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All Saint's Day

Written by John Campbell-Nelson
November 11, 2006

John Campbell-Nelson – Indonesia

Greetings from Timor. Today is November 1st, All Saints’ Day, and it seemed a good time to be in touch with all the saints who have not yet rested from their labors. GMIT celebrates the day before, October 31st, as Reformation Day and the anniversary of GMIT’s founding as an independent church. The tradition here is to have outdoor worship, theoretically to commemorate the time when reformed churches were banished from their church buildings and had to worship under the trees. I say “theoretically” because what is more on peoples’ minds this time of year is the hope of rain to begin the planting season. So in addition to remembering all our saints, we pray for rain.

But not quite yet, please, because those of us who are fortunate enough to have irrigation are still harvesting our rice. Our field is small, so we should be finished with it in a few days. We’ll have enough to supply only about half the household needs for the next six months, when our second crop will be ready. But it helps, and it is satisfying to eat your own rice.

I have just returned from about three weeks on the road in Sulawesi and Halmahera. I was in Sulawesi for the third in a series of case study workshops I have been doing with the Toraja Mamasa church; it was fun and instructive, although fairly routine. But the situation facing the church in Halmahera was another story, and I can’t seem to forget them. The island is about half Christian, half Muslim, and people live either in mixed neighborhoods or in a pattern of alternating Christian/ Muslim/ Christian/ Muslim villages. The people of Halmahera belong to the same ethnic group, and the only way to distinguish one neighborhood from another is whether you see a church or a mosque. When the communal conflict in Ambon spread to Halmahera late in 1999, the people found themselves in a civil war in which there was no North or South, just red headbands for Christians and white headbands for Muslims. Entire villages were burned to the ground, thousands were killed on both sides and more than 100,000 became refugees (technically, in NGO-speak, they are “internally displaced persons”). In the worst single incident, more than 200 were killed after taking shelter in their church. They are buried beside the burnt-out ruins of the sanctuary.

I had been asked to do a workshop for clergy on pastoral care of trauma victims. One of the first things I did was to read off the list of symptoms from the diagnostic protocols for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. The response was unhesitating: “Yep! That’s us!” Not surprisingly, Henri Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer became a recurring theme during the workshop.

I asked them to draw pictures of the conflict as they remembered it. Most drew maps of the route they had followed with their congregations as they fled through the jungle looking for a place of safety. One drew a picture of a human head on a stick. But one of the most chilling moments came when I asked them to explore the effect of the conflict on children. What lessons had the children learned, either directly from their experience of the conflict, or from listening to the adults around them? “Muslims are evil.” “Men with beards dressed in white are terrorists.” “Christian children don’t play with Muslim children.” “Daddy, how many Muslims did you kill?” They play war games, “Christians against Muslims”, with little wooden guns and swords. They want to join the military when they grow up so they can get revenge. Assuming Muslim children are learning equivalent lessons, the stage is being set for the next generation of conflict. Suddenly the importance of Sunday School took on a whole new dimension and the participants responded with enthusiasm when we did an exercise to design peace-oriented Sunday School lessons.

But what I keep remembering is an incident told by a participant during a break on the last day of the workshop. The young pastor had been a seminary student at the time of the violence, and he joined other young men in taking up arms to defend their village. They got drunk first, to quell the fear. The first night, he saw a young Muslim running in his direction. Thinking he was being attacked, he raised his machete and brought it down on the youth’s neck, killing him. Then, looking down at the body, he realized that the boy had been unarmed. He was just trying to run away, and he ran in the wrong direction.

Four days later, the Muslims had been expelled, and the “Christian soldiers” were searching through the ruins. They came upon a shed, and when they opened the door there were four Muslim women and eight children hiding inside, several of them wounded. As the men raised their weapons, the women inside cried out, “Jesus Christ, help us!” It was clearly not a battlefield conversion, but an appeal to the conscience of their attackers. The young pastor then put himself between the Muslims and their Christian captors, and convinced the latter to let him take the Muslim non-combatants to the police station, from which they could be evacuated to a Muslim-controlled area.

“I know I saved twelve people, but does that make up for the one I murdered?” the pastor asked. “I don’t know if God can forgive me.” Not knowing what else to say, I suggested that maybe those twelve people were God’s offer of forgiveness to him.

You may be wondering what the conflict was all about. So are the people of Halmahera. We agreed that it wasn’t really a conflict of religions, or we would have had clergy from both sides hurling scriptures at one another instead of young people hurling Molotov cocktails. What seems clear in retrospect is that the security forces were involved, and that they used (or made common cause with) Indonesia’s alleged al Qaeda movement, the Jemaah Islamiyah. Similar conflicts of varying intensity broke out almost simultaneously throughout Eastern Indonesia, precisely at a time when the military was frightened at losing its power in the wake of Suharto’s fall and the humiliating loss of East Timor. It all seems to have been a ghastly extortion scheme designed to prove that Indonesia needs its military to “keep the peace”. The War on Terror has many uses.

So. Back to the rice harvest, to the smell and feel of life and mud between my toes. Katie and Sam and Karen are well, Katie in Massachusetts with her garden and her house painting and her work with an organic farmers’ association; Sam on a semester of study abroad in Tanzania, where he has to keep reminding himself that they don’t speak Indonesian; Karen busy with a number of database and editing projects.

You have an election coming up over there. I hope it goes well. We won’t be voting, not because we don’t care, but because as usual our absentee ballots didn’t arrive in time. Unfortunately, we can’t ask you to vote twice on our behalf.

John Campbell-Nelson

John Campbell-Nelson is a missionary serving with the Evangelical Christian Church of Timor. John serves as a professor.

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