IN WHAT is believed to be a historic first, a Singaporean missionary has been installed as head of the Anglican Church in the South American nation of Bolivia.
At a ceremony held recently, Archdeacon Raphael Samuel was consecrated as the Diocesan Bishop of Bolivia.
This makes him the first Asian missionary to take a seat among the highest echelons of leadership in the Spanish-speaking Anglican world. He is also believed to be the first Singaporean to head a diocese outside of Singapore.
During the over two-hour-long service held at a church in Santa Cruz, Bolivia's most populous city, Bishop Samuel was presented with a ring, a staff, vestments and a stole - symbols of the office of a bishop.
Top Anglican clergy from the region and delegates from Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and the United States attended the service.
Bishop Samuel, who is married with one child, is the third bishop of Bolivia. He takes over from Bishop Frank Lyons, an American who has returned to serve in the US after 11 years in Bolivia.
The 56-year-old Singaporean is no stranger to Bolivia. In 1993, at the invitation of the Bolivian church, he relocated there with his wife and then three-year-old son.
The couple have since done extensive work with the congregation, opening up churches and helping to raise local pastors.
The bishop was also heavily involved in diocesan matters at the national level, including establishing a framework that helped the Church there attain diocesan status.
While a search committee, made up of native lay persons and clergy, had initially considered a local for the position, he later withdrew from the process. Bishop Samuel was then elected.
"The 20 years I've spent in Bolivia has probably left the impression that I have adapted to the culture and that I understand their aspirations," he told The Straits Times.
The Bolivian clergy and congregation "were very excited" for Bishop Samuel, said Reverend Steven Asirvatham, who attended the service as a representative of the Singapore Diocese. "They consider him as one of them because he's been there for 20 years," he added.
Singapore's Bishop Rennis Ponniah added: "Bishop Samuel's humility, heart of a servant and selfless commitment to the Bolivian church has commanded a certain measure of trust and respect."
He also said that the fact that a missionary can rise to become a bishop "should encourage more Singaporeans to think of serving overseas".
The newly installed bishop, who is an alumnus of the Anglo- Chinese Schools, said he was drawn to the Latin American mystique at an early age.
"The encounter between the Spanish conquistadores and the native populations... and their unique brand of swashbuckling football" all dazzled him.
After a short stint in the Singapore navy, he stepped into full- time ministry with the Anglican Church here in 1980. He subsequently spent four years studying at Trinity Theological College, where he met his wife Michelle Lee.
By then, former Singapore Anglican Bishop Moses Tay had been establishing ties with the Bolivan church, and when the opportunity came to serve there, Bishop Samuel leapt forward.
While his flock today is not huge - there are only about 900 Anglicans who worship at eight congregations compared to the 30,000 across 27 parishes in Singapore - they are spread out over an area three times the size of Malaysia and across a diversity of cultures.
This makes it a challenge for him as bishop to reach out to individual churches and build unity, he said.
The growing drug and street violence in the country of about 10 million does not make working conditions any easier.
Yet, one of the biggest challenges the Church there faces is the high divorce rates. Nearly half the marriages end in divorce, many lasting for only two years, he said.
"There are also many single mothers in our churches and divorcees. We provide a safe environment of acceptance, redemption and counselling," the bishop said.
While there are plans to visit Singapore once every couple of years, Bishop Samuel said he and his wife are likely to be in Bolivia for the long haul.
"We've learnt a new language, made new friends, adjusted to a new diet and developed a routine which has made us very much a part of Bolivia."
This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 27, 2013
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