Continued Eruptions on Mt. Sinabung in North Sumatra

Indonesia, mission

After being dormant for hundreds of years, Mt. Sinabung in North Sumatra, Indonesia awoke with a bang in August and September 2010. The eruption caused thousands of people to flee their homes and created a temporary crisis. The mountain calmed until September 2013, when more eruptions—and new crisis—began. Hundreds of eruptions occurred over the following months, as the government forced evacuations and provided initial assistance to the refugees. As time passed, the ones whose homes were destroyed were promised resettlement from the government.

In April 2014 I went to the Karo regency of North Sumatra to Kabanjahe, a town near the Sinabung volcano (4-5 hours by public bus from my main residence at the southern end of Lake Toba). Accompanying some of my students from the Deaconess Theological School on their practical field work, we learned about the social ministries of the Gereja Batak Karo Protestan (GBKP, or Karo Batak Protestant Church), especially those housing, feeding, and caring for thousands of still-displaced refugees from Mt. Sinabung’s eruptions.

Click here for my original brief post about that time.

orang karo_IMG_1019

Talking and chewing betel nut with Mt. Sinabung’s grandmother refugees. 16 April 2014.

During the visit we talked with refugees in several camps, helped prepare and serve meals, and gave impromptu English language lessons to some children. The stress of being in a refugee camp was apparent for many—their homes destroyed, or in danger of being destroyed, and because of the continuing danger they were unable to attend to their crops. A life forever altered.

I was told that after an initial response from the government, aid had dropped off and the GBKP churches hosting camps covered most of the long-term care for the victims. It had become a normal way of operations on church properties to have hundreds of people camped out, waiting. Money and assistance promised from the government failed to arrive, and some suspected corrupted officials skimming the pot.

sinabung eruptionAfter a few days with the ministries of the GBKP, I spent a few days with another student of mine, this one from the Nommensen University in Pematangsiantar. She is a Karo Batak and from a village about 10km or 12km from Mt. Sinabung. She inherited an orange crop, which over the last few years has suffered from damaged by ash. Pictured left is a photo she sent me earlier this year from her village.

I ended my work in Indonesia and left the country in July 2014, just after Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was elected as Indonesia’s new president. Jokowi visited the Karo regency last October, spending time with some of the refugees. His government promised re-settlement for at least some of them, but assistance for some was reportedly slow to materialize.

Mt. Sinabung Volcano from a village outside of Kabanjahe in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

Mt. Sinabung Volcano from a village outside of Kabanjahe in North Sumatra, Indonesia. 19 April 2014.

Now, as June 2015 sees more intense eruptions, the government again promises aid. It has been more than a year since I visited the region, yet eruptions continue and more people are displaced.

I give my thoughts and prayers for all the victims in this continual disaster, and I do hope the government is able to follow through with relief and resettlement.

These are some of my photos from April 2014 in Kabanjahe:

There are more photos from the recent eruption here: Living in the Ring of Fire.

Featured image atop this post credit to Ulet Ifansasti/Getty, from this article: Mount Sinabung Erupts Again.

Photos from the last few months

mission, teaching

More updates about the last few months that I experienced in Indonesia. There was a lot packed into March, April, May, and June, so here’s a tiny preview:

I helped with some retreats:

And then we got to refresh with a nice panorama of Lake Toba:

There were some special Sunday worships from the HKBP (here the women carry their offering of rice in the baskets on their heads):

Including the ordination of 16 new deaconesses:

Taught my students how to make a Indonesian-American style spaghetti (or better put, “Batak spaghetti”–not really Batak food and not really American food, but somewhere inbetween):

Taught an intensive English course in June:

Welcomed visitors from the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Hong Kong:

And continued to enjoy the beautiful Lake Toba:


Batak culture, faith, mission

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

Ministry with victims of Mt. Sinabung eruption

diakonia, Indonesia, mission

Before Easter, I had the opportunity to visit some refugee camps for those who have been displaced by the recent eruptions of Mt. Sinabung in the Karo regency of North Sumatra.

After hundreds of years without any activity, Mt. Sinabung erupted again in 2010, causing mass evacuations and refugee camps. People were allowed back, but have been displaced again since last September when the volcano again erupted. Since September hundreds of eruptions have occurred, a few of them large with ash, lava, and pyroclastic flows. As many as 20,000 were evacuated during the eruptions, and now that number is still more than 5,000–the remaining are from inside 3km from the volcano, and many of their homes are destroyed.

