Photo: Pastor Joseph Tee, co-planter of Harvest Indonesian Church in Auburn
By Josh Gibbon
As I pressed the buzzer at Joseph Tee’s front door, I was surprised to hear what sounded like a small party inside – laughter, chatter and background music spilled onto the front porch through the fly screen door. I couldn’t help but think, “A party at 1.30pm on a Thursday?”
The fly screen swung open. “Hello, Josh! I am Joseph,” a beaming Joseph Tee greeted me. “Come in!”
Sure enough, as I entered the kitchen and dining area, about 10 smiling faces turned to greet me, including Joseph’s wife, Ria, who offered me tea. I quickly learned that this group goes back about seven years together. They are a collection of friends that the Tees met through the local community earlier in their life in Sydney. It wasn’t church that had brought them all together. In fact, not all of them even shared the same faith, but they were united by their mother tongue and the Tees’ ongoing hospitality.
Joseph led me out to their back patio with tea in hand. We sat down together, a small table between us, sun streaming through the lattice above – the first sunny autumn day in weeks. The laughter inside had picked up again, and a Spotify playlist bubbled away in the background.
I asked Joseph to tell me his story of being called to become a pastor. He told me some of the history of Harvest Indonesian Church of Christ, which he planted with Olga Ling in 2003. He spoke of their community’s history and the challenges they’d overcome together in 19 years. He went back further and told me of the first Indonesian church in Sydney he and his family were part of planting in 1981 and how he was an elder there.
About 15 minutes in, I realised I wasn’t going to hear the kind of ‘calling’ story I expected – the “God called me up on a mountaintop as a young man, and the clouds parted, and I saw a vision” type story. Instead, Joseph’s story steadily wove its way in and out of church communities over his life, picking up pieces of calling along the way.
Joseph’s focus was on the bigger story of the Church and his part in it, rather than the other way around. He told his story as though he was a side character entering and exiting scenes in the wider story of church communities he existed within.
I was struck by this humility and how unique Joseph’s posture is in Sydney, where many of us strive to write our own destinies and tell our own stories to the world, us pastors being no exception.
I wanted to understand Joseph more deeply, so I asked him to tell me how he first came to be in Sydney.
He took me back 74 years to a place called Bandung, an Indonesian city about 200 kilometres southeast of Jakarta, nestled at the feet of the Tangkuban Perahu mountains. In those days, Bandung was known as the ‘Flower City’ because of its mild tropical climate and crisp mountain air, perfect for growing flowers almost year-round.
Joseph was born into a family of four boys, a mother who practised Confucianism and a father who was third-generation Christian-Chinese. This rare Christian heritage was the fruit of an evangelist in China in the 1920s named John Sung.
“My parents put my older brother and two younger brothers in a Chinese school. Only I was put in the Christian school. I was nothing special as a boy – I wasn’t a really good one, you know. I was naughty – fighting. I was not Christian at the time. I went everywhere – I went to the temple, to the church – but just to play. But, because I was in a Christian school, I knew the story of Jesus.
“One day in 1964, I came to one church – a Pentecostal church. There I repented and was baptised. My wife was in the Sunday school, and I was in the youth group. I started to have a Bible study, and I think I got called from that time, but I didn’t listen. I didn’t want to be a pastor! In those days, only frustrated people went to Bible school – because there’s no money there. In the Pentecostal church, they lived by faith, never taking a salary.
“In 1974, Ria and I tried to find a better life – at that time, we were not married yet. We were planning to go to Germany. When we booked the ticket, we met our friend who had just travelled to Australia. They said, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘To Germany.’ ‘What for?’ ‘Just trying to find a job.’ ‘Why don’t you come to Australia with us? It’s easier. At least you can speak English a little bit, but German?’ So, in one week, we changed direction from Europe to Australia.”
Having borrowed money to buy their tickets, all Joseph and Ria had was $100 each and one piece of luggage as they boarded their flight. When they arrived in Sydney, they found jobs, married at the local registry, and found a church. “As long as there is a church, we go to that church,” Joseph said. “We looked for a Pentecostal church, and we found one in Belmore.
