Two Afternoons


It was a Thursday afternoon. My boys had just finished their week of exams at school, and now they were flopping around the house “bored with nothing to do.” Even though the weather was fairly hot, I suggested going for a walk to their new favorite store: Mr. D.I.Y.

This store is like a fancy dollar store, with just about anything you can imagine, including a large toy section. We have been reading The Chronicles of Narnia recently as a family, and my boys were interested in buying toy bow and arrows and plastic swords (the pacifist within me cringing a little, but only allowing it for the sake of encouraging the Narnia Imagination).

We had just successfully crossed the Sea of Cars, when I noticed a little boy ahead of us setting out to work as a silver boy1. Even before we saw his face, I recognized him. It’s Ishmael,2 I thought. His skin was covered completely in silver, his face, bare-chest, arms, and legs—all silver.

Ishmael was a student of ours for two or three years. We know his family well. When our boys were small, his mother used to help us with laundry and cooking three times a week. There was even a season when Ishmael would play at our house with our son for an hour before school started—because his mom had already left for work as a maid in a middle-class neighborhood and he had nowhere to be.

I did mental math as I tried to calculate how old Ishmael must be by now. If our oldest son is ten years old, then Ismael must be twelve or thirteen. He is tiny for his age and could easily pass as a seven-year-old still. I know his life has been awfully hard. Poverty forced both his parents to work long hours, leaving no one at home to ensure he attended school.

He dropped out of first grade multiple times (from three different schools over the course of three years, one time including Muslim boarding school in another city– which he ran away from and was escorted home by policemen). Can I blame him for how his life has turned out already? He smokes. He drinks. He works the streets as a singer-beggar, and now as a silver boy. He was born into a life of poverty, and the vicious cycle continues.

We greeted Ishmael, talked a little bit, and then continued on our way to buy Narnia toys. But my heart ached as I contemplated such different childhoods. My children get to hold my hand as they cross busy streets and go shopping. They get to buy new toys and laugh and play and be kids. Ishmael never got to really be a kid. He fended for himself from a small age, likely experiencing all sorts of trauma and abuse along the way—from the slum and from the streets. Lord, have mercy.

The next day was a Friday, the last day of lessons at our school before taking a week off to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan fasting month. I invited the two moms who teach with us and their children to accompany our family to the nearby movie cinema to see Kung Fu Panda 4. They were all very excited, as they had never been to the theaters before.

When we got there and parked our motorcycles, we rode the escalator up to the theater. We were all surprised to see three children that we knew playing at the entrance. They were three kids who used to be our students, but all had dropped out for various reasons (two ten-year-olds and one seven-year-old). We greeted them, asking what they were doing at the theater.

They were just playing and enjoying the air conditioning. They ran up and down the aisles, where people sat waiting for the theater doors to open. All three were fairly dressed up, wearing their Friday best. It was likely they had spent the morning begging from Friday worshippers at a nearby mosque and on their walk home had decided to stop and enjoy the comfort of air conditioning and soft sofas. Perhaps the security guards did not realize they were beggar kids and assumed they were children belonging to some adult walking around the theater, too.

They took a picture with us as we waited for the theater doors to open. We went in to see the movie, and they wandered off to keep begging or perhaps to just walk home (the movie theater is only a ten-minute walk away from our slum community).

Similarly to the day before, I was left with a deep grief at the reality these children experience. A deep sense of hopelessness came over me. Who can help these children now? What future can they possibly have if they are elementary school dropouts? Their parents send them out as beggars, and they are left on their own for hours at a time to face this big city.

Through the school we run in the slum community, we try to help children have a better start at education. But we mourn the many children that we cannot help. We mourn the complex systems of poverty—systemic injustices, parental sins, government corruption, and all sorts of other issues that have led to the lives our neighbors find themselves living and which these children find themselves born into.

What we are trying to do continues to seem like a pathetic drop in an ocean of pain and hurt. And yet, for the children who do continue to come to learn each day, we hope we are empowering them towards a brighter future.

But what about these four little boys — and the many more like them — that I met this week? Will Ishmael ever know that God hears him, sees him, and loves him?

Lord, shine your light in the darkness. Grant us your hope to continue to believe in the seemingly impossible. Grant us your love to reach out to these boys who spend hours working the streets. Somehow, someway, will your good news break through?

 

1 Silver boys (or men, women, or girls) cover their skin with silver-colored powder. They then stand in intersections or walk along roads, begging for money.

2 Name changed to protect privacy.

An earlier form of this article was originally published in my March 2024 newsletter.

Photo by Chintya Akemi Keirayuki on Unsplash

Following Jesus to Unlikely Places

I never thought I would write a book. At least not until I was old and retired and had actually “done something with my life.” But then a few years ago, a conversation with my parents spurred me on to start writing—and I wrote my first book, Beyond Our Walls: Finding Jesus in the Slums of Jakarta.

And somehow, in writing that book, I found my voice in a new way. Even as I wrote down those first stories about a decade living and serving in a slum in Indonesia, I knew that I had something else to share, too. I knew that I was not done writing.

I have been obsessed with Amy Carmichael for the past seven years or so. Have you ever heard of Amy Carmichael? Don’t feel bad if you never had—I never had either until listening to a recording of a seminar about the untold story of women in missions. Something about Amy’s story captured my attention, and I began buying book after book written by her.

Amy Carmichael was born in what is now Northern Ireland in 1867, but she spent most of her life serving at the southern tip of India. Initially, she was an “itinerating” missionary—travelling around with a group of other believers, preaching and teaching wherever they could get an audience. But her life began to change when she became aware of the practice of temple prostitution throughout India. Young girls were dedicated to the gods from infancy and raised by temple women to serve in the temples. As Amy’s heart was broken, learning about the traumas and injustices these girls faced, she found God calling her to a new work: rescuing children and providing a home for them.

