Making Saksang

Indonesia is an archipelago of more than 17,000 islands and the world’s 4th most populous nation with more than 250 million residents. In the lush area surrounding Sumatra’s Lake Toba in western Indonesia, live the ethnic groups of Batak people. Although the majority of Indonesians are Muslim, ethnic Bataks are mostly Christian. Their homeland around Lake Toba is dotted with towns and villages, rainforest and palm oil plantations, church steeples, rice fields, fruit and other crops of vegetables.

Saksang (pronounced SAHK-sahng) is an important dish in Batak cuisine. Eaten at weddings, funerals, church celebrations and more, it is used for many cultural traditions, especially for Toba Batak people. It is made from pork, and given Indonesia’s Muslim majority, this dish is therefore unique and rare in the country.

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Wedding Crasher

I stood in the yard in front of the church while the crowd began to gather. For once in my life I felt tall—at 5’2” I’m a short American, but next to the young Indonesian women who surrounded me, I could see the tops of their heads without straining.

We had run across the courtyard from our dormitory when we heard the siren that we were certain was the police escort for the wedding procession. People came from every direction to stand in front of the church and wait. Police lined the red carpet keeping the crowd from mobbing the wedding procession, as news cameras rolled and people snapped photos from their cell phones. Life in Balige, a rural town in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province, rarely reached this level of excitement.

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Keep Spirit

The elderly woman’s body lies inside the house in a coffin covered only by a thin white veil. Aside from the coffin, the room is void of furniture. A dozen members of the family and surrounding village sit cross-legged on the multi-colored plastic woven mat spread across the tile floor. I add my sandals to the pairs already stacked in front of the open door and step inside.

Delviana Naibaho—a co-worker at the Deaconess Theological School where I teach in a town a three-hour drive away on windy pot-hole ridden roads through the Sumatran rainforest—greets me. I call her “Ibu,” a word that means mother, but is also a polite form of address for women akin to “ma’am.”

Today, to show support to Ibu Naibaho, I attend her mother’s wake with a delegation from the school.

“Turut berduka cita, bu,” (my condolences, ma’am), I tell her as we shake hand and sniff cheeks in the Indonesian manner.

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Life in Indonesia

Here is a image gallery of photos that show a little of what life was like in Indonesia. Most are from Balige and Siantar, the two cities in the province of North Sumatra where I spent most of my time. In 2 of the photos, you’ll notice a pig’s head. Although most Indonesians are Muslim, I lived among the ethnic Bataks, most of whom are Christian, and regularly eat pork. Indonesia is amazingly diverse, and therefore, my life in the region around Lake Toba was different than someone who experienced Java, Bali, Nias, or Sulawesi islands. I hope to make more galleries about different aspects of life there, as well as other places I’ve traveled.

Christmas with my brother

It is now past the middle of February, but here is a story from last Christmas. For Christmas 2014 I had the opportunity to be with my brother in Indonesia. To the Western audience it must be said that I don’t actually have a brother in my immediate family–this brother is my Indonesian family, and I am his sister.

The family system of the Batak Toba culture is more complex than in Western cultures. It is seen not only in how people are addressed in daily situations (the words for mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, grandmother, and grandfather), but also at a deeper level. The Batak people have distinct family surnames that are grouped together by ancestral line, which sets them apart from some of the other cultures within Indonesia (many Javanese have only one name). Those Bataks with surnames in the same ancestral group are family, and subsequently prohibited by culture to marry each other. To the Western ear it may ring as a bit harsh, but this is how they have kept true to their ancestors. They know when they meet a person in their group, that they really are family. Given this importance, it has never been nor will it ever be a custom for the woman to change her name in marriage; her family name is of higher importance.

What does this have to do with me? Because there is great pride in their culture and to share about it, some Batak people love to invite others into their family. I posted previously about preaching at a church, and the pastor and I have been close since. His surname is Lumbantobing (or just Tobing for short), and because he asked me, I am also boru Lumbantobing. It makes me think about family and naming, and what those mean. My family now extends far beyond my own blood and borders of my country.

