I am writing from the city of Luwuk on the eastern tip of Central Sulawesi. We have just finished a training for local church elders in Palopo, South Sulawesi, and are now starting a workshop on social analysis and program planning for the Christian Church of Luwuk-Banggai (GKLB) (The “we” in this case is CGMB partner Oase Institute of which I am a member). After years of enjoying its reputation as an out-of-the-way place where nothing ever happens, the Luwuk-Banggai area has become the site of a small gold rush, one of the nation’s largest natural gas processing plants, and the rapid destruction of indigenous forests by oil palm plantations. Luwuk now has the feel of a frontier town, with mining and oil workers filling the makeshift hotels such as the one where we are staying.
Our host is Rev. Chris Warkula, the General Secretary of GKLB. He looked a bit worn out after a two-day hike into the forest highlands to baptize 25 children of the Wana tribe. They are hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivators, living in zealously guarded isolation. A hundred years ago they were “Christianized” by a Dutch missionary who accompanied colonial troops sent into the area to punish the Wana for murdering a Dutch surveyor who had wandered into their territory. They are still only nominally Christians, in view of the fact that there are no Wana language scriptures (and they don’t speak Indonesian), and there is no regular pastor or worship service. The children had to be captured by their parents, who held them down while they were being baptized. (It turned out that they were frightened by the pastor’s black robe.) I know; it sounds like the worst sort of Christian missionary zeal. But listen to Chris’s explanation for why he hiked two days up and two days down for the baptisms: “A palm oil conglomerate has its eyes on their forest range, and they are trying to either bribe or frighten the Wana into leaving. If we baptize them and keep some sort of church presence there, then we are entitled to speak on their behalf in dealing with the government and the palm oil interests. I wish we could do more for them, but at least we can do that.” Strange evangelism—and I could give many similar examples of how complicated it gets—but I believe it would still be pleasing to the One in whose name they were baptized. (It turned out that they were frightened by the pastor’s black robe.)
I know; it sounds like the worst sort of Christian missionary zeal. But listen to Chris’s explanation for why he hiked two days up and two days down for the baptisms: “A palm oil conglomerate has its eyes on their forest range, and they are trying to either bribe or frighten the Wana into leaving. If we baptize them and keep some sort of church presence there, then we are entitled to speak on their behalf in dealing with the government and the palm oil interests. I wish we could do more for them, but at least we can do that.” Strange evangelism—and I could give many similar examples of how complicated it gets—but I believe it would still be pleasing to the One in whose name they were baptized.
As I wind things down in Luwuk, Karen is traveling from Makassar back to Kupang. She did a workshop on social analysis for an interfaith group of young people who were gathered by CGMB partner, Interfidei. Makassar had an active interfaith youth movement that was formed in the early 2000s in response to the wave of communal violence that swept through many parts of eastern Indonesia at the time. Interfidei is trying to revive the movement while things are still relatively peaceful. Interfaith youth organizing has proven to be a key element in preventing conflicts between Christians and Muslims. (see Interfidei: http://interfidei.or.id/index.php?&lang=en; see also “Peace Provocateurs” on Facebook)
When Karen returns, she will immediately go into another intensive working session with the accreditation committee for our Master’s program at Artha Wacana Christian University (UKAW). CGMB Board member Mery Kolimon is chair of the graduate studies program, and she and Karen have been buried in government forms and paperwork for much of the past month getting ready for the accreditation visit.
I will happily return to my classes and my garden. Our (organic) rice will be ready for harvest, and I have tomatoes and lettuce to tend in order to assure a continuous supply of salads. One of my proudest achievements has been to get traditional Timorese to enjoy eating raw vegetables, something they had previously considered to be goat food. (For an anthropologist’s explanation, see Levi-Strauss’ The Raw and The Cooked. In some cultures, raw symbolizes “wild” nature and cooked symbolizes “tame” culture. For Timorese, it seems my fresh salads seemed uncivilized. I remember Iowa farmers a generation ago having pretty much the same attitude.)
My Political Theology class will have a lot to talk about when I get back, having witnessed the historic inauguration of Indonesia’s new President. Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi) is Indonesia’s first popularly elected president who is truly popular, and the first who didn’t come either from the military or the traditional Javanese elite. During his time as mayor of Solo and then of Jakarta, he was famous for making government services more effective and humane, systematically shutting down the mechanisms of corruption, and making spontaneous visits to the streets and markets to find out what people were thinking. He is often compared to Obama, and like Obama, he will no doubt have a difficult time achieving his goals with a congress that is still very much in the hands of old-style predatory politicians. But at least there is hope.
The past months have been busy ones for both of us, teaching in both graduate and undergraduate programs, and visiting students in their field education placements. I have had several rather challenging motorcycle rides in the mountains to visit remote congregations, regular preaching duties, and starting a research project on migrant workers and human trafficking. Karen continues her editing work for human rights publications and chairing of a team to review and respond to the history of violence (mostly related to hazing of new students) on the theology campus.
During the month of October we have had the pleasure of hosting Rev. Dr. Deborah Clemens, a UCC pastor who is spending her sabbatical as a guest lecturer with UKAW’s Theology Faculty and Graduate Program. Her presence has contributed a fresh perspective on church life here, renewed interest in the history of liturgy, and greatly stimulated our students’ interest in learning English.
God’s blessings and peace,
John and Karen Campbell-Nelson serve with the Evangelical Church of West Timor. John serves as a staff support for the Synod’s Theological Commission and Synod programs. Karen serves as a Professor. John's appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples' Mission Fund, Our Churches Wider Mission, and your special gifts.” Karen's appointment is supported by One Great Hour of Sharing, Our Churches Wider Mission, Disciples Mission Fund and your special gifts.”