IN the late 1960s in Betong, a young boy named Nelson Ugas Bulang found himself at a crossroads. Living contentedly in Bebanggai Kiba longhouse where he was born, he received an unexpected invitation from his uncle, then Bishop of the Anglican Church in Sarawak and Brunei, the late Rt Revd Basil Temenggong, to pursue his studies in Kuching. Initially reluctant to leave his idyllic life, Nelson’s journey would ultimately lead him on a remarkable path of faith and service that spanned over four decades.
In 1970, at the age of 12, Nelson made the momentous decision to accept his uncle’s invitation and move to Kuching. It was his sister Freda who paved the way and had encouraged him to join her. He would embark on a new chapter of his life by moving into the historic Bishop’s House. Little did Nelson know that this relocation would shape his future in profound ways.
Under Basil’s tutelage, Nelson witnessed firsthand the transformative power of Christian love and discipline. Despite Basil’s reputation for strictness, his unwavering devotion to his faith left an indelible impression on the young Nelson.
“The way I look at it, there is so much love in him. No doubt people like to talk about him as a person of strict discipline.
“In the way people look at me also, I think they can read some of Bishop Basil’s characteristics in me. Being together with him for at least over 10 years, at that young age, you can pick up on a lot of characteristics from a mentor,” he told thesundaypost.
Having completed his secondary education in Kuching, Nelson reached a pivotal moment when Basil urged him to embrace Christianity. This marked a turning point in Nelson’s life as he was also asked to further his studies at the House of Epiphany’s Theological College. In 1978, he joined the House of Epiphany alongside Aeries Sumping Jingan (former Assistant Bishop) and Michael Buma Galami (Dean Emeritus of St Thomas’ Cathedral). Still unsure of his purpose, Nelson admitted he took up the offer as merely a means to continue his education.
However, during his subsequent ministry, Nelson would truly discover his calling. Through the guidance of Solomon Cheong (former Assistant Bishop) and serving at the Bishop’s Chapel as a server, Nelson grew in spiritual discipline and developed a deeper connection to his faith. Additionally, he was also a server at St Thomas’ Cathedral.
Notably, Nelson’s journey in ministry would intertwine with that of his brother, Alfred Damu, who is now a Canon of the Cathedral. Their shared experiences at the Bishop’s House and commitment to serving God would result in a unique bond and mutual growth.
Among the milestones and moments of spiritual growth Nelson experienced was his tenure at St Columba’s Church in Miri. Initially witnessing a modest congregation, he dedicated a decade to nurturing the church’s spiritual and congregational growth. The establishment of The Good Shepherd Church in Lutong, now known as The Parish of Good Shepherd, stands as a testament to his perseverance and faith, as funding was a challenging hurdle to overcome. Nelson credits the completion of the church to the support of the late Datuk Michael Hardin.
“When I first came to St Columba’s Parish, Miri, there were a few hundred in the congregation. You could still see empty pews. But after I was there for 10 years, I could see spiritual and numerical growth; the congregation multiplied,” Nelson said.
From the early days of his ministry, Nelson encountered trials and struggles that tested his resolve. Yet, with unwavering trust in God and seeking guidance from mentors, he overcame each obstacle with grace and resilience. Nelson emphasised the importance of maintaining strict spiritual discipline, seeking solace in prayer, and embracing constructive criticism as opportunities for growth.
“The demands in the ministry can really pull you down. I just surrender these struggles to the Lord. I kneel down and pray, that is all.
“Learning to trust in God, and to put your trust in His word is important, especially when you’re alone at that particular point of time. And most priests are alone in the parishes, apart from their family members,” he reflected.
Offering advice to those embarking on their own spiritual journeys, Nelson highlighted the significance of spiritual discipline and fellowship. Drawing from his observations of fresh graduates facing difficulties in coping with ministry, he stressed the need for prayer, Bible reading, and engaging in Christian communities.
“We cannot ignore the importance of these aspects in our spiritual journey. It is through spiritual discipline, prayer, Bible reading, and engaging in Christian communities that we find strength, guidance, and the ability to overcome challenges,” he said.
On particular teachings, philosophies, or practices that have had a lasting impact on him, Nelson pointed to Matthew 16:24; where Jesus calls on believers to follow Him, deny themselves, and take up their cross daily. He believes this verse encapsulates the essence of the Christian life.
Additionally, Nelson said the guidance he received from his seniors, especially Basil and Cheong, left a profound impression on him. He shared that Basil emphasised the reality of life’s struggles and the need to be tough, reminding him that being a graduate doesn’t guarantee an easy path.
Reflecting on his appointment as Assistant Bishop on Sept 30, 2018, Nelson expressed a deep sense of understanding and gratitude for his calling. It was at that moment that he realised the purpose behind Basil’s invitation and his journey to Kuching. He continues to cherish Basil’s spiritual presence, recognising the impact his uncle had on his life and vocation.
“Even if the late Bishop Basil was not around physically during my consecration, I think even spiritually, I really thank God for what Bishop Basil has done. He has many nephews, I’m not the only one. But why call me, and not the other nephews? Of course, a few of us stayed at the Bishop’s House but the others could not stay in the main house. I’m the only one who stayed here and called to do this ministry,” he said.
Throughout his ministry at St Columba’s; St Margaret’s Parish, Seria in Brunei; and St Faith’s Parish, Kenyalang Park in Kuching, Nelson developed strong connections with the congregations he served.
“When I told the congregation (at St Columba’s) that the late Bishop (Datuk) Made Katib wanted to move me to Brunei to St Margaret’s Parish in Seria, they felt as if they lost a brother. They told me that I am not just a vicar or a priest, but that my life is very much connected with them,” he recalled.
Regarding his plans for retirement, Nelson envisions spending time with his family to take care of his grandchildren while also offering assistance and support whenever needed to the diocese. He has also been booked to teach a module on Pastoral Ministry at the theological college.
When it comes to the legacy he hopes to leave behind, Nelson emphasised the importance of strict spiritual discipline among those working in the ministry. He also called for fellowship and unity, both within the Anglican Church and with other Christian denominations as he believes unity is essential for the growth and multiplication of the Church.
Nelson’s inspiring journey of faith and growth will leave a lasting imprint on the Diocese of Kuching. Through his unwavering dedication, spiritual discipline, and commitment to unity, Nelson has set a remarkable example for future generations, imparting wisdom and guidance that will continue to shape the lives of those who follow in his footsteps.