I was glad to see my brother and his family for a few days over Christmas. Most of the time we were in the church, as the HKBP denomination holds worship Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the day after Christmas–but it was a blessing to be there. Mauliate, ito! (thank you, brother)

Christmas Eve 2014


I am back in the US now, and it is long overdue to catch up on some blogging about my time in Indonesia.

At the end of March, I was invited to preach in a congregation in Medan, the capital city of North Sumatra, and some 7 hours from my usual residence in Balige. Actually, we had planned for the visit in 2013, however, I had to cancel due to the time I had to spend renewing my work visa. Finally having the time, I was graciously welcomed in the spirit I have come to know well among the Batak people.

Not only was I nervous about preaching in general, but this task was difficult because my deaconess companion speaks limited English (and I’m not good enough in Indonesian or Batak language to write a full sermon). So, in other words, I had to write a sermon in simple enough English that could be translated, true to Scripture, and all the while interesting enough. The lectionary followed by the HKBP church is different than Lutherans in the US, and the text that I was to preach on came from Ephesians 5:8-14. Thankfully, there is a simple theme in there: Walk as children of light.

It went well, and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

Below are a few photos:

A full house
The Podium was really high, like the old cathedrals in Germany.
Giving me a blessing and presenting with an ulos, a Batak blanket, as a special symbol of our friendship.
With the pastor and his wife, and a fellow deaconess

On the Batak Alphabet and Maps that Make Sense of the World

Recently, blog posts about “maps that will help you make sense of the world” (one example) circulated the internets and facebook. My current location in Indonesia, gives me a different perspective when viewing these maps than my friends from North America and Europe.

One of the maps explains population. Indonesia’s population is more than 245 million people, making it the 4th most populous nation in the world. An archipelago of 17,000+ islands, makes it also spread out and incredibly dense in population, part of the circle that contains most of the people on the planet (from reddit user valeriepieris):
valeriepieris' population map

When I saw that map, it didn’t change my world. I’ve lived in Indonesia a year and a half and during that time, haven’t been outside of that circle once, so, yeah, I know. But, Sumatra is less dense than Java, and I live in a rural area. This doesn’t mean the same as it does in North America, however. Even though Balige is a small town, on a day like today (which is traditional market day), the city is bustling. Actually, every day is bustling with people by American standards; life here is is more public. Nevertheless, it’s easy for me to walk about an hour to a village that is difficult to access by car.

Here’s one that made me smile. This map (source), shows writing systems of the world. To my surprise, I see the Batak script listed there in Indonesia. I wasn’t surprised that there is a Batak script, rather that it was noticed at all.

The old Batak alphabet, labeled on the map as "Surat Batak".
The old Batak alphabet, labeled on the map as “Surat Batak”.

Although the old alphabet is not all that functional anymore in the lives of the Batak people, it does appear on some signs in the region around Lake Toba in North Sumatra (including the hospital across the street from me now).

To match its high population density, there are a dense amount of languages spoken in Indonesia (more than 700). So I’d add to the maps that will help you make sense of the world, a map that gives the Ethnic groups of Indonesia:

I am living in the heart of Batakland, so I regularly encounter the language Batak Toba–at the market, at my school (although all instruction other than my English class is done in Bahasa Indonesia), and in the church. Strong in their culture, it may seem living among the Bataks, that the language and the lake nearby is the center of the world. I love living here and am happy to see mention of the place where I live. These days Batak writing uses the latin script, but below are two photos of the Batak alphabet in use.


A Batak language bible written in the old alphabet, on display at the Batak culture museum in Balige, North Sumatra.
A Batak language bible written in the old alphabet, on display at the Batak culture museum in Balige, North Sumatra.

