Baxter’s call to serve came when building a kindergarten in Sabah interiors
Baxter and his friends celebrating Kaamatan Gawai at the Church of Our Lady Of Guadalupe, Krubong, Melaka parish hall in May 2018

Baxter’s call to serve came when building a kindergarten in Sabah interiors

Vocations Sunday was on April 25. This is a dedicated day for Catholics around the world to offer special prayers to encourage vocations from families and parishes to the priesthood and to religious life. Here is the final of three stories of people who are doing their part in furthering God’s Kingdom. The other stories are here and here. Marietta Mu earlier wrote a personal testimony How Catholic Students’ Society changed me.

By Marietta Mu

MAY 27, 2021: A group of undergraduates were in the interiors of Sabah in Pensiangan, building a kindergarten. Somewhere between the hammering and sawing, Joe Baxter felt deep inside of him that this was what he wanted to do – to serve people in the interiors.

That was three years ago when he was an electrical engineering technology undergrad in Universiti Teknikal Malaysia – Melaka. He had joined a mission trip under the Melaka-Johor Catholic Campus Ministry and they travelled to Pensiangan which is close to the Indonesian border.

Baxter is from Papar, the western part of the state but this experience in a place that was more than 250km from home, changed him. Coincidentally, at that time Adrian Lasimbang was there to help Sr Dorothy Laudi to install the solar panelling for the kindergarten. Sr Dorothy is from the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception order in Sabah.

Lasimbang was the executive director of Tonibung, an acronym for Friends of Village Development in Kadazan. This is an indigenous-lead non-profit group that develops sustainable alternatives for rural electrification and is a native rights advocate and supporter of local entrepreneurship and innovation in the region.

“I was attracted to Tonibung because they have a close relationship with all rural communities, regardless of race,” said Baxter, who is now 24. Today, he is an assistant manager there. His main duties are assisting in Research and Development, marketing, and being in the technical group.

“My passion is here. I feel like it is my calling to serve the rural community and indigenous communities in Sabah,” said Baxter. 

Whenever Baxter is sent outstation to the villages during work, he meets people of all ages and his passion to serve the rural and indigenous community gets stronger. As a Catholic and a Sino-Kadazan, he senses a responsibility to help the less privileged people, especially the communities in Nabawan, Tongod, and Pensiangan, who are facing a lot of economic inequality. He feels he needs to take the next step and work there.

Baxter during World Youth Day in Panama, January 2019

“At first, I wanted to get as much experience as I could, but after that, I felt that whenever I went outstation to villages, I enjoyed it a lot and at some point, I felt the need to work there as a Catholic youth,” said Baxter.

Back in university, he served as a committee member in his university’s Catholic Students’ Society (CSS). After that, he met Deacon Adrian Ng who offered him to serve in Malacca-Johore Catholic On Campus (MJCC). After he accepted his offer to serve in MJCC, he was surprised to find himself helming the organisation. 

Having to juggle studying and serving as a committee in university was a huge challenge for him, but Baxter said, “I believe that God is always with me in every step I take. With the help and guidance from our Campus Ministry Officer, Daryl Tan, my committee and I managed to organise several programmes for CSS in our diocese such as the Leaders In Training Camp.”

After he served as a committee, he felt that he grew a lot, not just in his communication skills, but also in his faith. That was when he realised that he enjoyed serving the community. Even after serving his term as the president, he still actively joined his university CSS activities until he graduated.

Baxter had been involved in the church since Form 3 and loves the community engagement. He grew in community engagement while in his university’s Catholic Students’ Society and he finds that it is very similar to his engagements in the villages. In villages, one of the things he had to learn was talking with them and understanding where they were coming from. Religion was always a topic that came up and he loves listening and sharing his faith. 

He hopes to inspire and encourage more people to work in NGOs and help the underprivileged. 

Tonibung specialises in developing rural electrification with micro-hydro turbines and could always use volunteers. Volunteering positions are usually available on their Facebook page.