Amy was a prolific writer, penning more than thirty books throughout her fifty-plus years in India. Her writing is beautiful, and I find her words written a century ago still have a profound relevancy in my own life. I decided that these gifts that I was gleaning from Amy’s writings were too precious to keep to myself.

In my new book, Downward Discipleship: How Amy Carmichael Gave Me Courage to Serve in a Slum, I share seven lessons that I have learned from the life and legacy of Amy Carmichael. Interwoven with these lessons from Amy, I share more stories from my life in a slum in Jakarta.

Amy’s life and books are a call to radical discipleship, to following Christ into unlikely places. She testifies to the profound joy of listening to and obeying Jesus’ call, even when it calls us to go “against the flow” or to do something unpopular. As Amy and her team fought against the injustices and evils being done to children in India, they learned that it was a lonely journey. Many people did not support the work—in fact, many other missionaries at the time did not approve of Amy. She wore Indian clothes, worked “too closely” with Indian co-workers, and was challenging systems of evil that many people did not even want to acknowledge existed.

One of the most inspirational parts of Amy’s story for me is her profound theology of suffering. She learned that when one follows Christ, there is pain and loss. But she also continued to trust in her savior—and to believe that one day God would, indeed, have the final victory. When Amy was in her sixties, she had an accident that essentially left her bedridden for the rest of her life. But during her twenty years in her sickbed in India, she wrote some of her most powerful books.

And while my short time in Indonesia is nothing compared to Amy’s five decades in India, Amy’s writing encourages me on. She invites her readers to move beyond self to surrender, beyond guilt to gratitude, beyond grasping for control to living lives of compassion. She invites us all to a journey of downward discipleship, following Jesus into difficult places—to fight injustices with God’s love and hope. And while the journey will not be easy, Amy promises that it will be a journey we will not regret. If we are walking with our savior, He will sustain us even in the darkest valley.

My prayer is that Downward Discipleship would be a gift for readers, too. That my humble attempts at sharing some of Amy’s story would serve as an encouragement for all of us as we follow Christ.

Amy and her community in Dohnavur prayed this beautiful prayer whenever a book was published. I offer it now as a prayer for Downward Discipleship, too:

“Take this book in Thy wounded Hand,
Jesus, Lord of Calvary;
Let it go forth at Thy command;
Use it as it pleases Thee.

“Dust of earth, but Thy dust, Lord,
Blade of grass in Thy hand a sword–
Nothing, nothing unless it be
Purged and quickened, O Lord, by Thee.
Unless Thou touch it graciously
It will do less than naught.

“O touch, inspire and purify,
We lay it at Thy feet,
Let all of earth about it die,
Turn it to corn of wheat.

“O blessed be the love that takes
This that we offer Thee,
And out of our poor nothing makes
Seed for Eternity.”[1]


[1] Amy Carmichael. Gold Cord: The Story of a Fellowship. Fort Washington: CLC, 2002. First published 1932 by SPCK (London), 28.

The Burning Bush and a Fire Extinguisher

When I was a sophomore in university, I had the privilege of traveling for a semester in the Middle East. We started in Egypt, which was a packed two weeks of visiting monuments, pyramids, and holy sites. It was humbling to stand by these ancient structures, realizing that Moses and even Jesus probably saw the very same things – still standing today! We closed our time in Egypt by journeying into the wilderness, viewing first-hand the rocky desert that the Israelites wandered in for forty years.

At the foot of Mt. Sinai in the Monastery of Saint Catherine, we visited the location of the burning bush. Tourists and pilgrims can view the bush today, now quite large. What fascinated me was not the intellectual debate of whether this was, indeed, the actual bush that Moses saw; rather, what caught my attention was the placement of a fire extinguisher directly under the bush.

A sight some might find funny left a powerful mental image in my mind: the burning bush and a fire extinguisher.

If God were to appear in the burning bush again, we are prepared to extinguish the first sign of the miraculous. Do I really believe God can still do impossible things? Or do I shy away from the discomfort of the unexplainable?

Are we happy to invest in cross-cultural life, but get stressed when God takes things in His own hands?

I remember my first Christmas on the mission field. It was almost a year after I had arrived in Indonesia, and so many unexpected things had happened during those first months in the slum community where I lived and served. A devastating fire and ongoing eviction and demolition of houses made it a tenuous time. And yet somehow, I still believed I was where God wanted me: that God was up to something in this particular slum community and was inviting me to be a part of it.

We had a Christmas party with children who had lost their homes in the fire only two months earlier. Telling the nativity story and getting children to wear simple costumes and take part in the drama was a highlight of the day. In years to come, we would repeat this tradition many times. Now eleven Christmases later, I continue to be overwhelmed with gratitude that God invites us to take part in His story. While many parts of the journey have been unexpected and even painful, the Lord is always faithful.

Christmas is a time when the Church celebrates the miraculous. A young virgin gives birth to a baby through the work of the Holy Spirit and a profound move of God. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, it was her burning bush moment. God was announcing the seemingly impossible to her and inviting her to be a part of it. Just as God spoke to Moses at the burning bush, inviting him to be God’s messenger, so Gabriel spoke God’s words to Mary.

And aren’t we glad that Mary obeyed? That she opened her heart and laid aside her five-year-plan for her life and accepted the move of God that would change history? Mary did not beg for someone else to be picked (as Moses had at the burning bush) or list off the reasons why she was inadequate for the task of mothering the Immanuel child. She simply answered, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1.38 NRSV).