Recent photos

Here are some recent images. There are stories to go with each of these photos, but unfortunately, I have had to take care of other things. What I’ve been up to in the last month: more ministry experience with students, helped lead a retreat, taught the deaconess students and at the university, and in the past week made multiple trips to the immigration office (That last one will perhaps be explained later).

Enjoy the photos:

2nd year class in Siantar on a ministry exposure weekend.
2nd year class in Siantar on a ministry exposure weekend.
1st year students pose for a photo on their retreat
2nd year students in Bible study at a retreat.
2nd year students in Bible study at a retreat.
Graduation Ceremony. Nommensen University HKBP.27 April 2013
Graduation Ceremony. Nommensen University HKBP.27 April 2013
Batak family culture. The parents say a blessing prayer.
Batak family culture. The parents say a blessing prayer.

Funeral Party

_MG_6041Back in early December, I went to the funeral for the father of the director of the deaconess school where I teach. Here is a glimpse into the funeral celebration for an old grandfather in the Batak culture.

After the death, the body is laid in an open casket in the family home. Family and people from the village come to pay their respects. The party is the final act before burial. Much like the party for a wedding, the funeral party in the Batak tradition is an all-day event.

There are certain traditions and customs that take place on the day–exchanging gifts and traditional dancing called “tortor”. Friends and family come again to pay respects, and a meal of saksang (a dish made of minced pork meat cooked in blood and spices) is shared. Finally, when the customs have been completed, the body is taken to the church for a short worship then placed at the gravesite. It was a long day for me. Along with some of the students, I traveled from Balige to the village of Sidamanik to attend.

July Recap

Here are some long overdue photos from back in July. August was a busy month, which included many hours teaching an intensive English course, celebrating Indonesia’s independence, hiking around Balige, going to a wedding as part of a family, and more. Those stories and photos will have to wait.

The night before going to Jakarta, I attended the opening worship for the gathering of the deaconess community, held in Sipoholon. See below the deaconesses in their uniforms. I have often been asked here if deaconesses in America wear uniforms. No, I say. So it is interesting to me to see them all in uniform. My brief appearance was noted, but I hardly had time to meet anyone at all.

The deaconesses gathered for worship and meeting. In the few days that followed they selected a delegate who will represent the community at the general gathering of the HKBP this month (September). There a new leader for the denomination will be selected.

Deaconess community of the HKBP

Then, in Jakarta, I attended a consultation of the HKBP for their Diakonia ministry. I met some people, but only got a general idea of the conversations. It was good, however, to hear about more of the ministries of the HKBP. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to write a synopsis of the event. Below are two photos.

View of Jakarta from the fancy downtown hotel

Small group work at the Consultation for National Diakonia

After the conference in Jakarta, I went to Bali, which I have previously posted about. Worth mentioning is the time spent in Jakarta with the family of the director of the deaconess school. They are now my family, too. It is customary in Batak culture for people such as myself, to have a Batak family name. So, I have been invited to be a Sitanggang. When introducing myself in a formal manner I can say I am “Megan Ross, boru Sitanggang”.

While staying with the Sitanggang clan, I played with the young children who taught me a few words of Batak such as “modom” (sleep), “male” (hungry — I’m not sure about spelling), and “butong” (full). Below are some photos.

The family with some of the school staff

Eating Pecel lele (pronounced “pechel lay-lay”), a type of fish, in Jakarta.

Playing football in front of the house

Life, Death, and Human Achievement

As NASA’s craft Curiosity made it’s landing on the surface of Mars, I was listening to the live feed while working on phrasal verb flash cards for my students. In the moment the NASA control room waited with baited breath to received the signal and photos from the craft, that it had in fact landed, I also heard the loudspeaker on the local mosque broadcast the muezzin’s chant, sending the faint sound of “Allah u Akbar…” into my office; my Muslim neighbors were praying, and as it is Ramadan, also fasting from food and drink. Some of my students were cooking lunch, others cleaning the school in preparation of the new semester.

