Review of URM Experiences in Asia
and Future Challenges to the Asian URM Movement
Dr. Kim Yong-Bock
A BRIEF REVIEW
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 Conferences (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 Asias 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 EACCs 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 Peoples 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 Gods 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 peoples 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
peoples 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 Peoples 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 ones own will or desire
upon the other in an arbitrary way. Therefore, the question always arises as to the nature
of the peoples power.
The peoples 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. Peoples 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
The actions of the peoples 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 peoples 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 peoples 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 peoples 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
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 peoples 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
Batas 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 peoples 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 peoples 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 Gods 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 peoples religious faiths and cultural wisdom for
liberation. In India faith movements for liberation have been an integral part of the URM
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.
CHALLENGES OF THE FUTURE
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 peoples 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
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 "peoples
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
To respond to these challenges, URM needs to broaden and deepen its
programs for peoples 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
Another area in which to focus URMs 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 peoples
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.