Man on a mission
Ever since the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, shortly followed by the Dutch, the archipelago has been a hunting ground for souls by Western missionaries.
Now the role is being reversed with Indonesians training to work as missionaries to the West.
It’s an irony not lost on Wimpie Santoso, director of the Institute for World Evangelisation’s mission school in New Zealand.
“We’ve come from the world’s largest Muslim nation, but we’re training evangelical Catholics in one of the world’s smallest countries,” he said.
“We teach that it’s better to be a witness for your faith, or an example if you like, rather than preaching. We train lay people to be more effective evangelisers.
“Strangely it’s a lot harder to be a missionary in NZ than it is in Indonesia, where most people have faith. In the West religion tends to be a personal issue, something not widely discussed.
“Yet the establishment of NZ (in the early 19th century) was based on Christian principles. The reality is that people today are benefiting from those foundations.
The mission is housed in a former Redemptorist monastery on the slopes of Mount Victoria with splendid views over the harbor in Wellington, the capital of NZ. Wimpie is currently training 18 young people from eight countries, including Indonesia.
They pay $NZ 5,500 (Rp 42 million) each for five months accommodation, meals and classes. Their studies include talking in Catholic schools across NZ that will accept them, door-knocking lapsed Catholics, visiting prisoners and even accosting passers-by, an exercise they label ‘street outreach’.
It’s an experience that helps sharpen understanding of different attitudes to faith in countries where State and religion are kept separate. Wimpie said his students get a “variety of responses” to their approaches and cold calling.
Most politely reject their approach and move on, but some stop to chat and watch any dancing or other performances the group might be staging, hoping to catch the eyes of the young. Occasionally this leads to a deeper conversation.
“People in NZ don’t care about God, life is so easy here,” Wimpie said. “Their forefathers believed in the Lord and now this generation is harvesting the fruits and experiencing the blessings of good government.
“There is much this country can teach us in Indonesia. New Zealanders are close to the outdoors and care deeply about the environment. But if nature is the gift, who is the giver?
“On the other side we are more community minded in Indonesia. We care for our neighbors. The quality of knowing about each other is better, and that’s something I’d like to see in NZ. The concerns for privacy here are just too high for me.”
Long before he became a missionary Wimpie, now 49, was a Buddhist studying in Jakarta to be a civil engineer. It was a profession he drifted towards, rather than dashed into with enthusiasm. A friend, a former street thug who had turned to Catholicism, pushed him to sample a service and he was hooked.
After graduating Wimpie spent two years designing ruko (blocks of ground-floor shops topped by flats) before studying in Rome, then moving to Malta where the Institute had been founded in 1985.
Then his wife Chairny, who had also been a Buddhist, developed bone marrow cancer after giving birth to her second child. Against all predictions she survived, a result the couple put down to prayer along with medical care in Singapore.
To pay for the treatments Wimpie turned to selling life insurance for the Lippo Group, doing so well that the family was soon enjoying the good life - though not necessarily a life that was good.
At one stage he considered entering the priesthood. Attracted by the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement of the 1970s he chose to become a missionary, abandoning a life of plenty to the dismay of his two children who are now at university studying commerce.
“It was a calling and decision I could not logically understand,” he said.
Almost six years ago the family moved to Wellington with Wimpie running the mission school that now has 40 residents, including past graduates.
The Institute has centers in 12 countries – but not the Republic. After he met “young people on fire to have a radical life” in Indonesia, an attempt was made to set up a lay community in Tomang, West Jakarta.
The project didn’t last because it was constrained by practical difficulties like security. These problems don’t exist in Wellington where you can follow any faith or no faith and the term ‘Christianisation’ is unknown.
According to Wimpie living in the least corrupt country in the world, as measured by Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, is a useful bonus for his students. Those who return to Indonesia can campaign against graft.
“Corruption, greed and the lack of rules is damaging Indonesia,” said Wimpie. “The system teaches people to be corrupt and it’s getting worse. You can’t just switch on democracy, it has to be built up from the beginning.
“If someone is a good Christian they cannot be corrupt. As a church we have to set an example. We don’t try to avoid paying tax. We need to be true to God and the government.
“We are blessed living in NZ. The people may not be going to worship, but then there might be a drop in attendances in Indonesia if there wasn’t pressure from families, schools and the community, and if it wasn’t compulsory to follow a faith. However we need to believe in a deeper way.
“Kiwis are hospitable and friendly. They’re outdoor people with a strong work ethic. The only racism I’ve encountered has been in Australia.
“People here don’t show off or care so much about wealth. There aren’t too many billionaires. They can teach us simplicity.
“However there are a lot of broken families who need motivation. Alcohol abuse is a big problem. It may be politically incorrect to say this, but faith is the best thing that we can give to our children.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 16 April 2012)