Together with 4 of my students, we went to Kabanjahe to learn about the social ministry of the Gereja Batak Karo Protestan (GBKP, or Karo Protestant Church). The GBKP currently supports 12 refugee camps for those not able to return to their land, and they will continue to house and feed them for as long as necessary. Help from the government is scant, although it is hoped that the government will be involved to resettle the people whose homes were destroyed and for whom it is too dangerous to return.

After touring some of the camps, we volunteered to help cook, wash dishes, clean, and talk with the people, even give the children an English lesson. Below are some photos.


Teaching songs to the children


Kids still going to school


Chewing betel nut with the grandmothers. In Karo culture, this is common for women.


Serving a meal.


Washing dishes


The list of camps from the GBKP; total number of people is 5,761.

Here is an article from The Atlantic of some incredible photos of the eruptions from Mt. Kelud (on Java), and Mt.Sinabung (Sumatra).

Presentations in the Village

diakonia, mission

Time for an update. Busyness plus persistent computer and internet problems have limited my time and access to get posts on this blog. Sorry, for those who have subscribed and want to hear about what I’m doing.

Last month (March) I again had opportunity to go out with my students. The 51 students split into groups and went to different villages to give presentations on health, traditional medicine, taking care of environment, and HIV/AIDS. I accompanied the group to the village of Bonan Dolok, which happens to be the home of one of the students. After the worship the students took turns presenting, and then there was time for questions from the congregation. This is part of their ministry, to take what they’ve learned and share it directly with people, in this case it was especially for women in the congregation. They called it “Empowerment.” Here are some photos:

Much needed update

Indonesia, mission, teaching

A lot has been happening in the months of silence on this blog. For one, I was able to have some time in the States over Christmas and New Years. When I returned to Indonesia in January, I still had paperwork to clear up with immigration, and had to make a quick trip to Jakarta to take a letter from the Labor Department. Finally after I got that squared away at the end of January, February flew by.

So to summarize, I’ll provide a few recent photos to share about the time that has passed. First, however, I’ll say that my time in Jakarta back in January was quite an adventure. It took 3 days of waiting, and on the 3rd day when I needed to collect my document, torrential rain overnight again flooded the streets of Jakarta, setting up a crazy commute. Long story short: I ended up taking a motorcycle taxi over flooded streets and zoomed through a massive traffic jam, weaving through traffic. Glad that adventure is over and that I can stay in Indonesia until July as planned.

Here are some photos of happenings in Sumatra (there’s more, but I hope to make a separate post on that):

In February, we had a seminar on child poverty and trafficking. Really interesting information, but also very sad to hear some of the stories.

Students and staff listen to a presentation on child poverty and trafficking in February.

Students and staff listen to a presentation on child poverty and trafficking in February.

Occasionally I take my students outside to have class in the yard of the church next door. They love the venture out of the classroom and are always willing to pose for pictures. This is the first year class (’13-’14).

First year students pose for a picture.

First year students pose for a picture.

Then in early March, we had a retreat for the first year students. It was a great two days of reflection, Bible study, and worship.

Individual reflection time at the retreat.

Individual reflection time at the retreat.

Worship at the retreat.

Worship at the retreat.

A bishop of a nearby district (who also comes here to teach) had his 50th birthday. A group from the school went to represent and celebrate, and it gave me an excuse to wear the outfit I received for Christmas.


Posing for a photo at HKBP Pearaja in Tarutung.

Advent at the Equator

faith, mission

**Apologies for the lengthy silence on this blog. Life never stops, and there are many stories to tell, but my attention to writing was drained by many tasks and a specific stressful situation regarding the completion of renewing my work visa.**

“I pray that God, who gives hope, will bless you with complete happiness and peace because of your faith. And may the power of the Holy Spirit fill you with hope.” Romans 15:13

Downpour during the rainy season in Sumatra.

Downpour during the rainy season in Sumatra.

As much as I’m looking forward to spending my holidays in North America, I’m kinda loving this tropical climate at the equator. The daily warm sun, the ever growing plants and trees, abundance of fruit all year round, and even the torrential rains which are now more often than in June. Here is no bleak midwinter—it is now the rainy season—and although we can still light candles in the night, the amount of daylight is nearly the same as it was 6 months ago.

The beginning of this month I was stressed with the thought of not being able to get back to my homeland. I was waiting for several months for just one piece of paper from the Labor Department to finally complete the process to renew my work visa. It was agony, and I grew weary of waiting. The immigration office said the policy was to hold my passport, so during a span of four months, I was without it. Without a passport, of course, I wouldn’t be able to board my flight.

