Friday, December 7, 2012

Telling the story from different points of view

So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  (I Corinthians 3:7)

     Told from a global north point of view, the story of Mennonite missions in Indonesia begins in the Netherlands. In 1851, the Doopsgezinde Zending Vereniging (DZV) sent Pieter Jansz, its first missionary, to Java. The result today is three Mennonite synods with more than 340 congregations and more than 108,000 members.

     But there is a different way to tell the story that is also true. For the leaders of the Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa (GITJ Synod) the story could begin like this:

     Tunggul Wulung was a Javanese mystic who joined Diponegoro, a Javanese prince,in fighting against the colonial rule of the Dutch in the late 1820s.  After Diponegoro was defeated and exiled, Tunggul Wulung was on the run. His spiritual quest was to find the Messiah. In about 1851, he attended a meeting in which Dutch Mennonite Pieter Janz was sharing about Jesus Christ. Tunggul Wulung sat in the window, unseen by anyone else except Pieter Janz.  Tunggul Wulung took this as a sign that Pieter Janz was speaking the truth.  

     Tunggul Wulung spread the good news by clearing land in the jungle and creating Christian villages in Bondo, Margorejo, and Banyutowo.  As an ex-soldier, he would not honor the colonial government. He also had difficulties relating to Pieter Janz who he saw as coming from the  colonial power under whom the Javanese people had lost their rights. But from these beginnings of a search for a Messiah amidst the struggles of relationship, a church of more than 100 congregations and 40,000 members was eventually born.   

     The Gereja Kristen Muria Indonesia (GKMI) synod might begin the story this way:

      Tee Sin Tat was an ethnic Chinese business man in Kudus in the early 1900s who was seeking spiritual guidance. He first contacted the Salvation Army but he was disturbed when they conducted baptisms under the Dutch flag. He contacted the Seventh Day Adventists, but was offended by their teaching against eating pork. He visited the Salib Putih Reformed Mission in Salatiga and they encouraged him to visit the Dutch Mennonite missionaries in Kudus. The Dutch Mennonite theology satisfied Tee Sin Tat and so he was baptized by Dutch Mennonites in Kayu Apu in 1920.  

      Tee Sin Tat was a businessman and he began a church using the same business principles.  When he wanted to be ordained, the Dutch Mennonites refused.  Instead, Tee Sin Tat was ordained by the government under the Dutch queen’s decree.  

      The GKMI became a Synod in 1948. It now has 50 congregations and 16,000 members. The GKMI has never been dependent on a mission board.  This spirit of independence is an ongoing strength in the GKMI congregations. They fully support their congregations and only funded extra projects from the outside. 

     There is no doubt that the Dutch church played an important role in the Mennonite mission effort in Indonesia. It is also true that God's spirit was already present in Indonesia among the Javanese and the Chinese people.

    Praise God for the vibrant Mennonite Christian witness in Java and elsewhere that is the result today.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Connecting in Indonesia and around the world

 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace.
 Romans 15:13

     One congregation in the rural village of Srumbung Gunung and another in the city of Ungaran. The two Mennonite churches in Indonesia are probably not 20 miles apart, but in other ways, the distance seems much greater. 

     There are almost 110,000 Mennonites in Indonesia in three different synods (denominations). One originated in a Javanese context (GITF), and another began among the Chinese in Indonesia (GKMI). The third (JKI), younger, more pentecostal and urban, is also more connected to Mennonites on the West Coast of the United States.

     On the first Sunday of Advent at 7 a.m., you could see the members and families of the Srumbung Gunung (GKMI) congregation (left above) walk up the road to the church at the top of the hill. They are a minority here because most of their neighbors are Muslim. But neighbors are neighbors and this community appears to be living together in peace.

      During worship, I am sitting beside Fang Deng, from China. Fang is part of a program sponsored by Mennonite World Conference and Mennonite Central Committee, called YAMEN!, that places young people from countries in the southern hemisphere for a year of service and learning in other countries in the south. Fang worships with this congregation. Four days a week, she travels by motorbike for an hour each way with the pastor's wife to work in a school in the city of Semarang.
     After worship, we join the pastor for breakfast. Sitting on the floor of the well-sized, breezy and humble home, I can see out the door and watch a woman winnowing rice. The pastor has followed his father-in-law as the pastor of this small congregation and feels God's call to this ministry. 