“I never thought to go to university to get a job because, in those days, we were too busy to survive, you know? Especially after our parents came here. As a migrant, they lived with us, and we sponsored them. So, once in this house lived nine people – me and my wife, my parents-in-law, our two sons, my wife’s sister, one friend and one cousin.”
“We just worked hard, and God provided everything. He has been so faithful to us. When we came here, I just worked as a labourer in the factory – the electrical factory. Later I worked for a factory making baking equipment. After that, I worked in Carlton Brewery for 25 years – a little bit strange for a Christian! I worked in brewing the beer, but I don’t like beer! There was so much beer I could have washed my face and showered in beer, but I don’t drink it!”
Over the years, Joseph progressively moved up at the Carlton Brewery until he oversaw and trained others in brewing. Until this point in his life, Joseph had served in multiple churches in Sydney in lay ministry and eldership. Church was his passion, but he had never had the chance to pursue his underlying desire to become a pastor. Ironically, it was the brewery that God used to allow Joseph to prepare for full-time ministry.
“One afternoon, a friend at work said, ‘Joe, why does it look like something is on your mind?’ I said, ‘I want to go to school.’ I didn’t say Bible college. ‘What kind of school?’ ‘Just to help people who may have a problem so I can consult them.’ ‘Why don’t you go?’ ‘Well, what about this job?’ ‘Don’t worry about this job – I’ll cover so you can go.’”
Joseph then began a four-year journey of attending Bible college and working odd hours to keep the brewery running. When his boss found out that he’d been doing this and been managing to keep his duties fulfilled, Joseph was shocked that he wasn’t angry. In fact, he encouraged him to keep going. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about the job. As long as the job is done, you can go.’
“So, they called me the brewery chaplain. Until now, I don’t understand that. I believe there was divine intervention. Their heart was softened. Imagine, four years I was doing that!”
While completing his theological training at Indonesian Mission Institute College of Evangelism from Oatland, NSW, Joseph met Olga Ling, who was in a similar season. When they graduated, they were on fire for God and decided to partner to start Harvest Indonesian Church with Pastor Samuel Djunaedi’s oversight in 2003. As a church plant of Ecclesia Mission, they became endorsed through Churches of Christ and began to build a multicultural Christian community in Roselands. After five years, Joseph and Olga were blessed to become an independent church, and in 2011, their growing community moved to Rockdale.
Olga reflected on sharing the mantle of leadership of Harvest with Joseph for 19 years and their pastoral partnership. She said that his behind-the-scenes guidance, patience, and stability have been crucial in their ministry.
“He’s the one that always makes me calm down if I am stressed with the ministry. He says, ‘Oh come on Olga, you have to calm down.’ He is older than me, and he is more patient than me. For me, everything I think, I do. For him, he always thinks about it first. He says, ‘It is good for you to write it down. Put in your own words what you mean.’
“If both of us have the same character, we cannot run the ministry well. But one thinks before he speaks, I speak before I think. We work together for God’s kingdom. He always fixed the things I made messy!”
Olga said Joseph’s steady nature extends into his deep attention to doctrine and teaching.
“He is so good for doctrine,” Olga said. “He said to me, ‘If you are not sure about doctrine, don’t preach about doctrine.’ When he was young, he was already involved with churches. When I met him, he was already an elder at Presbyterian Randwick. I noticed this when we studied together at college. When we finished, we said, ‘Why don’t we start another church to bring more people to Jesus?’”
The brewery chaplain, he’s been called. Maybe, that’s more a description of what God has done in Joseph than what Joseph has done for a living. As I sat with Pastor Joseph, I got the sense that God has been brewing something beautiful in this man’s heart over many years – through every challenge he’s overcome in God’s strength and every season he’s patiently served through. This slow brew of Joseph’s calling over his life has produced a spiritual aroma of rich steadiness and wisdom balanced with deep warmth and joy – a spiritual blend that makes Pastor Joseph an incredibly safe and hospitable presence.
Read Olga Ling’s story HERE
Read more stories of Fresh Hope HERE.