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.