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On a Wing and a Prayer in Indonesia
By John M. Gorrindo
Indonesian Correspondent

Most Indonesians are known according to only one name, and Jopie is no different. Pak Jopie lives down the street in a spacious multilevel home with his second wife and two young children. It is the house in which he has always lived and may die as well.

Though I have known Pak Jopie for three years, it has only been very recently that I have got to know him at all. Two months ago I was passing by his house and saw a man sitting in a chair in the alley, clipping his toenails. We exchanged greetings, but I was surprised that he used my name because I didn’t remember having ever met him. I stopped and after a long pause finally realized who he was.

Pak Jopie looked almost unrecognizable. Once a pleasantly plump man he had become emaciated. I hadn’t seen him in months and for good reason. Pak Jopie had been diagnosed with liver cancer in January 2009. Since diagnosis he had been receiving monthly chemotherapy treatments in Jakarta, a three hour flight away.

His doctor had initially given him only three months to live, but Jopie had survived over six. This Pak Jopie attributed to prayer- not to Allah as might be suspected, but to Jesus Christ. In most of Indonesia Pak Jopie would be in the religious minority, but he lives in the Christian stronghold of North Sulawesi. And in our city of Manado, churches outnumber mosques.

Outside of the world’s greatest archipelago, the mainstream international press rarely mentions the existence of Christian Indonesia, and usually then only in passing. Two persuasions of Christianity are legitimately recognized by Indonesian law, one being Catholicism; the other Protestantism. North Sulawesi is home to the Minahasan people, an ethnic group to which Jopie belongs. They are predominantly Protestant as originally converted some four hundred years ago by the Dutch. There are a half-dozen or so active Protestant denominations in Indonesia, and Pak Jopie’s “jemaat,” or congregation, is “Pantakostal” (Pentecostal). Pentecostalism was brought here by American missionaries just a few decades ago, and is a rare example of direct U.S. influence to be found anywhere in Indonesia.

I know few truly rich Indonesians, but by most standards, Pak Jopie qualifies. He is known for spreading the wealth, too. Great Benefactor is a title worthy of him in the Christian community here. Over the last decade he has personally funded the construction of a dozen Greja Pantakostal (Pentecostal churches) all over greater North Sulawesi.
Now that he struggles with a disease considered terminal, Jopie has decided to take to the road and bear personal witness in front of all the congregations whose ranks have grown over the years in those churches he has built. His is a traveling ministerial show which includes himself, a Pentecostal minister, one musician, and his eldest soon (from a first marriage) who acts as driver.

As we sat together talking outside his home, Jopie’s real life was suddenly revealed to me. He also mentioned he was planning another trip soon to two congregations and asked if I’d like to come along. It was a generous offer, and being a musician, I promised I’d bring along my guitar and add some musical support to the customary one man band he used in his traveling church programs.

Our date of departure arrived about two weeks later, and at 11:00 PM I was last to appear with backpack and guitar in hand which were thrown in on top the rest of the sound equipment packed in the back of Pak Jopie’s super-sized Isuzu van. Pak Jopie not only carried a full sound system but a gas powered generator as well. We were bound for a remote area of North Sulawesi, and the electrical system there didn’t pull the kind of current needed by a powered mixer and four channel speaker system.

The plan was to drive all night, perform two, two-hour programs, and then return to Manado. It would be a whirlwind twenty-four hours, and if there was any sleep to be had, it would have to be stolen in the form of cat naps.

We drove east along North Sulawesi’s long, skinny land arm. Nearly a thousand kilometers in length, it is but one of several odd appendages that constitute greater Sulawesi island. The world’s eleventh largest island, Sulawesi, formerly known as the Celebes, is better known as the most exotic- even erotic- shaped island on earth. It is orchid-shaped and likely possesses more coast line per land area as compared to any large island in the world. Its unusual shape is due to wrenching plate tectonics which resulted in the tearing apart of the Asiatic and Australian land masses millions of years ago. Sulawesi is really more a collection of extruded land fragments crushed together, and like most of Indonesia, is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

The two lane highway that closely follows the coastline out of Manado soon became pitch black as there are no such things as street lamps in Indonesia. Compounding the darkness was the moonless night. But the pavement was smooth and well-maintained, and the only thing that slowed our progress was being caught behind slow moving, heavily-burdened trucks. Halfway through the 350 kilometer journey we veered inland away from the coast and began to penetrate the rain forested hills while passing endless stretches of farmland which lay at their feet. At this juncture the road began to alternate between smooth and rough patches. Our young driver, sleep-deprived and eager to reach our destination, would speed across the smooth sections only to slam-on the brakes when suddenly confronted with a divot in the road or the absence of any asphalt at all.

