A Christmas Letter
An early monsoon has kept me home from the office today which provides me the peace and quiet to write a Christmas letter. If the electricity will only come back on I’ll actually be able to send it. Indonesia has been experiencing power shortages even in Java and Bali which have previously been spared the blackouts that we in the “outer islands” are adapted to as a part of daily life.
The reasons are fairly simple, even if the solution isn’t: urbanization, economic growth, and greater consumer access to electronic goods has meant demand for electricity has skyrocketed, while generating capacity is bumping up against the fact that the great majority of Indonesia’s power comes from burning fossil fuels. Nearly all of Timor (at least the minority of places that have electricity) is powered by diesel fuel. When oil went to $147/barrel on the international market, the power company turned belly up. To make matters worse in the short run, the government mandated a freeze on diesel-generated power, hoping to force a move to alternative energy sources. But, those alternatives are still many thousands of miles (and probably many years) away from places like Timor.
So, we are probably assured of many pleasant evenings of conversation around the candles and the cooking fires for a long time to come. Under the circumstances, candlelight Christmas services lose much of their romance. The darkness isn’t just the way it was on the night Christ was born; it’s the way it still is for many people.
Karen and I are working to get caught up after more than three months in the United States – on Home Assignment for me, in between contracts with the International Center for Transitional Justice for Karen. We had the entire month of August for family vacation and really enjoyed time with our children, Katie and Sam, in Massachusetts. Katie finished her Master’s degree in soil science at UMass in May, and was then hired on as a researcher in her department. Sam was working for an environmental engineering company in Caribou, Maine, so we didn’t see as much of him. He has subsequently quit that job and is applying to graduate schools; even better, he is spending the interim here in Indonesia. His girlfriend came along, so we are enjoying getting to know her and watching her absorb this new world into which Sam has taken her. Both of our kids are in various stages of dealing with the reality that their work and their citizenship is in the United States but their hearts are inevitably tied to Indonesia.
My time “itinerating”— visiting churches in the Midwest with my trusty slideshow and my bag full of Timorese weavings and other show-and-tell items – was very tiring but very rewarding. I put 4,500 miles on my brother’s car in the state of Iowa alone. I found many rural congregations struggling to keep the doors open, not for want of faith and love for the church, but because so many of their children were moving away, finding work in cities for the most part. The average age of the people I met was probably nearly 70. Statistically this might seem rather ominous, but I actually found myself inspired and encouraged. These widows and retired farmers were so alert, so interested in the lives of others, and so supportive that I couldn’t help but be thankful there are so many people like that in the small towns of Iowa. Surely they were able to pass along some of these virtues to their children – wherever they may be. I came back to Indonesia with a renewed affection for the country of my birth, and a real sense of gratitude that I have been able to spend most of my working life in the employment of such a community of faith.
Karen was able to take time reconnecting with her family while I was on the road, and then came back to Indonesia ahead of me in order to finish editing a book documenting the human rights struggle of Indonesian women, beginning from the independence struggle up to the present. She was able to be present in Jakarta for the launching of the book at a celebration of the first 10 years of Indonesia’s National Women’s Commission, which was attended by the President.
This week our house is starting to fill up with Christmas visitors. Several of our Timorese kids will be home from school in Bali or from their work on neighboring islands, and a few more guests are coming from Java, so we will have a full house.
Last night I preached at the anniversary celebration of a small congregation on the edge of Kupang. One of the elders told me the story of how they came to found the church. Most of the members were recent migrants to the city from rural areas in the interior, and they had joined an older church nearby. But they had been made to feel unwelcome there by the “old-timers” and the “city people” and eventually decided to leave that congregation. After several months with no church home, the approach of Christmas with nowhere to celebrate it proved to be more than they could stand, so a group of neighbors gathered together and decided to form their own church. That first Christmas they celebrated under a tent in someone’s yard, but within a year they had built a simple building. Last night that little church was filled with more than 200 people, nearly half of them children; singing, dancing, and laughing, and proud of what they had accomplished together.
We hope that you have such a place to celebrate Christmas this year, and that you will have a similar joy and gratitude for all that the birth of Christ has meant for our lives.
John Campbell-Nelson serves as a professor with the Evangelical Church of West Timor.