Responding to Corona in Indonesia – Lasting Change?

Dear Friends,

Grace to you, and peace, in the fifth month of the Time of Corona. As in the United States, places of worship here in Indonesia have been closed to public worship for several months now. 

We have been worshiping from home with liturgies and prayer guides provided by the Synod and delivered weekly by a masked deacon. Sometimes we hook up the TV to an internet connection and follow services from the larger and more technically advanced churches in Kupang—livestreaming on YouTube.  You can check it out if you'd like: just type "GMIT" in the YouTube search box and you'll get plenty of choices.  The music is generally wonderful, and through the month of May there have been songs and dances and traditional clothing from the many cultures of our islands. Afterward, the three children sheltering with us will often follow a Sunday school lesson on YouTube as well. 

In general, the church here has adapted remarkably well. The Synod office has created a database to track the effects of coronavirus on our 2000+ congregations, formed a task-force to coordinate diaconal and educational responses, produced guidelines for congregations on how to do funerals and communion, and even how to use electronic banking (yes, there are ATMs scattered in marketplaces throughout the islands) in order to reduce the risk of handling cash. There have been Zoom seminars (I just did one on pastoral care in the time of corona) and Whatsapp groups. Local congregations have directed almost their entire budgets to diaconal care, especially distribution of food to those out of work because of the pandemic.  City churches have been hit especially hard—rural farmers can still work in their fields, but day laborers, taxi drivers, shop workers, and waiters in restaurants have little or no income now, and rely on donations from church, government, and civil society groups. Rural pastors have been working to establish direct marketing for the produce from their congregations and organizing the women's groups to sew masks.  In short, there has been a burst of creativity that shines like a light in the fog.

But still, we miss our churches.  Not just the buildings—although, as I'm sure you know, church buildings can grow to have a special place in our hearts and our faith—but the experience of being together in worship in one place.  It is how we experience ourselves as a community. The contrast between "then" and "now" is probably especially stark in Timor because church-going is normally very high.  The city of Kupang  used to have heavy traffic on Sunday mornings because of all the people going to and from the many church services.  Our rural neighborhood is about 80% GMIT members, and the church was filled nearly every Sunday, often with extra chairs set up outside.  And then it all stopped.

The sudden end of togetherness in one place has given an opportunity for reflection. What first came to mind in thinking of what we are missing is the amazing amount of touching, hugging, and hand-holding that is a part of daily interaction here. Given the choice, when Timorese sit, they sit close together; they often put their arms around one another.  When they greet, they do a "Sabunese kiss" (so named because it is said to originate from the island of Sabu).  This involves rubbing noses together while vigorously inhaling.  In normal times it is endearing, but now it is an ideal means for transmission of Covid-19.  All of this also happens before and especially after church.  It is hard to imagine church without that bath of communal affection.  In Timor, "social distancing" is an oxymoron.

But there are other aspects of our fondness for large gatherings that are less endearing. Especially in the country with the world's largest Muslim population, large church gatherings are a way of saying, "We're strong. God is with us. Don't mess with us."  Churches have fallen into that temptation all over the world, and they have done so here as well, thereby becoming viral hot spots.  (This is not unique to Christians, either: a Muslim revivalist meeting in March drew 100,000 participants from around the world despite strong warnings from the government, and subsequently became Indonesia's largest Covid-19 super-spreader.) The desire to show your strength has been throttled. At the same time, the shutdown has exposed differences within the Christian community: "ecumenicals" are more likely to take their cues from science and medicine and do whatever is necessary to defend life.  "Evangelicals" are more likely to see the virus as an opportunity to "witness" to the power of faith by ignoring the dangers.  In the U.S. these differences often seem political, but in Indonesia the evangelical position does not line up with any particular political party. Evangelicals who reject evolution more easily question science in general; they tend to see the virus as a punishment or a test of faith. Conflicts between the two points of view flared up in March when the shutdowns began, and are now flaring up again as talk of "the new normal" and "reopening" raises the issue of under what circumstances do we return to our church buildings.

Another insight came from a rural pastor during our Zoom seminar on pastoral care.  He said that members of his congregation objected to having communion or baptisms anywhere but in the church building. I remembered similar responses years ago when we were trying to promote blessings for farmers in their fields and fisher-folk at the beaches.  The sacral character of the church building was indoctrinated in colonial times as a way of breaking the power of indigenous religion that held prayers and sacrifices in gardens, forests, and springs. The idea was that only pagans worshiped outdoors; Christians meet God in God's house. Apparently that feeling is still alive, which limits our ability of offer alternative locations, including outdoor worship.

In the years to come we will begin to see more clearly how the coronavirus has sparked a change in our churches. If it has stimulated creativity, it has also shown us some of our weaknesses and given us a chance to rethink our buildings, our regulations, our worship and our mission. I can't quite say with Paul that all things work together for good for those who love God, but at least some things do.

God bless you. Stay safe.

John Campbell-Nelson serves the Evangelical Christian Church of West Timor. His appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, and your special gifts.


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