More of the Unexpected

…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.

Giving Thanks

The Thanksgiving holiday has just passed in America. I can give thanks for so much in my life here, but I admit that I do miss my family, and the traditions of Thanksgiving. We gather as family, we share a meal, and we live and share our abundance.

I am thankful for my students of the deaconess school, whose sweet smiles and generous hearts light up my life. They are smart young women, diligent to study, and persevere through life’s difficulties both at this school and at home. And their voices…so beautiful. They all participate in the formal choir, and memorize a book full of their songs. However, in their Batak culture, singing is important, so they are always singing something. Not every one of them love to sing, of course, but together they share so much through song. I have assembled a sampling of clips from a few of the many songs—in Batak, Bahasa Indonesia, and English. I’m thankful for each one of them, and for the beauty of music.

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

A common calling

June was a busy month, and July promises to be another busy month. Although most of the students have left the deaconess school for their practical work, there is still plenty of work to do. Presently, I am working on a schedule and syllabus for an intensive English course for the incoming students due to begin in August, as well as the teaching I’ll do throughout the semester.

And then there is my responsibility at the HKBP Nommensen University in Pematangsiantar. The final week of June I had another busy week of teaching and observing (and being a radio star on an English radio program). For the students there, that was the last week of the Semester. I will return to Siantar on Friday in advance of a rather large seminar on the 7th of July. Somehow, this small deaconess found herself as a speaker in a plenary session of a seminar titled, “English Language Acquisition Paradigm and Integrated Character-Based Learning”. The topic assigned to me is “Models of Teaching.” A post will follow about the event.

I have not forgotten about other stories to share. My time has been short and only recently have I fixed my laptop (well, not fixed. It needed a completely new hard drive, but a clever university student helped me). So, I expect it to be easier to post my reflections.

Until I am finished writing my own stories, I can share this one from the ELCA about myself and the deaconess school in Balige. The LivingLutheran.com is a resource of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is an interactive site that has articles about culture, faith, the church, and more. You can find the article about my school here: A common calling

The reason it is titled “A common calling” is that as a deaconess, I have been called here to be a servant. There are many things that are different about life in the U.S. and life in Indonesia. What is the same, what transcends the language barrier and other differences, is our desire and common calling to love God and love neighbor. Enjoy!

Now, below are some recent photos for your enjoyment
Batak party
This is a Batak party

Makan
A typical scene in a restaurant here. This one is in Siantar, where I ate some delicious mie goreng (fried noodles).

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

A visit with Ibu

Ibu Gultom
with Ibu Gultom
The other day, I had the great pleasure of visiting an 85-year old Indonesian deaconess, Ibu Gultom (“Ibu” translates to “mother” in English, and in Indonesia is used as a term of respect. Perhaps it’s equivalent in English would be “m’am”). She helped start the HKBP deaconess school and also spent nearly 6 years living and working in Germany with the deaconesses there. We spoke in German, as that was the best common language for both of us. What a surprise that my German skills would be useful so far away from home and from Germany.

Mostly, I sat with my coffee and listened to Ibu Gultom tell stories about her work in Germany (in Kaiserswerth, and other places, including Tuebingen, the city where once I studied for a year) and her family. She also told me some history of the Batak people and their culture, as well as some history of Indonesia. The younger generation of Bataks sometimes do not know the Batak language well. The children only learn Bahasa Indonesia in school, and it is then up to the parents to teach their children the language and culture. Batak is only one of about 300 languages spoken by the peoples of Indonesia. Therefore, Bahasa Indonesia is used as a unifying language. But it is important that the different cultures continue to pass on their own languages.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to listen to such wisdom in the presence of a woman who has committed a long life to service of others.