FROM KALIMANTAN TO MALANG VIA BIRMINGHAM
© Duncan Graham 2005
The life of a missionary kid (they call themselves MKs) is so dramatically different from the upbringing of most children that there’s even an Indonesian webpage devoted to the experience.
Sample: MKs fly before they can walk. They speak two languages but can’t spell in either. They have passports but no driving licences. When watching National Geographic TV specials they recognise someone. Or think the featured wildlife looks tasty.
Obviously the trauma rate is high. The quandary facing English MK Jonathan Heath was adjusting to life in the industrial city of Birmingham, England. His formative years had been in a West Kalimantan village in a high-stump house eating fresh-killed meat from the forest. A wide brown river outside the garden was his swimming pool.
How does anyone handle the concrete jungle after a boyhood spent in the real jungle with Dayak playmates?
Answer: They don’t. Well, not without a lot of difficulty.
Solution: Return to Indonesia.
But the days of gaunt God-driven white folk in pith helmets trekking their version of salvation into the heart of darkness have all but gone. The Indonesian government no longer welcomes foreign pastors unless they’re headed for seminaries where they can preach to the already converted, and Malang in central East Java seems to have more than most.
So whether by happenstance, or through the mysterious workings of the Deity, teacher Heath has found himself back in the archipelago with plans to stay indefinitely as the principal of Malang’s Wesley International School
Now when such cherished ambitions are let loose by the husband they often founder on the rock of marriage. He may want to revisit the land of his childhood and bask in the tropic sun of happy memories, but his partner will surely have other plans.
Fortunately for Heath his English wife Esther is also a former MK. She’s been well immunised to adapt and make the best of whatever she finds.
She was raised in poor, landlocked Malawi in southern Africa. So she’s also experienced a childhood quite out of the ordinary. Consequently the culture shock of moving to East Java has been little more than a language jolt.
A similar destiny awaits their children Nathanael, 5, and Abigail, 3 with another on the way who will be born in East Java. The kids are already in a local kindergarten so they’ll pick up Indonesian and the culture, but as the couple are quick to note, Malang is far from Pontianak.
“This is a very safe city to the point where some families from Jakarta and Surabaya prefer that their children study here,” Heath said. “Although there have been threats of church closures following the problems in Bekasi Regency, this is not West Java.”
Nonetheless the school takes security for its 100 students from ten countries seriously. Their new purpose-built campus has a winding entrance and a modern take of the drawbridges that protected castles in medieval Europe.
In the Wesley version a flick of a switch sends a steel-plated section of the road skidding away leaving a big and impassable pit.
The school started in a house in 1971 when missionaries – mainly from the US – wanted their kids to have an American schooling.
Most of the missionaries have long gone but the school has moved three times and expanded to cover all study years and meet the educational needs of expatriates’ kids. These are now mainly Korean, in business or as staff in the seven, government-approved, local Bible colleges.
The curriculum remains US based and Heath - the school’s first non-American principal - claims that graduates have no trouble entering most American and Korean universities.
“This is an evangelical non-denominational Protestant school,” he said. “To get enrolled here you must be fluent in English as that’s the means of instruction.
“It’s getting more difficult to recruit teachers because of the reports of violence and political tensions. We want our teachers to have the support of congregations back in their hometowns so we maintain partnerships with the rest of the world.”
Heath stayed in Indonesia till he was 18. Apart from schooling in Kalimantan he was also educated in Bandung, Jakarta and Malaysia. After graduating from Loughborough University in Leicestershire he taught mathematics in Birmingham schools where most students were Asian immigrants. He also went to theological college for three years.
After many years in Britain the pull to Indonesia became too much. The family moved to Malang a year ago with Heath as a teacher. Now he’s been promoted as the boss.
Heath’s experiences growing up as a proclaimed Christian in a predominantly Muslim nation have made him a hard-nosed realist. The school was briefly closed during the political unrest following the fall of Suharto in 1998.
“There’s no direct threat to Christianity in Indonesia, but almost every day we hear about an incident somewhere in the country where a church has been closed,” he said. “That tends to create an impression of threat.
“People are far more alive in their faith in Indonesia than Britain which professes to be a Christian country but where most do not practise.
“Here we are constantly aware of the spiritual dimension of life. The challenge is to be aware of our spirituality.
“Christianity will continue to thrive as a strong and tolerated minority religion in Indonesia but the future depends on the government – whether it leans towards Pancasila or an Islamic state.
“We cannot proselytise. Our role as Christians and whites is to set a positive example through the way we live and behave as peaceful people. We all have to work hard to ensure good relations with the rest of the community.
“If there’s any trouble then both sides need to stand up and promote tolerance together. I don’t think it’s difficult to be a Christian in Indonesia.”
Wesley International School was opened by the US based Oriental Missionary Society, now known as OMS International.
John Wesley (1703 – 1791) was an English theologian who started the evangelical Methodist movement. He spent two years in the US as a missionary.
The OMS began in 1901 with missionaries going to Japan with the ambition of putting a Bible in every household. That meant ten million, but the effort had minimal impact. Today only one per cent of Japanese are Christian.
A few years later Korea, China and India were targeted by the OMS. Indonesia was included in 1971.
OMS International says its missionaries “are urged to work toward the goal of making themselves dispensable by training and encouraging national co-workers who can take their places of responsibility in the work.
“It is not the aim of OMS to establish a foreign church, but to assist in the establishment of the indigenous church.” This is widely known as ‘church planting.’
In the 1980s foreign missionaries started complaining that the Indonesian government was tightening visa regulations to restrict their activities.
The Department of Religious Affairs said only about 20 foreigners were legally working as missionaries in East Java.
Five mainstream religions are allowed to openly practise in Indonesia: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism and Hinduism. According to the Department Protestants and Catholics form less than ten per cent of the population and Muslims almost 90 per cent.
Occasional news items of foreign teachers being deported for allegedly working as missionaries, and claims that some aid workers in Aceh were missionaries in disguise seeking to Christianise tsunami victims keep the issue alive.
(First published in The Jakarta Post Saturday 5 November 2005