In the US, the Sikh community in Milwaukee, WI was reeling from an inexplicable act of violence and hate against them. Six dead, shot in cold blood, desecrating their holy place of worship.

Someone I know lost their mother that day after a fall, and another person’s mother was breathing her last breaths, having walked more than 99 years on this earth.

Athletes from all corners of the world competed to be swifter, higher, stronger at the Olympic Games in London; world records were broken, as humans do indeed push the limits of their own bodies.

On that day, the 6th of August, back in 1945, the US unleashed a weapon of mass destruction on the city of Hiroshima, Japan, instantly killing many thousands and destroying a city.

From the earth to the moon, and now to Mars, we have such capacity to advance technology, to accurately place a craft on a distant planet. We also know how to create total destruction. We dare to run faster and jump higher than any human before. Meanwhile, billions of people live out their daily lives, working, playing, and eventually dying.

In Balige, that evening (6 August 2012), I went with some of my students to see the body of someone who had died; she was 85. In Batak culture, when an old person dies, they do not mourn in black as in western culture. Here, they have a party and they wear their ulos (traditional blanket). As is customary at death, the body is laid in the home and family and community come to visit. And so, beneath large tents, people gathered to sit. A band played traditional Batak music, while other people visited the body.

My students came to pay respects because the woman who was a friend to the deaconess students. We sang hymns, for which the band provided the music; we prayed; and then we greeted each of the family members with the customary handshake, placing the right hand to the heart after shaking.

Life and death—such beauty and mystery…

Below is the photo from the visit to the dead woman’s family:
Visitation of the Dead

Batak Culture

I am immersed in the culture here, specifically the Toba Batak culture. For the Batak people, marriage is very important. Every weekend and sometimes even during the week, there are wedding parties in the Church that is next to the deaconess school. A family will go to great expense to have the party. All day there is traditional music, dancing, and customs.

Below you see a photo of a party. The women are in their kebaya (dress) and wearing the ulos (blanket) over their shoulder. In the back, women carry bags of rice on their head. They are dancing to traditional music, rhythmic tunes of flute, guitar, saxophone, and drums.

Batak party

Although this image depicts something similar to what you would see at a wedding, this party actually isn’t for a wedding. As it was explained to me, the couple already got married in Jakarta. The groom is Toba Batak and the woman is Javanese (Jakarta is on the island of Java, where the Javanese are from). In Javanese culture there are no family names. Therefore, Javanese people go by only one name. For the Batak people, however, the family name is very important. So, here you see a custom that invites the bride into Batak family and culture. First, they had a ceremony in the church, then the party, as you see above.

Worship with Oppung

After returning from Penang, Malaysia with my visa earlier this month, I had the opportunity to visit a village with one of the students. As I mentioned previously, they go out each week to serve in the communities—they visit the sick, visit the prison, minister to sellers at the market, and more. This visit, I accompanied Arlisna as she went to a village to lead a worship for elderly women.

First we walked up the road calling to each home where one of the Oppung (grandparent) resides. When it was time for the worship, we gathered on the floor in one of the homes, sitting on top of mats laid out on the floor. This is common here in Indonesia. I greeted the Oppung-Oppung in the Batak language (“Horas”). The words and prhases of Bahasa Indonesia I have learned were of no use, as these elderly women only know Batak. For some of them, I was the first American they had met and who sat in their midst. I was welcomed and greeted with smiles and laughter; Arlisna, being our translator between English and Batak.

About a dozen women were there. Most did not have hymnals, but could sing along from memory. There were hymns, Scripture, and a brief devotion. Through the time, I sat silently, yet with reverence and attention to the Spirit’s presence among us. An offering was taken, to be given to the local church.

After the worship, we ate bread and drank tea. I prayed a prayer of blessing and thanks for them in English, my words, again being translated. I was invited back to worship with them again. If I have the opportunity, I would like to return and pray with them. It was a blessed time.


