Friday evening the army truck pulled up to the mall in Karawaci. Nondescript, except for the load of men crammed in the back, it came in behind the other vehicles entering the parking lot. The men in the back quickly piled out and streamed into the mall, smashing windows and merchandise, looting stores and wrecking havoc. Caravans of trucks were right behind the first, each loaded down with angry men. The scale of the destruction wouldn’t be known for several days, but a couple hundred looters died in the mall as they set fire to the stores. The synthetic textiles of the clothes on the racks burned hot and fast, filling the mall with deadly smoke before the looters themselves could escape.
That was just one of many riots that occurred in Indonesia in the Spring of 1998. The riots grew out of hand, and within 36 hours, over 1500 people died, many others were raped, robbed and injured. It would be easy to think that Indonesia suffers from religious and ethnic intolerance. But I think it simply suffers from ignorance.
I was born and raised in Kalimantan, formerly Borneo, one of the islands of the largest Muslim country in the world. Life in the country has not been easy since the riots. A severe depression swept through and left the people in hardship, including my family.
I lived in Borneo for 15 years. When I was in the 9th grade, I applied for a scholarship at an international high school and got it. I moved to Java, until I graduated. I was a nominal Catholic when I moved to Java and some of the friends I hung out with were either Muslims or strong Christians. Together with the Muslim friends, I would make fun of how the Christians praised and worshipped God. I was rebellious at school where I lacked the limitations that my family set for me at home. The fact I was away from my family made me feel free to do anything I wanted to do.
I knew at that time there were a lot of my Christians friends praying for me, but I ignored them and assumed they were just freaks. A couple of weeks before school was over, a friend invited me to go to a service at school chapel. I had never been to any of the chapel services before, so I thought it would be a good idea to just go and see to make fun of it. But something about what we did, and then, what was talked about affected me, moved me. Much to my surprise I found myself on the other side of a line I thought I’d never cross.
[“It is a great challenge to be a Christian in a Muslim country.”]
The real challenge came afterwards. My Muslim friends started to look at me differently; some of them even threatened me. It was a hard time. I was new to what I had gotten myself into. The only thing I was graciously conscious of was that Jesus was somehow always with me so things would be fine. I saw some incredible things happen at my school, others who were very closed also found themselves drawn into a relationship with Jesus, and people were healed of some serious stuff both mental and physical. Personally, I learned my faith had more to do with my will and my attitudes, two things I had great difficulty in changing. I found I could be changed only through constant surrender to Jesus.
I think the same goes for my country. There is supposed religious freedom, but obviously Islam is favored and Christianity is set with some substantial roadblocks: no sharing of your faith to anyone who is not already Christian, no real recourse if a church is burned down or you are persecuted. It is a great challenge to be a Christian in a Muslim country.
After graduating from high school, I wanted to go to where I could learn about how to live God’s way. I had heard about some of the universities in America, and wanted to go to school there. Because of the financial impossibility, my family didn’t agree at all. They also did not understand my interest in going to a Christian university. I trusted that if I could at all go to the States to a Christian school it would have to be a miracle, so I left it up to God and kept hoping. Eventually, thankfully, my parents changed their minds, and worked with me on how to get there.
I could not believe at first I was in the United States. No one in my family had ever been here before. And to be able to study here was something I didn’t even waste my time fantasizing about a year earlier. I thank God everyday for this opportunity. Life here is very different. Everything seems so easy and comfortable. You have the freedom to do almost anything you want: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of press, freedom of expression, and more.
The first year of college wasn’t easy at all. I have normally been an outgoing person, surrounded by friends, but here it was really hard for me. I have made many great friends since though, as I have not given up on trying to meet new people and try new things.
Last summer I went with a teen missions group to Panama. I had an amazing time. I learned to be proactive for the first time in talking to people about what I have experienced in getting to know God. And I have not stopped thinking about something that happened during our debriefing after the trip. The leader of the organization I went with spoke before all the groups that had gone around the world that summer, saying something like, “You have had a great experience with God, you are closer to him. Now, when you go back to your homes, continue to read your Bible and pray. Also, if there are people in your lives who are not Christians, or friends who are not as committed, don’t hang out with them anymore.” After the debriefing my team had its own meeting. The first person to stand up and talk said something like, “I am going to go home and stop hanging out with all my friends who aren’t Christian or not as committed.”
In Indonesia, I know a family who is half Muslim and half Christian. They don’t agree with each other, but they love each other very much and live together in community as most Indonesian families do. I also know a family who has one son who is gay, and although they don’t agree with his lifestyle, they still love him and he is welcome always. It has never occurred to me to shut someone out of my life because they are not as committed as I am, follow a different way, have serious problems or anything like that. Friends are friends, family is family regardless. It is pretty much a part of my culture. Sometimes I wonder which way is right as I hear this a lot. I think that if I do not hang out with these people, who will? And if they have to be better people to hang out with me, am I good enough and what kind of message am I sending?
This summer I will go home. I haven’t been home for almost two years now. I try to keep up with everything going on in my country. But I think everything will be really different when I go back. The way my perspective has been shaped and the things I have learned over these two years in America will change the way I think and look at my home.
Life is still hard in Indonesia, depression is still going on and only God knows when it will end. I want to be a light in the ignorance. I cannot talk in public, but I can share love through the way I live. I can change someone’s life with my own. My family has been expecting my return for a long time. I hope I am going home a better person.
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