       The Maranatha Church (above right) in Ungaran is bigger, louder and wealthier. We are joining the youth service at 11 a.m. for about 100 youth, the middle of three services that weekly involves 1,200 members. Everything here seems more closely aligned to my experience in North America, including some English words on the video screen.

      The youth are energetic, dancing and raising arms at times, as they sing praises to the Lord. The pastor preaches from Romans 8 and Ephesians 3 and we are reminded that Christ can accomplish far more in us than we could ever ask or imagine. 

      The pastor expresses thanks for MCC, especially for MCC bringing to this congregation Prashant Nand (YAMEN), a pastoral intern from India.  Is this not cool? An Indonesian Mennonite congregation thanking MCC, a North American organization, for bringing them a youth worker from India!
     On this first Sunday in Advent, one thing that connected these two congregations is that they both celebrated communion. "Take, eat, drink," the pastors encouraged us. As we did, the bread and the cup connected, not only these two congregations, but many more in Indonesia and around the world.

     This Advent season, we look forward to Christ's coming, and we know that he comes again and again to each of us who call him Savior wherever we find ourselves. In the city and in the village. In Indonesia and around the world. May the God of Hope fill you with all joy and peace as we look forward to the birth of the child called Jesus.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Our help comes from the Lord

I will lift up my eyes to the hills - from where will my help come? 
My help comes from the Lord.
Psalm 121:1, 2
     Indonesia is a Muslim majority culture. The proportions vary, but whether you are part of the 10 or 20% minority or almost half of the population, it means something extra to be a Christian in this country. 

     I traveled up into the Muria area, a mountainous region where Mennonite Christians originated in the 1850s, on my way to stay with a family for a week in the village of Sukodono. I was with Pak Jimmy and Pak Lilik, MCC national staff, and we visited Mennonite churches, schools and hospitals on the way. 

     Pak Lilik told me his parents were Muslim. His sister took him to Sunday school as a young child and he eventually became a Christian. Of his six siblings, only he and his sister are Christians. He said, in the end, his parents were able to honor his choice. 

     We met Jonathan Gravelle (above), a SALTer from British Columbia teaching English in several schools, including this vocational school for mostly girls. (There are some obvious benefits for Jonathan here.). In his town, Chuwana, he is the only westerner. These girls sometimes refer to him as Justin Bieber!

   We visited a number of churches, hospitals, churches and schools begun in the missionary era. Some are still thriving while others are not. We visited the GKMI church in Margorejo. The original church structure was burnt down by Muslims in the 1940s. 

     In Sukodono, one of my hosts, Yunarso Rusandono (Dono), took me for several long motorbike rides to visit more churches and meet with a pastors group. I talked to them about Christ's coming to break down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us (Eph. 2).

    In one church I visited, the church had given part of its land away so that the community could build a mosque. 

     Back in Sukodono, I was able to meet with the church deacons to talk about their witness in their community. Here, Christians are about 20% of the population but relationships between Christians and Muslims are strong. Church deacons talked about a program they participate in where they donate blood to people in need, regardless of their religion.

     Dono is intent on helping the teenagers of the church (Dono is with me in the second photo above) gain a strong Christian identity. He wants to be sure they get an education and have opportunities to talk about what it means to be Christians in their community and culture. 

      At the Sukodono church on Sunday morning, one of the Biblical texts is Psalm 121. God is our keeper, the Psalmist says, and watches over us. 

     In Muria, where Christians work hard to live in peace with Muslims, there is recognition that our help does, indeed, come from the Lord.





Saturday, November 17, 2012

Go and do likewise

And who is my neighbor . . .  the one who showed him mercy. (Luke 10)

      In the Gospel of Luke, when the lawyer asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to love the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind and strength and love his neighbor as himself.  Still not satisfied, the lawyer asks Jesus who his neighbor is?

     Jesus responds by telling the parable of the good Samaritan and concludes by asking the lawyer which of the three who passed by the man who was robbed was a neighbor to him. The lawyer responds by saying that the neighbor to the man was the one who showed him mercy. 

     Jesus responds: Go and do likewise. 