I angrily rejected that my waiting had anything to do with the gentle and hopeful preparation for the coming of Christ. I felt my waiting was an injustice, that I was stuck in between nightmarish bureaucracy and a corrupt government. I didn’t get in the ‘spirit’ of the season, and I’m still trying to return to a place of spiritual centering.

I’m still waiting for that document, but at least now I have the ability to spend some time at home. It has been 20 months since I left the US and haven’t been out of SE Asia during that time. In my absence there and presence in Indonesia, life has happened for my family and friends, too. Babies were born; my grandfather passed away; there were marriages and divorces; other friends moved locations, or got new jobs. So much life, here and there.

Here, in Balige, the small Christmas tree next to my office is some pine branches stuck into the stalk of a banana tree. If you stand at a distance, you probably couldn’t tell the creativity to create the holiday look. An advent wreath hangs from the awning above the common area outside my office. I write now with my door open; birds are chattering, roosters crow, and the sun is out. This is Advent in Sumatra.

Caroling at 4am in Balige to start the Advent season.

Caroling at 4am in Balige to start the Advent season.

We, too, prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ but the individualism and consumerism that pervades American culture isn’t present in Indonesia. We don’t need a break from shopping malls or advertisements, or holiday rush. Not every home will give and receive presents—but that isn’t the focus of Advent and Christmas for the Christians here. Actually, it is worship in the church that is the focus. Preparations for role-plays are being made, decorations are up, special hymns are sung.

On Sunday December 1st, the first week of Advent, I once again joined my students for pre-dawn caroling around town with candles. It was a beautiful way to welcome the season, and I am grateful for the opportunity to join them again this year. We walked while singing, and placed wreaths and several homes.

But there are more signs down here at the equator. The growing season never stops and the rain comes more often. A few weeks ago, I found myself, for the first time,  staring directly at a full double rainbow. It gave me pause.

Perhaps it’s a challenge to meditate on this Advent, for you in the northern climates. It’s not a typical symbol of Advent for the church, but in my time of anger and restless waiting, it gave me hope and brought me some joy in that bleak midwinter in my heart. And that is Advent.

Recent full double rainbow.

Recent full double rainbow.

We wait. We watch. We hope. And it makes me want to sing:

        Come, thou long expected Jesus, 
	born to set thy people free; 
	from our fears and sins release us, 
	let us find our rest in thee.  
	Israel's strength and consolation, 
	hope of all the earth thou art; 
	dear desire of every nation, 
	joy of every longing heart.

Blessed Advent and happy holidays to all who are celebrating this month.

One Year

discernment, faith, mission, teaching
Cascade mountains in Washington state, USA

Cascade mountains in Washington state, USA

Just like hiking the rugged terrain of the Cascade mountains of Washington state and the mountainous rainforest of Sumatra, I experience the joy of summiting peaks and the pain of dark valleys in my current life. This description is not anything extraordinary, as I know these kind of ups and downs in life are a common experience across oceans.

It’s been an amazing, lonely, beautiful and difficult journey (and so much more that I am unable to sufficiently articulate). One thing is for sure: looking upon the smiling faces of my students awakens my soul. They are the reason I am here.

Scene near the village of Siboruon, North Sumatra, Indonesia.

Scene near the village of Siboruon, North Sumatra, Indonesia.

On March 30th, 2012 I quietly departed American soil, bound for a life unknown. I put to death a way of life that I knew and the habits of my culture and adapted to my new surroundings. A new life sprang up as quickly as plants grow in the rainforest of northern Sumatra.

Many things about this past year have surprised me—blessings and challenges—and I feel that I have not been very good about writing more often. Some days feel normal and I don’t know what to write; some days I’m angry when my students don’t try to speak English (but not for long). Some days I’m just lazy to write. Nevertheless, I’m very grateful for this journey and glad I have a place to share some of the stories.

Even though there are difficulties, there are days I’m so very proud for all their effort. Like just yesterday, when in my English Theology class, we spontaneously created an English translation to a song in Indonesian about the Prodigal Son after reading that Bible story.

Here’s our English translation of this song (Anak bungsu pergi ke negri orang):

Prodigal son went to another country
left his father alone
finally the money and things are spent
his life is very troubled
Come back my son
Your father misses you much
Come back my son
Always forgiveness for you

Always forgiveness for you. That’s a good message, indeed.

Some things you cannot plan for; I love those moments of spontaneity that tap into their creativity. And that pretty much sums up my year: living and creatively responding to the unexpected.

