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Highlights of 2010

December 21, 2010

One of the highlights of my year, indeed of many years with GMIT, came last September when the church held a special General Assembly to debate and ratify a new church constitution.  The Assembly ran two days longer than expected, and finally ended at nearly 3 in the morning.  The constitution that delegates, adopted at last, removed most of the centralized authority left over from GMIT’s origins as a Dutch colonial church (and culturally reinforced by decades of the Suharto dictatorship), and replaces it with a Presbyterian representative democracy.  Like most other Indonesian social institutions, GMIT had evolved over the years to resemble the authoritarian regime that the Dutch instituted and Suharto perfected.  It was arranged as a hierarchy in which the Synod executive board had virtually unlimited power over finances, program, and personnel.  Commands flowed downward from Synod to Presbytery to local congregations who awaited their “marching orders,” while money and obedience flowed upward.  Only the remoteness of GMIT’s many rural congregations and the limited ability of the Synod executive to wield even a fraction of the power granted to it, provided a degree of local freedom.  Under the new constitution the concept of hierarchy in the church was explicitly rejected, and congregations and presbyteries will now have a much greater voice in church affairs and more room for local initiative and creativity in ministry.   

Equally gratifying was the highly participatory process by which the constitution was produced, beginning with group reflection on GMIT’s ecclesiology and involving extensive consultation with representatives of GMIT’s 2000 congregations.  Of course, not everyone was willing to cede power, and the many heated debates were the reason for the Assembly’s extended time; but in the end the constitution passed by a wide margin.  Overall the process was so effective that the Dutch churches have asked GMIT to share its experience in an international seminar next year.

Our friend Mery Kolimon, a former student and now professor on the theological faculty, was instrumental in the church order process as secretary of the committee. She was recently elected as one of the six international members of the Common Global Ministries Board.  We’re delighted that her wisdom and insights will be a benefit to the CGMB as they are to GMIT.

I began the Christmas season this year with one of the most unusual congregations I have encountered.  It consists almost entirely of mining company employees who work at the giant Newmont gold mine in western Sumbawa, and their families.  Before the mine opened there were less than a dozen Christians in the area and no church.  But, the mine brought in thousands of new workers, and about 1,000 of them are Christians from all over Indonesia. I had been asked to preach at this congregation’s Christmas service, and although it seemed a long way to travel for one service, I accepted since the GMIT congregations on Sumbawa are few, and tend to feel isolated from the rest of GMIT.

Newmont has dug a hole the size of an inverted mountain in the Sumbawan forest, extracting gold, copper, and silver, and dumping the tailings into the sea.  Most of the workers are housed in a huge, heavily guarded complex that includes a hospital, supermarket, night club, and recreational facilities–tennis, baseball and soccer fields, and a golf course.  It feels like a combination of a prison and Disneyland.

The Christian miners quickly organized themselves to form a congregation, but when they tried to build a church they encountered opposition from local Muslims.  So they built their church to look like a warehouse in order not to attract attention. When I walked into the “warehouse” I was greeted by a manger scene, strings of lights, a Christmas tree, and a swarm of excited children.  There followed a Christmas pageant complete with bathrobes, tinfoil crowns, and shepherds in sneakers.  I preached, we sang, and it all ended with a feast including a rare treat in a Muslim area: pork.  Except for the extraordinary enthusiasm generated by the roast pork, it reminded me of Christmas at my home church in Iowa.  Why this should be so is a puzzle. Is it because people are so much alike, or because they had watched too many Christmas specials on TV?  At any rate, it was a joyful celebration. I think there was special warmth among the congregation because of their common experience as migrants, relying on one another as extended family and as a support network in an environment that is sometimes hostile towards them.  I felt ambivalent about the whole situation myself, in view of the massive environmental destruction their work accomplishes, and the great economic disparity between the mining employees and the dreadfully poor, predominantly Muslim local Sumbawans.  Well (I tell myself), good people sometimes give themselves to bad causes, and that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve Christmas.

On the home front, we are remodeling our house and expanding our garden.  In addition to continuing her work part-time with the International Center for Transitional Justice, Karen has been involved in forming a savings and loan cooperative among our neighbors who will be gathering at our home in a few days for a simple Christmas celebration.  And there will be more celebrating as we join  our Timorese family in the mountains of south central Timor; no snow, just rain.  Our daughter Katie is with us, while Sam continues his graduate study at the University of Wisconsin.  On Christmas Day we will wander the hills, do a little work in the gardens, and observe the birth of Christ with Timorese family who are very dear to us.

We wish you all a peaceful Christmas and a hope-filled New Year.

John Campbell-Nelson

John Campbell-Nelson serves as a professor with the Evangelical Church of West Timor.

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