My prayer for us is that we, too, would answer God’s invitations with a simple: “Here I am, Lord.” May we not pick up the fire extinguishers to put out what God is starting to do in and around us, but let us open ourselves to the reality that God is still at work in this world, and inviting us to be a part of it.

In this Advent and Christmas season, may we look for Jesus in unexpected places, finding Immanuel with us and sharing the good news of his coming with those we meet.

When Skies Are Gray

The past few weeks the city where my family makes its home has been in the international news. We’ve won first place– but it is not a competition we wish to win. Jakarta is the city in the world with the worst air quality.[1] Headlines scream at us; newscasters speak of doom and respiratory distress. Jakarta does not always rank number one in the world, but the absence of rain has left the pollution hanging over the city like ugly gray cloud-cover.

Perhaps this is no different than previous dry seasons. Only this time, the international news has picked it up, social media is talking about it, and I am forced to think about it. Smartphones make it easy to check on the AQI (Air Quality Index), and the red heading day after day screams UNHEALTHY at me.

At our school in the slum community, we use songs to help the children learn different things. One song that we sing with the children is: “Biru, biru warnanya. Biru, biru carilah. Langit dan celana jeans, biru warnanya. Blue, blue. Look for the color blue. Blue is the color of the sky and blue jeans.” Except, all too often here, blue is not the color of the sky. Gray, gray, everything is gray.

Last March, I wrote in my reflection about “cross-cultural skiing”: “How do we help our children when the air itself is different from what we are used to? How do we help our families navigate switching between cultures on this journey of cross-cultural skiing?”

Now, those questions continue to reverberate in my head as I reflect on the air quality my children are breathing. How do I help my children when the air around them is literally dangerous? Why does choosing to follow Jesus here put the physical health of my children at risk? And how can I follow Jesus here and be a responsible parent at the same time?

And yet, I deeply believe that Jesus has called us here. I believe that God loves our neighbors in this garbage-collecting neighborhood. I believe that as I mourn because of my children’s years of exposure to Jakarta’s unhealthy air, God also mourns for the millions of people in this city. We live in a broken, hurting world. Shalom has been shattered, and all creation is groaning.

All too often the poor bear the brunt of environmental hazards. While the rich can afford air purifiers, air-conditioned cars, and vacation getaways to clean mountain air, my neighbors live next to piles of burning garbage, with no financial safety net. Many people live with lingering coughs, skin irritations, and other physical discomforts as a result of the environment in which they live.

I feel sad. And angry. And, honestly, I often feel a bit hopeless as I look around this slum community I call home.

Each Sunday, we travel to a wealthy part of the city where we attend an English-speaking church. The comfortable, air-conditioned service and indoor playground provide a refreshing alternative to playing on the trash-filled field for my children. Each week we experience culture shock as we jump back and forth between two worlds. The church is currently undergoing a huge building project, and I sometimes struggle with inner angst as I imagine what such money could do to help my neighbors instead of purchasing the newest gadget for the youth group.

But each week at church we soak in the times of worship. We learn new songs that become the soundtrack for our week at home. Over the past decade of serving in this city, I have come to know the power of worship as a weapon against the encroaching darkness. And even when life doesn’t make sense, with my breath I will choose to worship God.

This is not a polished reflection. I feel raw and a bit confused. In the past week, two women in our community died. One was a grandma who passed away from old age; the other was a woman suffering from untreated diabetes. The brevity of life seems to be at the forefront of my mind. Only a few weeks earlier an 18-year-old and a 28-year-old died, one of an untreated illness—the other’s life suddenly cut short by electrocution. We know all these families, and the ripples of grief continue to be felt around the community.

In faith we wait for all to be made new, for the day when there will be no more tears. We wait for all heaven and earth to be renewed, including the very air we breathe.

O Lord, have mercy.
As we breathe this air. As we walk these streets.

As we attempt to be agents of life and love to those around us.
May we not get lost in the gray.
Show us the beauty of your blue skies once again.
May we keep working towards and longing for your true Shalom.
On earth as it is in Heaven.
And give us the wisdom we need to parent in such a broken world.
Have mercy on our children.
Help us to trust You.
Amen.

 

If you would like to join me in praying for the city of Jakarta, you can download Shalom: A 30 Day Prayer Guide for Jakarta’s Urban Poor here.


[1] I wrote this essay in mid-August, at which time Jakarta was ranking #1 in the world. In more recent weeks, other cities have replaced Jakarta for worst air quality, although Jakarta remains in the top five. See this BBC article for more information.

(Photo by Alexander Nrjwolf on Unsplash)

A Letter to My Sending Churches

To my dear Sending Churches,

We are coming to the end of our six-month furlough, and my heart is full. It is full of thanksgiving.

I am thankful for how you opened your homes and your lives to our family, loving us while we were here temporarily. Thank you for the boxes of winter clothes that awaited us when we arrived from the airport underdressed for the cold weather. Thank you for being willing to find us a car, research public school options ahead of time, and surprise us with food boxes at Christmastime.

Thank you for your love and support, which have spanned both the ocean and the years—your prayers, emails, and snail mail have been a lifeline for us. Thank you for welcoming our children into your Sunday school classrooms, embracing them with love and patience. We have experienced Christ’s love through you all.

Thank you for trying to understand our stories, for the times you asked open questions and let us try to find words to answer. Thank you for the invitations to meals, the conversations over tea, and the kite-flying birthday parties.

We are coming to the end of our furlough, and my heart is full. It is full of grief.