More of the Unexpected

faith, language, mission

…I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Matthew 25:36

Quite unexpectedly one Sunday morning, I found myself walking through the streets of Balige toward the local prison. I was accompanying the 3rd year class of students at the deaconess school, who go into the community every Sunday and attend various churches, often singing a choir piece. I don’t always know where they go or have the opportunity to join with them, so this was a special opportunity.

Although I have not done prison ministry in the US, the differences, I think, are striking. Since we had come for ministry, the door was opened to us, and we walked in, unchecked. No one stopped to ask our names or look in our bags. The men, dressed in normal street clothes, were already sitting, some in chairs outside the church in the center of the prison. Without much time to look around before we sat down in the chapel in the middle of the courtyard, I couldn’t discern the guards from prisoners on the inside. But I was not afraid at all.

The liturgy and hymns were in the Batak language. I have the hymnal in Batak, but not the Bible in Batak, so I had brought with me the Bible in Indonesian. Suddenly came more unexpected. After reading in Batak, the worship leader asked if anyone had the Alkitab (“Bible” in Indonesian). The student sitting beside me nudged me and said yes, we do. The worship leader asked, “Dari mana?” (Where are you from?). “Amerika” I answered. He encouraged me to read. “uhmmm….saya mencoba, ya?” I stammered. (“uhhhmmm…ok, I’ll try.”)

So I tried. In front of my students and the prisoners, I read the Scripture (Genesis 15:1-6) in a language I’m still learning, and at a pace that others might understand although too fast to comprehend some words myself. The student next to me whispered pronunciation help when I stumbled. The preacher didn’t miss a beat as he began his sermon right after I finished. He spoke mostly in Batak, so I received translation from my student, but I had to take a moment to reflect on what just happened.

Abram looked at the stars and God told him that his descendants would be as many as the stars above. I am a Child of God. And so are the men whom I didn’t know that surrounded me, all convicted of one crime or another.

After worship we shook hands with each other, saying “Selamat Hari Minggu.” (Happy Sunday) It is customary and culturally important here to shake hands, and there was no exception in this prison.

I was in prison and you visited me.” I don’t know what their crimes were or what daily life is like for them in the prison or how long their sentences are, but I was moved by the experience grace in another unexpected place worshipping with them.

And I pray for them.

The students singing in the courtyard after worship.

The students singing in the courtyard after worship.

Posing for a group photo after worship.

The 3rd year students posing for a group photo after worship.

Ready for the Unexpected

diakonia, faith, mission

Be ready for the unexpected. That’s a lesson I’ve learned here. Not that I’ve never had something unexpected happen in my life, but in this life in Indonesia, I’m often called upon to do something I didn’t previously plan on. And here, it can mean living and doing something without much detail or knowing what’s coming next. Flexibility is a must-have attitude. I suppose since I was never one to need all the details ahead of time, it’s easier for me to adjust and go with the flow around here.

So last weekend I had one of those moments of needing to be flexible. As usual on a Saturday morning, I was relaxed, sipping my tea after my breakfast meal of rice and fried egg. I learned from the director of my school, that I had been invited to an event in Samosir (an island in the middle of Lake Toba), hosted by the District President of the Samosir district of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP). The director of the school wasn’t able to attend, but I was still welcome to go. Although I had woke up that morning thinking I’d wash my clothes and get a haircut, this is the kind of thing that one is better to say yes to.

Two of my students accompanied me, excited to join me along for the journey. As we made our way by public bus and ferry, we chatted in a mix of English and Indonesian. We arrived just after the cultural event of boat races had finished, but right on time for lunch. Excellent. I was greeted by the district president and also the Ephorus (whom they call the leader of the entire 4 million member denomination). After a warm greeting we sat down for lunch, which was surprisingly relaxed for being in the presence of such Important People.

After lunch was a special tree-planting of the church leaders (the exact purpose of this being lost in translation). Another surprise of the day: they asked me to plant a tree, too. A nice little avocado tree. In a plot that had been reserved for some other church leader, I knelt down and planted my avocado tree just before the rain started.

What might have been a relaxing, and perhaps boring day, turned out to be full of the unexpected—traveling across the beautiful landscape along Lake Toba (rather than spending a few hours hand-washing clothes), meeting with church leaders, planting a tree on behalf of the church, having fun with my students. The day didn’t go as planned, but there was blessing in it.

Sometimes when encountering the unexpected, it isn’t so lovely an experience. But it is important to face that, too. Open your heart and mind and live in the moment, and surprising things just may happen.

The Ephorus of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) planting a tree.

The Ephorus of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) planting a tree.

Planting an avocado tree

Planting an avocado tree