Of Gifts and Burdens – Church Ministry in Indonesia

Climbing Mango trees for some extra sweets is part of a childhood in the HKBP orphanage in Pematang Siantar. Photo: LWF/ C. Kästner
Climbing Mango trees for some extra sweets is part of a childhood in the HKBP orphanage in Pematang Siantar. Photo: LWF/ C. Kästner

By Cornelia Kästner, OCS

What do Justin Bieber and the cross of Christ have in common? In Mamre orphanage in the town of Pemantang Siantar, they are both very important to a group of six school girls who put both up on the wall, side by side. One of the girls is Yuspita, 13 years old and from the island of Nias. As we meet her she has already exchanged her blue school uniform for day clothes but proudly presents her books as she greets us in English. “Justin Bieber is my favorite singer” she explains.

We met Yuspita and her classmates on 10 June 2014 on a visit prior to the LWF Council meeting held in Medan from 11 – 17 June. We visited them in Pemantang Siantar, a town about three and a half hours away from Medan. The town, according to local pastors, has a predominantly Christian population. Four LWF member churches have their headquarters there. Visiting various diakonia projects provided an insight in how Indonesian member churches engage in society.

Mamre orphanage, run by the Christian Protestant Church in Indonesia (GKPI) currently is home to 58 children aged 3- 19 years. They come from Northern Sumatra and Nias, and many of them lost their families in the 2004 tsunami. In Mamre they find a home while attending public schools up to secondary level. In some cases they also go on to university or theological college. The orphanage, a beautiful little village with houses, a vegetable garden and, as we were told, until lately also a chicken pen, provides them with an education many of them would not have received under other circumstances. Among the donors of the orphanage are also former wards, who went to university and by now make a good living. From what we saw, the children were happy and while we as visitors took their attention, often their own play seemed much more important.

But the mere existence of the orphanage is also a witness to the changing Indonesian society, as one of the staff told us. Many children come from traditional Batak families. The Batak place high importance on family. We experienced it first hand in most of the visits, when Bishops and church workers introduced themselves not only by name and position, but also told us whether they were married and how many children they had.

So until a few decades ago it went without question that these children would have been taken in by relatives. However, one of the orphanage teachers told us that this has become increasingly impossible in the past years. Poverty and modern society have weakened these family ties. Not all of the children are truly orphans, some also come from single mothers or poor families who can’t support them. They are referred to the orphanage by pastors or relatives. As our steward on the trip told us: “Before, many children were considered many gifts. Now, many children are considered many burdens.”

German Heritage, Simalungun Bible

The host of the 2014 council meeting, the LWF National Committee of Indonesia, is representing 13 LWF member churches. Amounting to more than 5.8 million Lutherans, they portray the variety in Indonesian culture, with more than a hundred spoken languages and also a very diverse history in mission and evangelization.

Visiting the Simalungun Protestant Evangelical Church (GKPS) gave some insight into why there are so many different churches in Indonesia. The Simalungun, a group of the Batak people, broke away from the HKBP in 1963 because they wanted to worship in their own language. They take pride in that heritage, having their own Simalungun Bible translation and liturgy. An interesting concept in their ministry is the office of “Bibelfrau” (bible women), a word coming from the German missionaries who brought Christianity to the Simalungun Batak and an office closely related to what we would call a deaconess. They are supposed to support the minister, but also ordained into their service after a theological education similar to a bachelor’s degree.

GKPS is also running one of the oldest LWF projects in the country. “Improvement of the economic and social living conditions of poor communities” (PELPEM) is supported through the LWF Department for Mission and Development (DMD) and has gone into a new project phase from 2014-2016. Providing training on organic farming, raising awareness about human rights and advocacy and conserving land endangered by commercial exploitation are the many elements of this project. One very concrete step is ensuring there is enough drinking water for all – before, women had to walk three hours down and up a very steep road to provide for their families. PELPEM benefits 12,000 people directly. The project works with entire villages, regardless of the individual’s religion.

Ways out of Poverty

As Indonesian society is rapidly changing, it is the compassion and the witness of the churches’ engagement which is alleviating the impact of those changes for the most vulnerable. Lutherans have projects for senior citizens and people with special needs. In the Hephata Work Centre we saw youth in workshops of sewing and shoe-making, and sewing machines already in the girl’s rooms in then orphanages. According to the local teachers, more than 80 percent of the youth manage to find jobs and make their own living.

The importance of these initiatives became clear as we were being navigated through the sometimes breathtaking traffic on Indonesian streets. Between swerving cars and intercepting bicyles we saw groups of school children walking home. This sight was contrasted in shops on the roadside, where children sometimes of similar age sat behind counters, helping their parents. Even though school attendance is mandatory and free of charge up to grade 9, many children start contributing to the family income quite early.

Schools run by religious communities have a reputation to offer high quality education, enabling their students to get better jobs in the future. We met with the staff of the HKBP technical school, whose students are building prototypes of car engines. The school is renowned not only in Sumatra, but attract Javanese students as well.

Prayer on Air

Education is one key to being able to stand up for your rights. The other is having a voice. Quite literally, this is what Radio Suara Diakonia, the “Diakonia Voice of HKBP” is doing. Turn on the frequency 103.4 FM and you will hear stories from diaconal workers, from those who are often silent in society, and you will hear politicians being questioned about their program. Radio host Hendrik Simanjuntak and his 5 colleges have been on air for almost a year. “The people who listen to us are often poor and in desperation,” he says. “How do we spread to good news to our listeners so they know that God is on their side? Living in a country where the majority are Muslims, and people are poor, it’s sometimes hard to keep the faith. The radio strengthens them to still openly say: I’m a believer”.

The station is financed by advertising, the Indonesian churches and just received a grant from ELCA to buy a generator. It reaches people in Pemantang Siatar and the surrounding area. It receives 40-50 calls each day, with listeners asking for songs and prayers. The prayer requests are for wedding anniversaries and birthdays, for sick people or people in need. The prayer is then being said on-air – a very humble and yet very powerful way of telling people they are not alone.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are those of the author, and not necessarily representative of Lutheran World Federation policy.