A Servant’s Heart

“For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you came to look after me, I was in prison and you visited me.” — Matthew 25:35-36

I recently had the opportunity to go with some of the students to visit people in the hospital across the street from the school. Every weekend, the students go out to the people to serve. Some of them help the elderly, some of them visit the prison, some of them work with children, some visit the sick.

These young women have committed their lives to faith and service in Christ, and they come to the deaconess school for training in Biblical studies, community organizing, Church history, health, sociology, English language and theology, and more, though it is serving the people that gives them joy.

The hospital is laid out in separate buildings with covered walkways as corridors between the buildings. Some rooms have one patient, others have 2 or as many as 6 beds in the larger rooms. Every Saturday the 3rd year deaconess students come to the hospital to sing hymns, read a Bible passage, and visit patients. They do this by first going to a section and singing from their choir book. Then a Bible passage is read in Batak and Bahasa Indonesia. After this, they visit the rooms. I sang and prayed with them, even though I could not understand the words.

As is customary here, we greeted everyone in the room with a handshake, each time touching the right hand to the heart. Sometimes we stopped in a room for prayer and a hymn. In a room with a mother and new baby, I was asked to pray; my prayer in English was then translated into Batak. In all, we saw new babies (one very premature), people with diabetes, the elderly, young children, a young man with a broken arm, a young man with malaria, and others whose illnesses I don’t know.

It is early in my time in Indonesia, so I am just becoming acquainted with the food, culture, the students themselves and their way of life at the school. Nevertheless, their way of life as joy in serving others is very apparent. They give of themselves, showing the love of God, and attend to the needs of the people. For the deaconess students here, serving is a way of life.

I, too, experienced the love of God as I looked into the eyes of those in the hospital and their families. I cannot yet speak their language, but the language of love centered in Christ isn’t English, Bahasa Indonesia, Batak, or German.

Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

A heart full of grace and a soul generated by love. This, I believe, is a central part to the diaconal identity. It is such a blessing to be living with sisters in Christ.

Visiting the hospital with the students

Lake Toba, Samosir, and Batak culture

I am catching up on posting, so this story is from a week and a half ago, just after Easter. For now I’ll write details, and later I can write more reflection about my experiences.

Relaxing at Lake Toba

On Easter Sunday, after lunch, I traveled around Lake Toba with some of my sisters from the school. From Balige we drove to Parapat and took a ferry across the lake to Samosir island in the middle of the Lake. After a restful night at a beautiful spot by the lake, we drove on a windy road up the mountains.

Traditional Batak houses

On Monday, the 9th of April, after some sightseeing, we were invited to lunch at the home of one of the students. The Ibu (mother) had prepared a meal of chicken, boiled eggs, dried fish, and soup, together with rice that I’m told had just been harvested. All together, we ate in a circle on large mats on the floor. I was asked to pray in English before the meal, but because I do not speak the Batak language, most of the time I listened but did not understand. The food was prepared in sauces, and all tasted very good, but it made my lips and mouth burn. I have heard it said that in Indonesia, they are not satisfied if the food does not have hot chilis in it.

Sitting after the meal

As is custom in Batak culture, I was treated well as a guest. They are welcoming, and always offer and make sure I have enough. After lunch we drank coffee. I formally thanked Bapak and Ibu (father and mother) for the meal and their generous hospitality and prayed for God to bless them. I told them I was looking forward to teaching their daughter. The family invited me again to be a guest in their home and they gave me an ulos. An ulos is a special woven blanket used by the Batak people in parties, ceremonies, or even as decoration. There are many different kinds of ulos, and variations depend upon the the different tribes within the Batak people. This ulos is of Toba Batak.

It was a great honor for me to be welcomed so warmly. They opened their home to me, and although we do not speak the same language, we are family in Christ. I am so grateful for this experience and for their gift of the ulos.