PART TWO OF RAY’S STORY
In the last installment of this three part series on Ray Cunningham we learnt about Ray’s WWII years.
In this, the second installment, you will learn of how Ray Cunningham and his wife Evelyn’s heart for the people of Borneo led them to spend a lifetime working with the various local tribes of the island, through challenging conditions.
After the war Ray returned to Australia and worked in his prewar profession of sheep and wool classing in Walca for a season. Through the miracle healing of a Papuan friend, Ray was motivated to serve God. Ray enrolled at Croydon Bible College to learn more while he worked out what he should do. It was during this time that Ray enquired with the Borneo Evangelical Mission (BEM) as he had a heart for the people he had met during the war, both in PNG and Borneo.
At the same time God was working on the heart of another exserviceman, Bruce Morton. Bruce was a Kittyhawk fighter pilot during the war, a RAAF Flight Lieutenant with No 32 Squadron, who only in his teens at the time, conducted bombing and strafing missions against the Japanese over Borneo and other islands to the north of Australia. Bruce also enquired with BEM and Ray and Bruce were connected as a team.
Also at about the same time the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) in Parkes, NSW run by Dr Jeffrey Young were upgrading their aircraft to a larger capacity one. Dr Jeffrey’s brother, who had served in Borneo suggested to the Doctor that they should donate the old aircraft to the BEM. There were no airstrips in Borneo at the time and they feared that the aircraft would be lost in the hostile terrain. “Connecting the dots” with Bruce being a pilot and wanting to join the BEM, they decided to give the aircraft a try. No one could have realised how that aircraft would revolutionise the lives of the people of Borneo. At that time there was no air service in Borneo.
Ray and Bruce dismantled the aircraft at Bankstown airport and packed it into crates. Friends of the mission then organised Ray and Bruce to join a Shell Oil Company tanker as crew and the aircraft was stowed on board. The pair worked their way to Borneo on the ship. Landing at Labuan Island off the mainland of Borneo, the aircraft was re-assembled. Through the generous donation of a portion of cleared land at a rubber plantation that an airstrip was established in order to bring the plane to the mainland of Borneo. Ray recounts that up till this time government officials and Shell staff were placing bets that the men and the aircraft would not last 12 months on their mission. So much for the bet, by the end of 4 years Bruce Morton was married with a 15 month old son, still in Borneo, and had flown over 100,000 miles without incident. At the conclusion of the first 4 years the first aircraft, Aeronica, was sold and replaced with an Auster with greater carrying capacity. It is interesting to note that the Auster aircraft had been used in Borneo when scouting against the Japanese and were now being used to reach and service the people of Borneo.
Over the first 4 years Ray assisted in building airstrips in several locations and living amongst and working with the local people to tell them of the Bible including:
• Lawas – working with the Murut people
• Baram River – working with the Kayan people
• Lio Matu – working with the Kenyah people Over the 4 years and since Ray had met Evelyn during the war, the two had stayed in touch as friends. Evelyn had been working in education in Australia for that period, but had also found herself drawn to mission work in Borneo. Ray married Evelyn married in Lawas and Evelyn then joined Ray in Liomatu.
Borneo was under the control of the British Government. For ease of governance the British had divided the Sarawak province (roughly 2M inhabitants) into 5 divisions, giving each of the major Christian missions or denominations a division. The Anglicans and Catholics mission was to provide an education to the children of the local tribes. The BEM (the Cunningham family) went and lived with the local people and would enter the famous long houses of the region to meet and talk with all of the people of the tribe. The long houses would accommodate an entire village in a single, very long house.
Ray and Evelyn had been living up in the mountains of Borneo at the head of the Rajang River in the Iran Mountains working with the Kenyah people for two years. Some Kenya men made their way to the coast and were laboring for Chinese traders in construction to make cash. Amongst the labour force employed by the Chinese were Iban labourers. The Iban tribe were by far the largest group of people in Sarawak with some 800,000 people. The Kenyah Christians educated by Ray stood out from the Iban workers, many of whom had adopted some form of Christianity. The Kenya did not get drunk, engage in cock fighting and were no longer wearing charms. The Iban people were still wearing their charms along with their new crosses and prayer beads. One of the main Iban chiefs noticed the difference and asked the Kenyah workers: “How did you become Christians like this? We like your type of Christianity but cannot believe your story about a whitey who came from over the mountains and not from down a river, all whiteys come from down a river. If you get that whitey to come down, we would like to learn from him.” The Kenya workers returned and told Ray that if he could get down and present to the Iban they would believe Ray, but the Iban would never believe them.
The only way Ray could travel down to this location was over fast flowing rapids in a canoe, downstream. The inhospitable terrain kept the people groups isolated. Ray was tutored on poling and handling canoes by the Kenyah and made his way down the fast flowing river with an outboard motor strapped to a canoe. The Rajang river is the longest (563km) river in Malaysia, also known as the Amazon of Borneo.
The trouble was that Ray had now entered the division assigned to the Catholic missionaries. Ray paid a courtesy visit to the local British District Officer, an ex-Oxford rugby player, who’s initial appearance was fairly intimidating. The officer folded his arms as Ray explained that while current missionaries were educating the children, no one was having an impact in the long houses and it required people like Ray to actually connect with the local people so they could hear from the Bible for themselves. In the end the officer invited Ray to his house for dinner. The next day the officer provided Ray with his own speed boat to go and visit the British Resident Officer who controlled the whole division, to obtain permission before the whole situation blew up with the incumbent mission. Ray was granted permission. By this time Ray spoke Malay, Kenyah and Kayan. Ray was now had to learn the Iban language. The local Iban Chief asked Ray to come to his area, a side stream off the main river comprising of 80 villages with no Christian influence. This is where Ray and his family started with a great outcome in God’s perfect timing as a result.
In the next and final installment of this series find out how Ray was instrumental in pacifying a volatile situation in the Borneo Conflict and how a series of events worked together to bring about a strong Christian community in Borneo.