I grieve the painful conversations and moments of feeling judged as insufficient. Some questions reverberate in my head, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. Comments like, “So what are you actually doing to fight poverty?” Or, “From your newsletters it sure seems like you focus more on communicating the gospel through deeds rather than the gospel in words.” And, “If your students do not become Christians, aren’t you just educating them for Satan?”

I want to answer graciously, lovingly, and patiently. I want to believe that you ask these questions out of love, that you still support us even if you do not understand our context or our methods. I want to try to help you understand.

But I am also exhausted. I am tired of being on a pedestal. Missionaries are not superheroes or magic-workers. We have no short cuts in solving the world’s problems. We are just trying to follow Christ, as we believe we are called to, in a different culture than you. We are figuring it out as we are going along, and surely messing up as we go—but we are trying. Please, believe that we are doing the best we can. We are on the same team—team Love Jesus.

When we share openly about our ministry, we’re not asking you to observe it with a magnifying glass, looking for errors. We’re not asking for a “grade” or a “rating.” We’re asking you to listen, to hear the pain as we share disappointments and heartbreaks on the field. We’re asking you to be patient, as we also are learning to be patient, and remember that we cannot force results. We’re asking you to be gentle with us, because we feel fragile as we prepare to cross the ocean again and re-enter all the painful realities of our other home.

Recently, a member care friend from our sending organization came to visit, and she brought two rubber duckies. A “yay duck” and a “yuck duck.” A pair-of-ducks. A paradox. We discussed the yays and yucks of life on the field and the challenge and invitation to hold them together.  I am realizing that this pair-of-ducks is not only for when I am in Indonesia, but also true for all of life. And definitely true of furlough. There are beautiful memories and painful memories. And as I think of these last six months, I will try to hold this paradox with open hands.

Thank you for loving us. Thank you for sending us. And please, keep learning about the pair-of-ducks with us.

As our furlough comes to an end and we say our goodbyes, please do not forget us. Know that your letters, your emails, your WhatsApp messages, and your times of praying for us are very important. Even as the years continue to pass and our sending churches change, it is important to us to know that halfway around the world, you care.

With laughter and tears,
until we meet again,
Anita

Cross-Cultural Skiing

My family arrived in the States for a six-month furlough in December. We eagerly awaited the “winter” weather, as my two boys barely have any memories of snow. But the winter weather seemed unpredictable and disappointing. 

One day, I was talking with my dad about cross-country skiing. He loves skiing and has a whole collection of skis in our basement that he can use whenever the weather in Virginia allows. My nine-year-old son piped up, “Are you going to go cross-cultural skiing?” 

I laughed. Apparently, my son really is a TCK. He is more familiar with the term “cross-cultural” than he is with the term “cross-country.” So I explained to him what his grandpa was actually talking about.

But the term my son used has stayed with me. We are, indeed, cross-cultural skiing.

Before furlough, we talked as a family about what we were looking forward to: Christmas presents, snow, grandparents (in that order). We talked about what was scary: a new school, different foods, leaving friends behind (“Will my friends forget me?” my son asked). Months of thought, preparation, and planning went into getting on the airplane to leave Indonesia.

But each time we furlough, I am surprised at what I forgot to anticipate— for myself and for my children.

This time around, before even landing in America, I realized my sons were not used to dry weather. Airplanes have dry air, as do winter months. My children, however, are accustomed to the humid air of tropical Indonesia. Licking his lips, over and over again, my eldest son’s face became red and painful. 

Don’t lick your lips! I explained. But he is from the tropics. This air is an unfamiliar dry. My youngest son’s skin also became dry and itchy. “I don’t want that slimy stuff,” he screams as I run after him with lotion.

How do we help our children when the air itself is different from what we are used to? How do we help our families navigate switching between cultures on this journey of cross-cultural skiing?

Some parts of this life are beautiful. My children are bilingual and can switch between languages with ease. “Hi, my name is Luke. I’m bilingual,” my seven-year-old son says when he introduces himself. But on furlough, we must work hard to make sure Indonesian is not forgotten. We scroll through Netflix movies and shows to find only what is available in Indonesian. We switch our bedtime story routine to reading in Bahasa Indonesian (we use the free app Let’s Read Asia to access hundreds of books).  

Sometimes this feels like a sacrifice, as the public library has an abundance of books in English that I would love to read. But I remember returning to the field after the last furlough; it took over a year for our son to start speaking smoothly in Indonesian again. We are working harder this time to help him remember, to keep him from forgetting.

I love how my children view life in America with excitement and wonder. They see things with new eyes, helping me also to enjoy the small things: squirrels, cardinals, blue jays, and blossoming daffodils provide backyard entertainment. 

Other parts of this life are brutal. All the goodbyes in Indonesia, not knowing what things will be like when we return six months from now. Will our children’s friends remember them? Will our boys remember their friends? Will the ministry we started run smoothly without us, or will some crisis arise, plunging them into turmoil? Will there be floods, fires, deaths, or even eviction for our teammates and friends living in the slum community where we normally make our home? 

How do we embrace the comfort of life in America, while at the same time guard our hearts to return once again to the field? And how do we help our children do the same? How can we hold both the good and the hard together? How can we enjoy our time here and also prepare our children to return to where life seems a lot more difficult?

One morning in February, my boys looked out the window at six in the morning and started screaming: “It’s snowing! It’s snowing!” And, indeed, the ground was covered in about two inches of snow. They jumped up and down, shouting their excitement for everyone in the house to hear.

And as soon as it was light, we finally got to build a snowman and go sledding. My dad pulled out his cross-country skis and enjoyed skiing down the same small hill that we were sledding on. 

