The Rev. Canon Edmund B. Der
Honorary Assistant, St. James’ Cathedral, Toronto, Canada 070124 for Anglican Episcopal World
Li Tim Oi, daughter of Mr. Li (Lee) King Shum & Cheng Cheung Yau, was born on May 5th, 1907, in Shek Pai Bay, Aberdeen, Hong Kong. This is the centenary year of her birth. There will be celebrations in London, Toronto and other parts of the world.
This is my reflection of Li Tim-Oi not only as a pioneer and mentor of the women priests’ movement but as a tribute to her as my mentor in my priesthood ministry of forty-five years.
I first met her in 1941 right after her being made deaconess on May 22 at St. John’s Cathedral by Bishop Ronald Hall. She was invited to be the homilist at our family thanksgiving service. I was so attracted by her presence that I remembered asking my sisters for a long ribbon as a stole and stood by her throughout the whole sermon. Many of our parish members still talked about it years later that Robert Der has a five year old pastor in his family. I never expected to meet her again. Then, in August l984 at St. Matthew’s & St. John’s Parish, in Toronto, Canada, she was more than willing to serve as my Honorary Assistant for the last 8 years of her life. I learned so much of her ordeal and tribulations throughout her life and together with many others I urged her to write her memoirs and later her family requested me to edit her many pages of notes into the Chinese and English editions of “Raindrops of My Life”.
Had she not been called and upheld by the Lord she would have been a simple country folk seamstress with highly skilful embroidery craftwork, an elementary school teacher, or like her father, a principal of a school.
Even when she was recommended to study at Union Theological College in Guangzhou, she never expected to be ordained priest: her horizon would have been a Bible woman or an evangelist in some village mission. Further more, even after her being made deaconess, if she were not in China, with the war inflicted on the country and the need of priests so desperate, she might never been ordained to the priesthood. In the Chinese language, the term Deacon is not gender biased and a woman deacon is not the same as deaconess in England: she is fully in the deaconate ministry. Had Bishop Mok Sau Tsang and Bishop Ronald Hall not put pastoral care and sacramental nurture as quintessential for the refugee Christians, this war time emergency measure of temporary licensing a deacon to celebrate communion for the people would never have happened. Though Bishop Hall called himself 99% a coward, and hated disapproval of anybody, he sought the will of God and broke all tradition and made history to ordain Li Tim Oi on January 25th, 1944 at Shoaqing, Guandung, China.
I wonder how many women at that time would dare to take up the challenge and bear the cross which became heavier as days went by. Confronting with enormous oppositions from England, China and other churches, and out of respect for the episcopacy of Bishop Hall, she resigned from her priestly title in 1946 but she retained her order.
She as deacon-in charge continued a splendid ministry in St. Mark’s Parish Macau and St. Barnabas’ at Hepu. I admire how she remained quiet and kept her priesthood in her heart when she toured around the Episcopal Church in 1948. I marvel at her courage as she was in political cross-examination and re-education camps to defend her ordination and the reputation and integrity of Bishop Hall even at the pains of further persecution. Unperturbed by all the vicissitudes of the turbulent times she persevered in her faith and witnessed boldly for Jesus Christ. She was most generous in forgiving all her persecutors within and without the church wall. She was remarkable in always pointing to the best of humanity in adversities and frustrations. She survived in labour farm, factory or political camps and still retained her solid Biblical foundation of her faith. Working alongside with her, I sometimes found her naiveté in political judgments yet later I realized it is her good nature not to be judgmental having had the experience of living through several political systems and enduring the best even in calamities. After applying for seven years, she was able to leave China and went to Hong Kong for a week and then landed in Canada.
Finally, she was free to serve again.
She worked hard to redeem the lost time of nearly two decades despite her being in the late seventies and crossing to eighties. I remembered clearly in subzero degrees, when the evangelistic teams went out door to door from St. John’s Parish, she insisted on going. The most outstanding example was when she was ill after a fall and fractured some of her lumbar spine vertebrae. In excruciating pain and bedridden for seven months, she did individual counseling and praying for the parishioners who came to feed her in bed. Many of our members took turns to nurse her. She was an avid reader and tried to keep abreast of the trendy thoughts and be updated in many things. Writing a journal kept her alert and her clear mind filled with peaceful and reflective thoughts and she wrote many poems to express her inner thoughts.
When honours were heaping on her at the height of the movement for ordination of women priests, she remained humble and always reminded herself of the psalmist words “I am a worm”. She thought of herself as an unworthy servant of the Lord. Archbishop Ted Scott hailed her as one of the top ten influential figures in the twentieth century. He especially appreciated her life and ministry as one who had broken barriers of humanity in different cultures and races and gender bias; a life more positive than negative in establishing a new community of equality of men and women. Her career, as an evangelist, a deacon, a priest, an innovator, a motivator, an empowerment leader, a pastor, a counselor and above all an intercessor, would always be my example of a mentor and a pioneer for all priests: male or female. She died on Feb. 26, 1992 in her sleep in her 85th year. May our faith in the communion of saints be strengthened by Li Tim Oi in the company of St. Mary and others in the heavenly kingdom.