Heads up: This is a rather long post that’s some of my musings on religion after living in Indonesia, an exceptionally religious country. Feel free to skip it and know that I mean no offense to anyone.
For the past nine month I have been blessed with the opportunity to live in a majority Muslim community and work in a madrasah, an Islamic public high school. Which is different from school in the US where only private schools are affiliated with religion (and predominantly Catholicism). Before coming to Indonesia I knew absolutely nothing about Islam. I’m far from an expert, but I understand much more now. I am proud to work in a madrasah alongside brilliant, kind, loving people. I am proud to work in a madrasah and teach brilliant, kind, loving students. I am grateful I get to learn about another faith, a beautiful faith, that many in America know little about and associate only with terrorism.
When people ask me, “Agama Anda apa” (what’s your religions)—and they do quite frequently here—I respond “Kristen, Protestan” (Christian, Protestant). But that’s not entirely true because when I provide an answer to that question I also provide a set of images that whomever asked draws upon to understand what my worship looks like. They see me attending church every Sunday in my Sunday best with my family. And that’s not really what my faith looks like.
I’m not a particularly religious person. I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve been to a church service. When I first came here, the ibu who owns the home I live in made sure I knew where the church was and asked if I wanted to go. I laughed awkwardly and said maybe.
I’m not particularly religious, but I’m not an atheist. I tell myself I’m Undecided. I’m still searching for what to believe in. Testing the waters. I believe in God and I like spirituality, but I’m still waffling a bit and I’m not ready to commit.
That doesn’t really fly in Indonesia. So I’m Protestant.
You have to list your religion on your identity card here and the first principle of the five-item philosophical foundation of Indonesia, the Pancasila (pahn-cha-see-la), is Ketuhanan Yang Maha Esa (“belief in the one and only God”). It sounds harsh, but the meaning is more like “belief in one God,” and Indonesia acknowledges six official religions. In order of most practiced to least practiced these state recognized versions of God are Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism.
Noticeably missing from the list is Judaism. Yet Indonesia still boasts the largest menorah in the world.
As much as batik, smiling, and nasi goreng, faith is part of the fabric of Indonesia.
My relationship with church and Christianity is long distance to say the least.
I read most of the Old and New Testaments for a Bible as Literature course in college. I love it. The book is beautiful and fascinating and at times riveting.
I went to church with my aunt and uncle and cousin in Lincoln and sang a lot.
I’ve been to a handful of weddings and funerals.
I saw the Pope once and took an illegal picture of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
I stumbled across the stations of the cross happening my junior year of college and was amazed and terrified because I didn’t know what was happening but there were a whole lot of giant crucifixes.
But that’s pretty much it. The only time I’ve been to a church on or around Easter was when I was in China with my mom and we stopped by for some of our tour group to pray. I walked in but didn’t go much further than the threshold. So it was odd then that the need to go to church for Easter this year gripped me. I didn’t go for Christmas. I’ve hardly gone at all in my entire life up to now. But right here right now in Indonesia I knew I needed to go.
Here’s what I think my subconscious was thinking:
- First, I’d been telling people for the past seven months that I’m Christian and they all assume I go to church and I kind of wanted to indulge that image and make what I’ve been saying true.
- Second, I can’t leave Indonesia without knowing what an Indonesian church service looks like.
- Third, I miss my family and I miss my home and I miss my grandparents and I won’t be having any egg hunts or eating any lamb with mint jelly this year, but maybe going into a church will act as a kind of portal and let me glimpse the people I love for a few seconds.
So I set off for church on my bicycle at 4:38pm on Good Friday (Jumat Agung). I parked in the nearby bank’s parking lot and then, in the midst of a sea of Christiandonesians realized how big a family thing church is. I was awfully alone. And extremely noticeable. I nervously walked up, took a weathered blue metal seat in the semi-outdoor overflow area in the back, and fidgeted nervously. And then I saw they restocked the programs so I went and picked one up and then there were people where I had been sitting but that was okay there was still an empty seat so I got in and it was really really hot and I was really really alone and nervous. Also, there was so much hair and women were wearing skirts and dresses above the knee WHAT?!