On perhaps his fourth trip down the hill, my dad noticed there was a log hidden under some snow. He tried to avoid hitting the log but lost his balance and took a dramatic fall. A trip to the ER revealed that he had not broken anything, though he was in pain for a few days.

This life of traveling between cultures can feel like that too. The joy and fun of reconnecting with relatives and old friends, eating food we’ve been missing, or simply wearing clothing that we don’t get to wear on the field can suddenly be replaced by feelings of grief and fear. We can feel like we have lost our bearings and might fall flat on our face. Our lips get chapped and our skin gets dry. We suddenly feel like foreigners in our own passport country.

As we struggle along on our journeys of navigating cultures, may we have grace for ourselves and for those on the journey with us – our teammates, our spouses, our children. May we have the grace to get back up when we fall down. The grace to keep trying. The grace to take risks and continue to choose to invest in relationships, to choose to love, even though goodbyes are just around the corner. May we embrace the good and the hard of this life as we go cross-cultural skiing together.

Beyond Our Comfort Zones

Twelve years ago, I visited Indonesia for the first time. I was a twenty-two-year-old American citizen, freshly graduated from university, filled with hopes and dreams. I visited the Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor team, staying with them in a slum community. And I sensed Jesus inviting me to join them and make my home in a slum. My life would never be the same.

In our world today 1.4 billion people live in urban slum communities, and that number is constantly growing. Are Christians in the West even aware of this global reality? And, if so, do we have the faith to believe that Jesus’s good news is not only for Christians sitting on comfortable church benches, but also for those living in slum communities around the world?

I share my story of following Jesus into the slums in my new book, Beyond Our Walls: Finding Jesus in the Slums of Jakarta. My journey in Indonesia that began twelve years ago continues to this day, now with my husband and two young children. But this book is not a success story. Its pages are filled with pain and sorrow—and also the joys and surprises that come while following our good Savior.

Pain. The pain of fires, evictions, floods, sickness, and death. The daily sorrows of seeing beautiful people living in a physical reality that is not worthy of human habitation: haphazard homes pieced together, piles of rotting trash as playgrounds for children, rats and mosquitos and diseases running rampant. What could I possibly offer in such an ocean of pain and suffering?

But as I continued on year after year, learning and laughing and crying with my neighbors, I have found beauty. There is joy, even when surrounded by unspeakable darkness and pain. There is a juxtaposition of living in service of our King—seeking His Kingdom here and now and knowing that His Kingdom is stronger than all the pain and all the sorrow—but also knowing that the Kingdom is not quite fully here yet and that there is still so much that is not right with the world.

This book does not offer solutions to solve the urban crisis of billions of people living in slums. But it does invite you to come and hear stories, come meet some of the beautiful children and parents who have become my friends over the years. Come and experience Jesus outside the walls of our comfortable church buildings, gated communities, and comfort zones.

“As I live within this garbage collecting and recycling community, I am learning about God, the pemulung[1], who sorts through mountains of trash day after day, searching for anything of value. Back in first-century Palestine, Jesus called out to Simon and Andrew, ‘follow me and I will make you fish for people.[2] Two-thousand years later, I imagine Jesus coming to this place and saying, ‘Follow me, and I will make you pemulung of people!’

“Jesus tells those whom the world views as garbage, ‘You have value. Though others have cast you off, you are a treasure.’ As we follow Jesus, our pemulung, to the trash heap, he is longing for us to help him build up those who have been pushed down, plant and nourish those who have been uprooted, be merciful to those who have experienced disaster, and encourage those who are afraid.”[3]

         You can find the book here.


[1] Pemulung means scavenger, someone who looks for recycling
[2] Matthew 4:19
[3] See Jeremiah 42:10-11

Some Seeds Die

When I was growing up, my family often sang prayers before mealtime. Our repertoire included “God is good and God is great,” “Hands, hands, hands,” and “I owe the Lord a morning song.” Another family favorite was the “Johnny Appleseed” song. Perhaps your family also sang this song. Based on the historic figure John Chapman, the legend of Johnny Appleseed has made its way into Disney movies, folklore, and prayer-songs[1].

The second verse of this song has not been sitting well with me for years. We sing:

“And every seed I sow, will grow into a tree.
And someday there will be apples there,
For everyone in the world to share.
The Lord’s been good to me.”

While I appreciate the encouraging, hopeful words, in recent years I have found that they grate at my soul. Is it ok to teach our children lies or half-truths, even in the context of a children’s song? Not every seed will grow. Jesus was clear about that. But this song gives us a nicer, cleaner, easier way to teach our children that seeds grow. We do learning activities with our children, and we assume that the seeds we plant in the little pots on our porch will grow.

But often they don’t.

I have learned this over the past decade of ministering in a slum community. Quite literally, many seeds do not grow. There is a grassy field only a stone’s throw from our house. We would love to plant small trees there, or flowers, or vegetables. But the roaming sheep and goats immediately devour anything edible. We recently tried transplanting a fairly good-sized tree from a pot to this field. Within an hour the goats had devoured all the leaves and left it a bare stick. Our six-year-old son cried as he watched our plant get eaten.

Even the pots on our porch often fail to produce the plants we were expecting to grow. Whether it is the neighboring chickens that wander onto our porch to eat the new seedlings or a curious child who decides to pick at the pots, new seeds often have no chance to grow. We did a gardening activity with thirty of our elementary school students recently: planting spinach, chili peppers, and kangkong. We faithfully watered the thirty little pots. Hopeful sprouts sprang up. But now a month later, two small pots are all that remain.