     What does it mean to go and do likewise in our world today? I am thinking of that today as I sit in Indonesia and watch the violence unfold in Gaza. What does it mean to be a neighbor to people when violence, poverty and unemployment are constant threats to families and 80 percent of the population is dependent on aid? What does it mean to be a neighbor to people when they honestly don't know if they will see tomorrow? What does it mean to be a neighbor to these people when they are suffering, at least partially because of the policies of my own government?

     Several weeks ago, I was in Guatemala for an alternatives to migration learning tour. The group had ample opportunities to see how MCC is working with its partners to help people develop more sustainable livelihoods like harvesting flowers to sell across the border in Mexico or growing trout as an alternative food source,  all so that families can stay together and fathers and children did not need to leave their families for weeks at a time to go to the cities to earn money, to go to Mexico to work in the coffee fields or to travel even further north to the United States so that they can work and send money back home to support their families. 

     In Guatemala, virtually 10% of the population is living outside the country, most in the United States, sending back home $4.7 billion each year, the single largest source of revenue in the Guatemalan economy. 

     One day, we traveled across the border into Mexico to see first hand the results of this pull of migration to earn money to send back home. In Mexico, one of the main ways people from Central and South America travel north is on the tops of the trains. This is a very dangerous way to travel and many fall off the trains, some hurting themselves very badly. 

     We met Olga Sanchez Martinez (the woman in the middle in white in the photo above of the learning tour group) who now runs Albergue del Buen Pastor, the hostel of the good shepherd, for migrants recovering from train accidents.

     Olga told us that when she first saw these migrants in need, she helped one man and then she took five home, and then five more, until she had 20 people in her home. She was eventually able to build a facility that can house 50 people who need her help. 

     Who is my neighbor? For Olga, it is clear. People nearby who needed her.

     For Christians, wherever they are, our neighbors are the people around us in need. That's true in Indonesia, in Gaza and in our communities wherever we live. We can be a neighbor by showing mercy to the one close by or to people further away.

     Loving God and loving our neighbor, Jesus is telling us, are the keys to experiencing the fullness of life. I am finding it is as difficult for me to learn this as it must have been for that lawyer who confronted Jesus.

Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee in the United States

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

City of Peace

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. - Psalm 146: 3
Solo, Indonesia
     There are more Muslims in Indonesia than in any other country in the world. And while the large majority of Indonesia's Muslims are moderate and opposed to violence, fundamentalist Islam and terrorism also exist. In fact, there is a history of violence in Solo. Every terrorist act in Indonesia since 1999, including a bombing of a church last month, can be linked to Islamic teachers in this city. There is a fear among many in the Muslim community that Solo is a recruiting grounds for terrorism. 

     The Forum for Peace Across Religions and Groups (FPLAG) has been working for peace for more than a dozen years. Mennonite Central Committee, through its connection with the Mennonite churches in Indonesia, has been partnering with FPLAG since its beginning. The Forum began when Mennonites and other Protestant groups, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, followers of Confucius and others from traditional religions agreed to work together to distribute relief aid after the city was devastated by riots in 1999. 

     When the relief work was finished, the group agreed to stay together as a forum to work on ways of reducing tension and potential conflict in their city. Peace is a seed, says one leader. "You need to spread it out where you are," he says. FPLAG leaders would like to start a peace institute where people can come together, even leaders from the more radical groups, to talk about their problems.

     The group sponsors conflict transformation training in strategic neighborhoods known for having high levels of tension. Going forward, FPLAG (some leaders pictured above) wants to build on their growing influence in the city as peace builders. They want to collaborate with government groups and others who are working for peace. "As long as we can talk, we can avoid violence," says one leader.

     In the city of Solo, people of many faiths are refusing to put their trust in princes and in violence. Instead, they are working together to become a city of peace. May God's Shalom be present here. 

Ron Byler is executive director for Mennonite Central Committee in the United States.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus

. . . members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.(Eph 3:6)

"In Indonesia, MCC is salt so that the church can be the light," long-time MCC Indonesia worker Jeanne Zimmerly Jantzi told me in the MCC office in Salatiga. There are good reasons why MCC has a long record of working in this country, she told me. 

There's a history of violence here and Indonesia is in a part of the world that experiences natural disasters regularly. The largest Islamic population in the world is here. And one of the largest populations of Mennonites outside of North America is also in this country. In fact, Jeanne said, every partner MCC has in Indonesia and every placement it makes is with the blessing of the three Mennonite Church synods.
Later that week, we gathered in Semarang, Indonesia. Eighteen candidates. A leadership team from the three Mennonite synods. And Mennonite Central Committee workers. Our purpose was the same - to determine which six young adults would represent Indonesian Mennonites in North America or in other parts of the world as part of MCC's service programs for young adults. 