It made for a bone-jarring second half of the journey. Pak Jopie was unable to sleep as were all of us, if only because he was vigilant of his son, fearing the young man would fall asleep at the wheel.

I shared the van’s third rank of seats with Pak Sidik, Jopie’s spiritual adviser and an itinerant preacher of sorts. Every week he led services in two churches- one in Manado City and the other located a couple hours outside in the kampung.

Pak Sidik I found unusual for several reasons. For starters, he passionately demonstrated a love for facts and figures, which is rare for an Indonesian. He was quick to quote exact distances between any given two points along our route, and he knew the greater geography as would an expert local cartographer. Secondly- and possibly even more rare- he had been born Muslim but had converted to Christianity once becoming a young adult. He had followed his father’s lead, and both father and son suffered for it during the initial stages following conversion. One could not help but consider Sidik both brave and a man of true conviction.

Pak Sidik is also a middle-ranking policeman who continues to serve after thirty-one years of duty. At the time, his religious conversion caused great consternation amongst his police colleagues, and he claims to have been beaten up more than once. Even more harrowing was the fact his conversion occurred while serving in East Java, his birthplace. Committing apostasy in such a Muslim stronghold is extremely rare.

But Sidik had weathered the storm, held on to his police career, and slowly maneuvered his life out of Java, transferring to the more suitable Christian climes of North Sulawesi.
That Pak Sidik had to maintain his police career while carrying on a second as Pentecostal preacher was at the least due to necessity. Protestant preachers are not paid a wage in North Sulawesi. To preach, one must above all heed the higher calling.

Pak Sidik had been a Christian for more than a quarter century, but he had not always been a preacher. He crossed that bridge after experiencing a near-death illness, and his recovery he attributed to prayer. Once healed, he felt compelled to become a man of the cloth. Clearly Pak Jopie considered Sidik a role model of divine inspiration.

I was immersed in a small group of men wholly committed to faith, but their belief in my ability to drop in casually as a musician of unknown abilities and perform “lagu rohanan” (hymns) I had never heard- and on the fly- was a lot more shakable. They would soon find out if I could cut the mustard.

We arrived at out first destination at 6:00 AM. The church was located in Molibagu, a small pastoral town which is part of a larger agricultural area with a coastal setting. The town is part of a large district named Bolaang Mongondow, which is situated between greater Minahasa and the neighboring province of Gorontalo. The beauty of the land and how the people for generations had harnessed its bounty was nothing short of spectacular. The farmers grew and harvested rice, copra, papaya, mango, bananas, chocolate, vanilla, coffee, red sugar, nutmeg, cloves, and corn. Northern Sulawesi is truly a paradise of spice.

Bolaang Mongondow is virtually untouched by tourism. Molibagu, its capital, doesn’t have one hotel or any other style of travel lodging. A foreign visitor’s only way to secure a bed would entail the traditional manner of reporting to the proper local official- the kelurahan- and make a formal request to stay with someone in the community.

The church itself was the latest of Pak Jopie’s creations, and it hadn’t yet been fully constructed. Its red brick walls hadn’t been plastered and painted, and an interior slab of cement had yet to be poured for the flooring. Parishioners had to sit on simple wooden benches or plastic chairs which were placed on top of a dirt and gravel floor.

The sound system was set up quickly and in characteristic Indonesian fashion, was pure overkill. There was enough wattage on had to power a heavy metal concert. Two speakers were placed inside the church and two outside the front entrance in order to spread the message through the neighborhood. The speakers were of lethal size and weight and were hoisted atop telescoping stands with accordion-style, folding tripod feet. No one took the precaution of spreading the feet out wide enough to create a stable base across the uneven graveled dirt, and though I warned that this was dangerous, no one showed an iota of concern. This carefree attitude towards safety is almost a universal fixture of Indonesian culture no matter where one travels. One could only pray one of the kids attending wouldn’t accidentally overturn a speaker stand, but prayer seemed a powerful enough precautionary measure considering the venue. I managed to adjust two of the stands myself but let the other two go.

This church was obviously a very young one and its congregation still quite small. Only twenty-five parishioners were in attendance, including several children. This special program, or “Ibadah,” was being held on a Wednesday morning, and this was in no way unordinary scheduling. The church’s regular pastor led a sermon, interspersed with plenary song. Pak Jopie provided a fifteen minute testimonial, or “saksikan.” Then Pak Sidik, as guest pastor, delivered his own sermon.