Sadly, ministering in hard settings often yields similar results as our gardening efforts in the slum. Have you been in your location for years but not seen anyone come to know Jesus? Do you know the heartbreak and despair of sowing for years but not seeing any fruit? Have you poured yourself into the work and not seen what you had hoped to see? Or perhaps the pain and disappointment is related to your team? Have people you trusted and mentored not produced the fruit you were hoping for?

These past few months have felt like a season of pruning for me. Teammates have left. We had to send an intern home suddenly because of a breach of trust. And multiple students that we had poured into have stopped coming to lessons. Sometimes the heartbreak feels too much to bear.

So I have started singing a new version of the Johnny Appleseed song with my children:

“And every seed I sow will grow into a tree.
But that is not true, ‘cause some seeds die.
And then I’ll sit on the ground and cry:
‘The Lord’s still good to me. Even when the seeds die.’”

This feels more in line with Scripture. Some seeds die. Three quarters of the seeds, in fact, if Jesus’s parable of the soils is mathematical. Some seeds fall on the path and are eaten by birds. Other seeds fall on rocky soil and cannot grow. Some seeds begin to grow but are choked by the worries and riches of this world. Only a quarter of the seeds fall on good soil. (See Matthew 13 for more details.)

Wherever you are, wherever you are sowing seeds, may you be encouraged today. Not with an “everything will be ok” or “every seed will grow” lie. But may you be encouraged to lament the areas in your life and ministry that are disappointing. May you know today that God sees, God hears, and God cares.

And may we be able to join our voice with the voice of the prophet Habakkuk and proclaim:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19a)


[1] As I wrote this article and googled the song, I discovered that it was actually created by Disney in 1948, originally titled “The Lord is Good to Me.” However, the words that I grew up singing are different than the original.

Digging Through the Wall

by Rahma

Old Testament prophets were often called to do ridiculous things. Cook food using human waste as fuel. Shave their heads and let the wind blow a third of the hair away. Marry a prostitute so one’s marriage could be a living metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel. Eat a scroll. The list goes on and on. But there is one story I had never noticed until recently. Let’s add to the list of strange prophetic behavior: Ezekiel had to dig through a wall.

The Lord speaks to Ezekiel, telling him that he is living in the midst of a rebellious nation (Judah) with people who have “eyes to see but do not see, who have ears to hear but do not hear” (Ezekiel 12:2 NRSV). Ezekiel is told to leave the city like an exile, leaving in the evening, carrying a bundle of possessions on his shoulders. But he doesn’t get to go out through the city gates. It is not as simple as finding the exit door and walking out.

The Lord speaks: “Dig through the wall in their sight, and carry the baggage through it” (Ezekiel 12:5).

Wait. What?! Why?

But like a good prophet, Ezekiel obeys the Lord.

Walls are powerful dividers. When I was in high school, my family was living in the Philippines, and President George W. Bush was coming to pay a visit to Manila. Weeks before the visit, officials were busy preparing: they were putting up walls. Corrugated metal walls went up to hide the poverty on the streets of Manila. Walls to hang pretty banners on, to present a fashionable and clean city. Behind the walls, life in slums became harder than normal, as access in-and-out of some communities became more difficult. All to create a façade for a visiting president.

When I think of walls, I remember my visit to Israel-Palestine during college. From Jerusalem, the wall looks like a normal-size wall, just high enough to not see over. There are decorative bushes and flowers planted to make it look like a pretty divider. After going through the security checkpoint and entering the West Bank, however, I was astonished to see that on the Palestinian side the ground was much lower—revealing a wall at some places 26 feet (eight meters) tall! This side of the wall has no decorative flowers or fancy bushes; instead it is adorned with artistic cries for freedom. Paintings of doors or windows revealing beauty, men throwing flowers instead of grenades, and peace doves wearing protective jackets as they are about to be shot down are some of the examples (you can view these and other powerful images with a simple google search).

When I think of walls, I picture the borders around the slum communities I have lived in. Concrete slabs mark the borders of the property. When eviction and demolition inevitably come, those on one side of the wall are safe, while the other side gets flattened. One side has legal documentation, one side does not. One side is safe, one side ceases to exist.

Walls are dividers. Whether they are the walls holding a roof on our house or the protective walls around our gated communities, walls by definition divide. Walls create “insiders” and “outsiders.” If we are comfortable with our walls, we must remember that there is always another side. Who are the people on the other side of our walls? Do we know their names? Do our walls serve a good purpose, or are they keeping us from encountering Christ? For the homeless person squatting on a street corner or the beggars who are no longer allowed to enter our gated communities because of Covid fears, what do these walls mean?

Ezekiel was told to dig through a wall. His wall was not concrete; it was probably red brick. It still must have been an uncomfortable process, perhaps involving hitting it with a hammer. There must have been dirt flying, dust in his eyes, and red earth under his fingernails by the time he was done. When he finally had a hole big enough to squeeze through, he walked out of the city—probably sweating and out-of-breath. This was just another weird thing Ezekiel the prophet had to do, likely gaining him more sideways glances and judgmental smirks. No one wants to listen to a prophet say that their city is going to be attacked and destroyed and that their king will escape through a hole in the wall.

But somehow, I feel as though Ezekiel has something for the Church of today to think about. What are our walls? Our literal walls— whether they are made of brick, cement, or plywood— do they keep people out? Are our physical church buildings such that those who do not know Jesus would never set foot in them? And more than that, what are our invisible walls? Mental barriers between “in” and “out”? Between “insiders” and “outsiders”? What barriers stand in the way of us engaging with others—with us being loving witnesses to Christ’s Kingdom? It could be religious walls that divide us, like the age-old misunderstandings between Muslims and Christians. Or it could be economic walls, creating a divide between the rich and the poor.

