poor, women and low castes need to form a solidarity network with commonly shared analyses, a common vision and a mutual strategy for realization of the sovereignty of the people through democracy and participation.

Another area in which to focus URM’s energy should be "communication for solidarity among the people." The existing communication and information order represents the power nexus of the multinational political, economic and cultural centers, and the people need to counter this power nexus through a communication network from below.

Special attention also should be given to the area of people’s religion and culture, which are fundamental resources of the people for struggle in order to realize justice and participation. The religion and culture of the people often provide vision and wisdom for shaping their own future. In this context, theological reflection and inter-religious solidarity is very important.

We cannot list all the issues now that are arising out of the present and future challenges to the people. Programmatic implications should be further clarified as the issues affecting people change, and the voices of the people are heard.

[This paper was presented at the 21st CCA-URM Committee Meeting, 24-26 February 1990, Seoul, Korea.]