I smiled to the people around me and then feigned interest—so much interest—in the program. After five minutes or so I had the courage to talk with the ibu on my left. I said “Hari ini pertama kali ke gereja disini. Memaafkan saya jika saya salah” which wasn’t exactly correct, but translates to “today is my first time in church here. Forgive me if I’m wrong.” And then we talked a little. Then I mentioned I teach in a madrasah and that sent murmurs through the people around me. Not bad murmurs, but amazed murmurs. Like “woahhhh he works in an Islamic school but he’s not Islamic, WHAT?!” I am proud to represent a madrasah. Yeah, I can be Christian and work in a Muslim school. No big deal.
And then the service began. I forgot there was singing in church and I love singing. I had the words in my program so I was able to sing along pretty easily. It felt good to sing. And to be singing in a place other than a loud karaoke club or awkwardly in front of an entire crowd of Indonesians.
I struggled to understand the prayers, though I could pick out words here and there.
Then there was a drama. There was gamelan music and a narrator narrating everything, and then a bunch of teenagers coming on in long potato sack dress-robe-things. Some wore black sacks and their faces were painted black. These people were apparently evil. Some wore white sacks and their faces were painted white. I didn’t ask about them, but I assumed they were good. There was also one girl with a red sack and a white face? There was also one dude with what I think was a wool hat covering his face and big headphones over his ears. I’m not really sure what was happening but it was definitely some sort of morality play and they mentioned cellphones at one time so I don’t think it was taken from the Gospels.
After that was the main sermon. It was pretty good, though again, I struggled immensely with understanding it. I tried to concentrate on the words, but also let my mind wander and ponder religion in general.
What does it mean to be religious?
What does it mean to believe in God?
What does my faith look like now and what do I want it to look like?
I couldn’t really answer any of these questions, though I did go through a wide range of emotions and thoughts. I love religion. It has quite literally built empires. It is responsible for some of the most beautiful art, architecture, and music in the world. It keeps people safe. It keeps people moral. It gives people something to believe in. It gives people hope.
It also of course causes wars. The Crusades. The Spanish Inquisition. The War on Terror.
But mostly I think it’s good.
What I do not think is good is when religion – any religion – tells people who they are is wrong or evil or dirty. Our differences are what make this world awesome. God created each and every one of us and so we must all be good, otherwise you’re saying He’s wrong. Of course people do horrible things and murder and steal and hurt others and that’s not okay. But religion’s got forgiveness cemented in its foundations. And in general, if a person is just living their life not hurting anyone, they’re okay in my book.
A conversation I had freshman year with a member of a religious organization on UNL’s campus flashed through my mind. He told me his entire family is Buddhist. And then he said, quite calmly and reasonably, that they will all go to hell unless they convert and believe in Jesus.
That for me is not okay.
God takes many forms. Your God is not the same as my God. Even if we practice the same religion, your God is not the same as my God. How can He be? My relationship with God is personal. There’s a collective experience when you enter a house of worship and pray together, and that’s comforting and beautiful. But you also have your own relationship with God and you’re the only one who knows what that’s like. And your relationship and your worship being different does not make your God less significant or less correct.
Another conversation flashes through my mind. I’m in 4th grade and just explained to my best friends that I wasn’t baptized and didn’t really know what that meant. They promptly and matter-of-factly told me I was headed straight for hell.
That for me is not okay.
Worship takes many forms. But it’s all about the same thing. Regardless of how you pray, you’re praying. You’re putting faith in something greater than yourself. You’re working towards being a good human. Who cares what that worship looks like? Who cares if you were thrust into a tub of water when you were little?
I’m probably betraying my religious ignorance and committing blasphemy right now. Please forgive me.
But I believe anyone who puts down the beliefs of others is wrong.
Anyone who hates and looks down upon and scoffs at and mocks and despises and ignores and hurts is wrong.
God is made of forgiveness.
God is made of acceptance.
God is made of love.
So damn it everybody forgive and accept and love.
Until next time,