Are we willing to be prophetic? To follow in Ezekiel’s footsteps? To smash holes in the walls and dig through with our hands if needed? Can we hear the Lord’s voice to His Church, calling us to have ears to hear and eyes to see what is beyond our walls? Are we in a rebellious house, like Judah? And if so, are we willing to speak out—to be different than our friends and family if needed?

Are we willing to take the risk of obedience, to meet Jesus outside our walls?

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Rahma (not her real name) and her husband and two boys have lived and served in a slum in Jakarta for the past ten years. She enjoys learning piano, playing in the rain, and devouring Amy Carmichael books. You can learn more about the organization they serve with at servantsasia.org.

Radical Forgiveness

by Rahma

This week marked the sixteenth anniversary of an unforgettable family tragedy. My mom’s first cousin Jeff was driving with his five children when a pickup truck suddenly crossed the grassy median and hit them head-on at 60 miles per hour. All five of the children were killed instantly, and Jeff suffered serious injuries. I was in my senior year of high school at the time, and I remember seeing my mom cry when she got the phone call.

Carolyn, the mother of the family, had been in town running some errands, and her family had been on their way to meet her. I cannot imagine the unspeakable grief of a mother losing all five of her children in one instant.

But even while her husband was still in the hospital, Carolyn visited another hospital room: the room of the driver who had hit her family’s car. His name was Mr. Helm.

Carolyn took my Great-Uncle Jason (the grandfather of the children who died) to visit Mr. Helm. Together they told him that they forgave him and were praying for him. They did not press charges. They did not seek revenge. They chose to forgive. When cousin Jeff recovered, he, too, offered forgiveness to Mr. Helm.

My mom flew across the country from Virginia to Washington State to attend the funeral of my second cousins. Five crosses now mark the graves of Carmen, 12; Jana, 10; Carinna, 8; Jerryl, 4; and Craig, 2. For years, the picture of their five beautiful faces hung on my mother’s refrigerator. The picture served as a reminder to my family of incredible suffering and radical forgiveness.

This week also marks the three-week anniversary of an ongoing hostage crisis in Haiti. Seventeen mission workers are being held captive, including five children. The ages of those children are 8 months, 3 years, 6 years, 13 years, and 15 years.

Great-Uncle Jason, the grandfather of the five children who died in that car crash so many years ago, is now waiting and praying for news of another grandchild. His 27-year-old grandson traveled to Haiti to serve and was taken hostage the next day. But Great-Uncle Jason is again responding with unbelievable faith and forgiveness. Watching him offer forgiveness to the hostages brings tears to my eyes.

What kind of radical faith can bring people to say such things? To offer forgiveness to those who are holding hostage and threatening the lives of their loved ones? What kind of faith brings a mother to forgive the man whose truck killed all five of her children? How can my Great-Uncle Jason, who has already buried five grandchildren, hold onto hope as he awaits news of yet another grandchild?

And yet, this is the faith that we are all invited into. My family are Mennonites, but it is not only Mennonites who are called to forgive their enemies. If we call ourselves Christians, then we are part of a faith that calls us to forgive. We follow a savior who called us to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us (Matthew 5). Every time we pray the Lord’s prayer, we pray, “Forgive us our sins as we also forgive those who sin against us.”

Our savior left us countless examples of forgiveness. Perhaps the most powerful example of all came as he was hanging on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But do we forgive like this? Do we actually forgive those who sin against us? Would we choose forgiveness if we were in my Great-Uncle Jason’s shoes? Or if we were Jeff and Carolyn, the parents who lost five children in one moment? Or if we were the parents or grandparents of one of the other hostages in Haiti?

This week as I reflected on these tragedies both past and present, the Lord brought it closer to home for me. Sunday, October 31st was the ten-year anniversary of a devastating fire in the first slum community that I lived in. When the flames were finally put out, all that was left was a smoldering neighborhood and 200 families who were suddenly homeless.

Do I forgive the perpetrators of this devastating fire from ten years ago?

Forgiving is not the same thing as condoning sin or enabling abusers. However, our Lord has instructed us to forgive. Forgiveness helps free us from our anger, bitterness, and prisons of hate. But it is only with the help of the Holy Spirit that forgiveness can be possible.

Now as I live in another slum community in one of the largest cities on earth, I am grateful for my Christian Mennonite heritage which taught me to love Jesus, care about the poor, and seek to love my enemies. I know I cannot do this perfectly, but that is why we need grace. Each and every day we must cling to the grace offered by our Lord Jesus and know we are forgiven.

And it is because we are forgiven that we can then offer forgiveness to others.

Lord, help us on our journeys to forgiveness. Give us Your heart to forgive those who have wronged us. Help us to be agents of love and reconciliation to those around us, that the world may see and stand in awe of You.

 

*This article has been modified to remove references to the sending agency of the workers held hostage in Haiti. On November 9, 2021, the author, along with A Life Overseas, learned of a history of sexual abuse coverup in that agency. We grieve when any person is abused and are deeply sorry for any pain caused by the references in the initial article.

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Rahma (not her real name) and her husband and two boys have lived and served in a slum in Jakarta for the past ten years. She enjoys learning piano, playing in the rain, and devouring Amy Carmichael books. You can learn more about the organization they serve with at servantsasia.org.

Strangers and Aliens: Covid in the Slums

by Rahma

We had been waiting for months for news about when we might be able to receive a Covid vaccine. The elderly, health workers, government offices, and teachers were the first groups to be vaccinated. My husband and I are teachers, but the free school that we run in our slum community is not a “real” school, so we could not qualify to receive vaccines. 

