Father Cool

Father Jojo [Right] dancing in Iban longhouse, Kuching
“Cool” is the adjective often used to describe him and he’s also known as “the guy with the cool hair.”  These are intriguing remarks that rarely apply to an ordained priest of the Society of Jesus (SJ), a religious order of men called Jesuits, who follow the teachings of the Catholic Church.  But it certainly applies to Rev Father Dr Joseph Fung, SJ. 

If priests are perceived as people you only see inside a church building, Fr Joseph, better known as Fr Jojo, 54, serves by immersing himself in the community to better understand the people he’s working with.  Ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1986, Fr Jojo is a familiar face among parishioners of the Malacca-Johor Diocese.  After serving four and a half years in the parish of St Francis Xavier, Petaling Jaya, Fr Jojo moved to Johor Baru to serve in the Malacca-Johor Diocese and he’s been here for the last 10 years. 

Father Jojo collecting mussels with Orang Seletar
Trained in anthropology and contextual theology, his interests are in ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, the pluralistic context of Asian religions and the poor.  He is currently involved in three main ministries– the Campus Ministry, the Orang Asli Ministry and the Ministry of Ecumenism and Inter-religious Dialogue. 

Since 1999, he has been conducting research among the Orang Seletar, a coastal aboriginal people who live along the southern coast of Johor, and among the Murut hill people in Sabah. 

This Jesuit anthropologist is using his training to learn more about the indigenous culture and is actively involved in training and equipping the Orang Seletar with skills like deep-sea fishing, to improve their income and livelihood.  By making essential information available to them in livelihood projects, he is a vital link in the network between them and the State and Federal Government.  He knows that when these villagers acquire the skills to use computers and can access information on their own, they gain a sense of dignity and empowerment.  As he connects with these communities and feels their struggles, he is better disposed to respond and mobilize resources to help them develop a more sustainable livelihood.

Father Jojo singing with varsity students
in fund-raising event
As the National Coordinator of Malaysian Catholic Students, diocesan director of the Campus Ministry of Catholic Students and national director of the Malaysian Caltholic Students’ Movement for East and West Malaysia, Fr Jojo is introducing university students to the lifestyles of indigenous people. 

When he visits villages for his research, students are encouraged to join him for first-hand experiences and learn about the need to preserve the villagers’ livelihood and the protection of the delicate eco system. 

He hopes to show students the positive traits of indigenous people, especially their resourcefulness, and let them see the goodness inherent in the indigenous belief system. 

Book by Father Jojo in English and Chinese translation

Fr Jojo has published six books with several translated into Chinese and his fourth book, “Ripples on the Water” is a revised version of his doctoral dissertation written at the Association of Chicago Theological Schools in the United States.  His dissertation was re-written as a book after he spent a further two years with the indigenous people of Malaysia. 

His latest book, “Garing the Legend, A Decorated Hero, A Renowned Shaman,” is about the life of a renowned shaman named, Garing, a hero who was decorated by Queen Elizabeth II for bravery.  Other books titles by Fr Jojo are, “Inner Whisper”, “Shoes-off Barefoot We Walk” and “Rainbow of Life.” 

At the peak of the floods in December 2006, the Johor branch of the Malaysian Consultative Council for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism, worked in collaboration with Bahai, Sai Baba and Islamic religious groups to channel funds and aid to the victims.  Fr Jojo, who was council President (2004 – 2006), coordinated the distribution of kerosene stoves and basic necessities to affected families in Kg Laut, Skudai.  He believes that inter-religious dialogue is the bridge that will unite humanity with compassion, regardless of race, language and religion, especially during natural disasters and times of crisis.

Father Jojo singing solo in a children's concert

Fr Jojo recalls one of the best moments in his ministry on that day when he was driving on the
Pasir Gudang Highway
and spotted a car that was stalled by the roadside.  He had already driven pass about 200m but decided to stop and slowly reversed to see how he could help.  He saw a Malay family in the car and asked, “Boleh saya tolong?”

When the driver alighted and came around the car, he was dressed in a jubah with turban and looked like an Arab mullah.  Fr Jojo joined him to push-start the car and as they were pushing the car, he thought with amusement that it would look very interesting if he was dressed in his Jesuit priestly cassock!  At that moment, they were not a Catholic priest and a devout Muslim but just believers in God who teaches us to love and help one another in times of need.  Fr Jojo believes that when we can speak the language of the heart, we will be better of as religious people and have a right relationship with God and man.

Besides speaking Hakka, his own dialect, Fr Jojo is also fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese, English, Malay and Tagalog.  His practical experience in the field of anthropology is keeping him busy with projects and speaking engagements with indigenous groups, students and parishioners, as well as lecturing in the East Asian Pastoral Institute in Manila, the Philippines.  Fr Jojo chooses to dress casually in jeans and T-shirt but even if he’s robed in his priestly garb, you will agree that he’s still easily distinguished by his “coolness.”

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in January 2011

Update Info:
Peggy with Fr Jojo and Vincent D'Silva having
coffee and cake at Jalan Tan Hiok Nee sidewalk cafe

Peggy with Fr Jojo, February 2011

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