 Virtually all of the leadership team were also graduates of these service programs. Ronny Agostino served in Abbotsford, British Columbia and in Waterloo, Ontario. Little did he know that working in a thrift shop in Canada would eventually lead to owning 15 Honda motorcycle dealerships. 

Nindyo Sasongko, a pastor for a number of years, is looking forward to more schooling at Seattle (Wash.) University next year. He'll be focusing on spirituality courses at this Jesuit school. He's already made connections with the Mennonite congregations in Seattle. Ronny and Nindyo are prime examples of what I've experienced elsewhere - MCC's international young adult service programs are regarded as vital leadership training programs by Anabaptist churches around the world.

Back in Salatiga, I attended the 6 a.m. Sunday morning worship service of the Warta Jemaat congregation. I had a chance to greet the congregation near the end of the worship service on behalf of MCC and Mennonites in North America. I reminded them that, in Christ Jesus, we are sisters and brothers, members of the same family, connected as if we were parts of the same body. 

It is a privilege to serve in MCC and meet so many people who are sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus.

Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee in the United States.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

May God bless your hand

Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. (Isaiah 40:31)

In northern Iraq, 300 miles from Baghdad and 60 miles from Mosul, the informal headquarters for what's left of Al Qaeda, the city of Erbil feels safe.

Christians are a small minority here, many displaced by the overwhelming violence from Baghdad or other parts of the country. The Mennonite Central Committee Iraq office also moved here from Baghdad.

Much of MCC's work here is about accompanying the church. One of its largest partners is the Chaldean Catholic Church. Archbishop Bashar says one of his priorities is creating a climate where Iraqi Christians know they can stay, where they can find jobs and make a better life for their children. Building institutions that are are effective in transferring mission and values can make a difference in this community.

One MCC partner is the Kids House pre-school, a Global Family project. Five years ago, MCC helped by purchasing temporary tents which are still in operation. The sisters who run this school were effusive with their gratitude for MCC's ongoing help - children greeted us with singing and gave us flowers as we arrived. Here, children, many of them displaced, are loved and well cared for. The sisters invited us for a sumptuous lunch and it was clear the sisters and MCC staff regularly pray for each other.

Another partner is the Mar Qardakh School which provides an International Baccalaureate program for 48 students grades one to four. Deb Fine (she and her husband Jim are the MCC Iraq staff) works here several days each week. The school models teamwork, dialogue and peace making in the classroom. The headmaster said this school will help develop critical thinking for a new generation of Iraqi leaders.

I talked to Father Fadi at St. Peters Seminary of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Father Fadi said people are still leaving Erbil and Christians are becoming a smaller and smaller minority. He said he has nine brothers and sisters, all of whom but one have left the country. His despair was tinged with hope: "We are doing something for today, no one knows what will happen tomorrow, but with hope for the next 100 years," he told me.

Abdul Sipar Yundis, leader of an association of 140 NGOs in the Kurdistan region said work before 2000 was focused on crisis but now the focus is more on human rights and advocacy. His goal is to help bring real change in Iraq by developing a stronger civil society. He is one of four persons who will be in Washington D.C. this week, through MCC funding, to share an alternative voice with U.S policy makers. "The best support the U.S. can provide is to support civil society, not the Iraqi government," he said.

Another MCC partner is the Al Alamal Association which works on health and development projects, conflict transformation skills and enhances dialogue between different ethnic and religious groups. "We work to help people participate in developing their communities," said Ala Ali, one of the Al Alamal board members.

Daryl Byler, MCC representative, told me that almost everyone in this region has had a family member killed in the last number of years. The best thing he thinks MCC can do is walk alongside people and let them know they are not alone.

Ysallim idak (May God bless your hand). In this war-torn country, I pray that MCC and its staff will continue to enable God's blessing to people in this region.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Christ at the checkpoint

Do you want to be made well? (John 5:6)

I sat in the quiet of St. Anne's Basilica in in the old city of Jerusalem and remembered the story about Jesus in John 5. It was here, outside by the pools of Bethesda, that Jesus healed the paralyzed man.

