RICE CHRISTMAS IN THE WEST © Duncan Graham 2005
Poke your head into the nave of this Gereja Kristen Indonesia (GKI - Indonesian Christian Church) and there’s the congregation squirreling away with Christmas decorations. There’s tinsel aplenty, a tree blossoming with baubles and no shortage of advice.
Nothing unusual here – it’s happening this week right across the archipelago.
Among the voices practising carols is that of Pastor Ben Maleachi. Worshipers at the GKI Jl Wahid Hasyim in central Jakarta will recognise his cheerful interpretation of the scriptures.
So what? Churches are busy in every province. It’s that time of the year.
Hang on - there’s something different about the setting. The clean pavements outside are empty – no kaki lima, (food carts) no warung (roadside eateries). The muscle machines cruising the broad highway tow monster speedboats. The blonde drivers wear bikini tops. The sky is crystal clear and needles the eyes. It’s shimmering-hot. There’ll be no rain for months. No pollution, just the tang of sea salt.
Nor are there any security guards and no one has dug holes for bomb disposal.
Step inside GKI Perth, Western Australia, where this Sunday more than 100 Indonesians will celebrate Christmas with a service and a light lunch. But no gift giving.
“This is a very inclusive congregation,” said Pastor Ben who has just taken up the ministry in Perth after 19 years in Jakarta. “There are people here from Sulawesi, Java, Sumatra, Nusa Tenggara – just about everywhere. This is a church for everyone.”
“We celebrate Christmas in a very humble way,” said church member Budiman Simatupang, a Batak from Medan. He’s now an Australian citizen and works in a chocolate factory.
“We’ll share a simple meal and it won’t be a turkey. We haven’t followed those Anglo traditions. There’ll be rice. Of course. It wouldn’t be a meal otherwise.
“Christ was born in a stable, not a grand palace. We enjoy our celebration, but we haven’t made it into a commercial event.”
But many Australians have, whatever the intensity of their faith. This time of the year is a retailer’s heaven, much to the chagrin of religious leaders. Lunch on Christmas Day tends to be a family affair, often marred by over-indulgence.
The services at GKI Perth are in Indonesian, but one pew is reserved for those who need a running English translation of the service through earphones. The few Caucasians who attend do so with their Indonesian spouses.
The church building used to belong to the Methodists. In 1977 falling attendances forced them to join with the Congregationalists and Presbyterians to form the Uniting Church in Australia.
Now the UCA is handing over this building in a prestigious beachside parish to the expanding GKI which should fully own the premises within ten years. Officially it’s known as ‘an Indonesian congregation of the UCA’ and started operating in 2000 with 49 parishioners.
On many Sundays during the academic year the congregation can reach 180, a figure that would delight many mainstream Australian churches in the suburbs where religion is a low priority. Now many families are on holiday and have returned to Indonesia.
Church elder and academic Purwanto Danusugondo, originally from Yogya, said
the large number of Indonesian churches in Perth (see sidebar) reflected the multiple movements and denominations in Indonesian Protestantism.
People could select from traditional, evangelical or charismatic. However there’s only one Indonesian Catholic congregation in Perth.
“We are not trying to maintain Indonesian traditions here but provide a church where people can attend a service in their home language,” said Purwanto who has been in Australia 35 years. “Many don’t understand English that well, so don’t want to attend Australian churches.
“If you divide people according to race and ethnicity then you’re not a true Christian.
“We’re thankful that we are in Australia. We find ourselves being more religious since we came here. We are a little disappointed that some Australians are doing ungodly things.
“We are fortunate that in Indonesia we had missionaries introducing us to the scriptures. Now it is our turn to repay the kindness by celebrating Christianity in Australia.”
In his pre-Christmas sermon Pastor Ben spoke of the firebombing of a UCA church hall in Sydney following the beach riots earlier this month.
“The GKI knows about such things,” he said. (More than 400 churches in Indonesia have been trashed or burned since 1998). “We pray for our nation and for Australia. We pray for peace and understanding everywhere. Christmas isn’t Christmas till it happens in your heart.”
The Indonesian Consulate in Perth says about 10,000 Indonesians are living in the Western Australian capital. About half are students, the rest retired or in business.
Probably the most famous are members of the Gudang Garam tobacco empire who are reported to have spent millions of dollars on buying prime waterfront real estate. They include the family of the company’s president commissioner, Rachman Halim.
Perth has long been a popular location for Indonesian property investors, attracted by the state’s proximity to Java. It takes only 3 hours 20 minutes to fly from Perth to Denpasar which is in the same time zone, and less than an hour extra to Jakarta.
Several up-market districts have become popular with well-heeled Indonesians. These suburbs are close to universities, the Indian Ocean and the Swan River. This is a calm, wide waterway that adds charm to an attractive and well laid out city of around 1.5 million people. The lifestyle is generally more relaxed than other Australian capitals.
For those who can afford it, a house or apartment near education facilities gives the family a base while their offspring are at school or university. The city’s medical facilities have also been a draw card: Politician Taufiq Kiemas, the husband of former president Megawati Sukarnoputri, is among many Indonesians who have had major surgery in Perth.
The recent violent clashes between young men from a Lebanese background and those with an Anglo-Celtic heritage that occurred on Sydney beaches have not been duplicated in Perth.
At least 27 Indonesian community organisations have been formed in Perth. About 14 are Christian, four Islamic, including a branch of ICMI – the Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals. Some are specifically for students. Others represent ethnic groups, like the Balinese, and the Minangkabau from West Sumatra.
The last Australian census recorded that the majority of 47,000 Indonesian-born people living in Australia were women, well-educated, ethnic Chinese and Christian. More than 50 per cent had become Australian citizens.
(First published in The Jakarta Post, Wednesday 21 December 2005)