Pak Jopie’s testimonial spoke of miracles he himself had witnessed and that had kept him and his family free from harm. The congregation began murmuring, an early sign of Pentecostal passion bubbling-up to the surface. It augured for a much freer, uninhibited emotional response soon to come. Jopie’s themes were predictable. He was there to testify to his brothers and sisters that Jesus saves, and that the Lord heals. Divine grace was to be had in faith and prayer. Without it, he would be lost, as would be any man.

But Jopie did not look well, and this belied his message to some degree. After the long road trip he was understandably weak and pale. His voice faltered, even with the aid of a microphone. Since his last return from chemotherapy treatment in Jakarta, he had taken a turn for the worse and now suffered from a persistent cough. His had been a rather miraculous climb from the abyss, but he was experiencing a setback. How serious was anybody’s guess.

Pak Sidik then assumed his place behind the lectern. He was nattily dressed replete with long- sleeved pink dress shirt, green tie, crisply pressed gray slacks and spotlessly shined shoes. It’s rare to see even the President of Indonesia wear western dress complete with tie. SBY is much more at home wearing batik-style, open-necked, short-sleeved tropical shirts. I reflected on the fact that every Indonesian Christian minister I had ever seen deliver a sermon was highly self-conscious about dress and presentation. The fact they mimicked their American counterparts seemed to me an adherence to celebrity style. Outside of the Protestant community, only in political and entertainment circles had I seen such behavior in Indonesia.

What followed was a performance stamped American Holy Roller, but tempered by Indonesian culture. The Pentecostal touch here is generally loathe in resorting to fire and brimstone theology. Inspiring faith through instilling the fear of going to hell goes against the grain of Melayu blood lines. The emphasis is on being saved, and the consequences of having no faith are rarely explicated.

In true Indonesian fashion, subtlety is the better part of honor and expresses all due respect. But the oratorical techniques as developed by America’s southern ministry over the past one hundred fifty years were on full display.

Pak Sidik alternated between passages of contemplative quiet- his voice low and almost brooding- with that of passionate Halleluiah Storm, his arms outstretched, fists clenched, and head thrown back with eyes squeezed shut but fixed on the heavens. In full-throated volume he exhorted the congregation to share in the passion and glory that so moved his own soul. The congregation stirred, then arose en masse. The cries of “Halleluiah” echoed and tears began to stream down faces. Then the music would roll and everyone sang and clapped, swaying their bodies in time.

I managed to reinforce, not distract from, the message. My guitar lines blended in and all my years of musical training found its way home. Soon, Pak Jopie, his keyboard player, and Pak Sidik were all believers in my musicianship. I had never doubted it, but now I had proved it. That was a necessary hurtle to cross. But something of much greater importance was that everybody present knew I was a practicing Muslim. During his testimonial, Pak Jopie had even made a point of informing the entire congregation as to this fact, and that despite my Islamic leanings, I was happy to contribute to the Christian Ibadah. My message was simple and expressed through music, not words- we are all brothers and sisters.

This situation can only be labeled a very unusual anomaly, tinged with irony. But the irony is sweet and revelatory. The fact that all the Indonesians were Christians and the one westerner in attendance the only Muslim present is the photographic negative of what would be expected. But this is testament to the greater reality that North Sulawesi is known for its religious tolerance. When we all said our goodbyes after the Ibadah, one man shook my hand and said, “Goodbye, my brother. God bless you.”

North Sulawesi’s religious culture flies in the face of prevalent stereotypes that many stubbornly cling to in this so-called age of terror and sectarian strife between Christians and Muslims. I can only hope this shines a light of hope and fueled by some higher form of consciousness pierces the veil of over-publicized preoccupation that focuses almost exclusively on death and destruction in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan. Parts of Indonesia are different despite the occasional bombings that besmirch its name.

Beyond this, it must be understood that Christianity exists outside the West, and Islam outside the East. And sometimes they coexist in the same place and time- somewhere in between. Religious differences and attitudes towards “non-believers” are not monolithic, and they are not of a solitary nature in this country which is the most populous Muslim society on earth.

A complete picture of the truth is what is different, and too often overlooked. The world is still full of surprising people and places.

NOTE: “Bapak” is roughly the Indonesian equivalent of the English title “mister,” though it carries with it an added measure of respect. Most often shortened to simply “Pak,” it can be used alone or in combination with a grown man’s name when referring to or otherwise greeting him. A “Grown man” connotes a married man as a married status is what customarily defines adulthood in Indonesia.

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Mr. John M. Gorrindo, who serves as an Indonesian correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a native-born Californian. As holder of a MA degree in music composition from the University of California, he made Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia his home after serving as a volunteer English teacher there. He also a writes fictions and composes music. Some of his writings and music can be found at Fringing reefs and Vertical Walls:






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