"Do you want to be made well," Jesus asked the man? The man was incredulous. Of course, he wanted to be made well. He'd been waiting by the side of the pool for years but no one had been willing to help him in.

"Then stand up, take your mat and walk," Jesus told the man. And immediately the man was made well.

In this land where Jesus once walked, the geopolitical issues are complex. Caught in a web of conflict and violence, both the Jews and Palestinians think this land is theirs. Some Jews, fearful of the rest of the world and supported by American Christians, treat unjustly Palestinians who have also lived in this land for many centuries. And some Palestinians respond in kind.

And these dynamics spill over throughout the Middle East and around the world.

Dr. Jad Isaac told a group of MCCers gathered at Applied Research Institute-Jerusalem (ARIJ) on Friday morning that "the liberation of Palestine will not happen until we liberate the United States and that is the role of the churches." He said he doesn't want a Palestinian state, he wants the end of the occupation, to be able to move around freely. In the West Bank, Christians once accounted for 5% of the population and now that is 1% and still declining.

At the Wi'Am Conflict Resolution Center, Palestinian Christian Zoughby Zoughby told us that, while there is growing frustration in the Palestinian community, there is also a growing interest in nonviolent civil disobedience. " And he proclaimed, "the grave is empty and the resurrection is our hope."

At the Bethlehem Bible College, we heard about an upcoming conference, "Christ at the Checkpoint," designed to help evangelicals to look with new eyes at the sources of conflict in the Middle East. "We see change in churches in the United States," Bishara Awad told us. The college hopes to gather people from all over the world to look at the reconciliation work of the church in Palestine/Israel.

Earlier this week, my group of North Americans entering Israel from the Jordan border were pulled ahead of the line in front of a large group of Palestinians who clearly had been waiting at the border for some time. As I traveled the country the next few days and heard how daily living is made more and more difficult for Palestinians, as I traveled the checkpoints and saw the enormity of the gerrymandered wall created by a fearful Jewish state, it is difficult for me to find the guarded optimism I heard from Palestinian Christians like Dr. Jad and Zoughby and Bishara.

But as I sit in St. Anne's Basilica, I am confronted by Jesus' words and recognize that he is speaking to all who are doubtful and discouraged - "Stand up, take your mat and walk!"

The God of Abraham is still present in this land. Has been and always will be. For Christians, for Jews and for Muslims. What is my role and that of Christians in the United States to help extend God's love to all people who live here?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Breaking down the dividing walls

For Christ is our peace . . . he has brought both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility. (Ephesians 2:14)

I stood on the hill in the twilight in Nogales, Arizona looking down over the U.S./Mexico border wall into Mexico. How broken our relationships must be in order to make a wall like this one, 20 feet high for hundreds of miles, necessary.

I was with a group of staff from Mennonite Central Committee from all over the Americas who had gathered in Tucson to strategize our future work together to help tear down this wall.

Tearing down this wall will mean caring for people in need on both sides of the border, whether or not they have the right papers.

Tearing down this wall will mean working with communities throughout Mexico and Central America to be help people develop sustainable livelihoods so that people are not so desperate to go North to provide for their families.

Tearing down this wall will mean working in the United States for fairer trade laws so that farmers South of the border wall can receive an equitable return for their crops.

Tearing down this wall will mean advocating for immigration policies that are more hospitable to all who enter our country, regardless of their circumstances.

Looking down on the border wall in the twilight, I am remembering meeting Helio and Clemente just a few hours before at a transport company on the Mexico side of the border. Both had been working in the vineyards in Napa Valley but were deported when they were found without formal documents. Now they are waiting for a friend who was also being processed for deportation.

"We just want to work," Helio and Clemente told me over and over again. With no hope for jobs in their own countries of origin, it was clear they would be trying to cross the border again soon so that they could earn some money to help support their families back home.

"We are not deliquents, we just want to work," they told me. Talking to Helio and Clemente, it was hard to understand why people in my country are so fearful of migrants. People are afraid to help each other. Border violence is increasing. And thousands of people like Helio and Clemente are becoming even more vulnerable.

If Christ is our peace and his desire is to tear down the walls of hostility between people, what is our responsibility as his followers in the United States to help?

That's what I'm thinking in the twilight this evening.