For eleven months, we opened House of Hope during the pandemic– praying that the benefits to the community were greater than the risks presented by meeting in person. Sickness in slums is a constant affair; there are always children and adults sick with diarrhea, coughs, colds, fevers, sore throats. Normally when someone is sick with some or all of those symptoms, possible diagnoses include: the common flu, dengue fever, typhoid, or TB. Now we added “Covid-19” to the possible list.  

On Wednesday of our last week of classes for the year, my husband received a phone call from the government leader in his mom’s neighborhood. We had registered with this leader two weeks prior, hoping that one day we would be eligible to be vaccinated. “You can go today,” the man said. “To the police center.  You have ten minutes. There are only six vaccines left.”

Talk about last minute warning. We changed our clothes (out of slum clothes, into presentable vaccination clothes), grabbed our important documents (government ID, marriage certificate, my passport and visa), and jumped on our motorcycle. My husband sped through traffic, and we arrived at the police center perhaps twenty minutes after the phone call.

The police center was celebrating their birthday; in honor of the birthday, they were providing vaccines for the community. 

They looked at our ID cards, accepted my husband’s since he is Indonesian, but rejected me. I could not be vaccinated. I fought back disappointment and consoled myself with knowing that my husband was getting his first jab. Twenty minutes later, we were back on our motorcycle and going home.

Two days later, after numerous phone calls and confirmation from the same government leader near my in-law’s house, I set off by bike to go to the government clinic. This time equipped with a letter from the official, saying I was a resident and lived in the neighborhood. I spent two hours waiting in line with about 100 others– this time to get a swab rapid test in order to be eligible to be vaccinated the following day. After two hours of waiting, it was finally my turn and I presented the letter and my ID card.

“What is this?” the lady said.

“My permanent resident card.”

“We can’t use this number. You don’t have the right number.”  She confirmed with a higher-up and they sent me home.

I fought back angry tears once more. 

In some strange way, I felt like this experience bonded me with our neighbors.  Many of them do not have the proper documentation– not only is it a struggle to get vaccinated, but anything legal is a challenge. Registering for government elementary schools. Making marriage certificates. Or birth certificates. Or government health cards. I have a friend who had to travel 3 hours during labor to return to her home village for an emergency Cesarean.  

Scripture says we are strangers and aliens in this world.  There’s nothing like living somewhere ten years, but getting denied a vaccine to remind one of this truth. No matter how many years I live here, I will always be the “Bule” (pronounced “Boo”+ “lay”). I will always be the white-skinned one, with brown hair instead of black. I cried, not so much because I really wanted a vaccine, but because I wanted to belong. To not feel like an outsider in this land where I have given birth, taught hundreds of children, and planted myself. It just did not seem fair.

The following morning, we biked 55 kilometers round trip to the Zoo (where we were refused entry because of new Covid restrictions and because our ID cards were not from Jakarta).  I knew I was dragging a little bit, but a sudden rainstorm refreshed us and we made it home happily.  After a shower, however, I realized I was feverish. I spent the rest of the day in bed. My husband also started to feel sick. We wondered (Asian style) if it was because of getting rained on. 

The following morning, we got Covid PCR tests. We were positive, along with one of our teammates. We paid to get tested at a private clinic, as trying to get a free PCR from the government clinic is nearly impossible. Officially, our test results should be reported to our government health clinic. Officially, if one of our cases were to deteriorate, they should be responsible to send an ambulance and help us get to a hospital. But because we live in a slum, this is not possible.

If we chose to self-isolate in our sabbath house, in the middle-class neighborhood according to our ID address, the health officials would help us.  But since we would rather be at home in our slum house– where there are neighbors who can shop for us, where there is a field we can walk on and get fresh air, where our pet rabbit is, where we feel more comfortable– there is no government health center to report to. Slums are by definition illegal. We live on “dark land,” without government leadership. Slipping through the cracks of bureaucracy. No one wants to help our neighborhood. 

When we explained to our neighbor about trying to report to the government clinic, she laughed and said: “If we die, they don’t care.” 

And for us it does not really matter. Thankfully, our Covid cases seem mild. We have an oximeter and can self-monitor oxygen levels. We have money to buy vitamins, paracetamol, and nutritious food. We also have health insurance and money in the bank if we needed to check ourselves into a hospital. We have lots of middle-class friends with extra money to send us care packages of food. My kitchen is overflowing with fruit, snacks, honey, and other goodies sent to us– not only from our “rich” friends, but also from our friends in the slum.

But as I hear my neighbors cough, I wonder what they will do if they need to be hospitalized.  I wonder how much money is wasted when they go to a doctor and are given amoxicillin and told they just have “strep throat.”  I know that the official numbers of Covid cases in Indonesia are sky-rocketing, and I know that the real number is likely 20x higher than what is reported.  I feel the injustices of lacking proper ID cards. I feel the struggle of my friends wanting to access free government health care. I sense the denial and optimism of our street, hoping that everyone else just has a “normal cough.”

Lord, protect the most vulnerable.  Have mercy on all those who are sick.  Heal our bodies. Heal our souls.  Come, Lord Jesus.

For the past ten years, living in a slum, I have found solace in the words of Psalm 146.  I read these verses again today and they seem so applicable. My hope is not in princes (or government officials)– my hope is in the Lord. The Lord watches over the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the blind, and the bowed down.  And the Lord watches over the foreigner, too (hey, that’s me!). Praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, my soul.

I will praise the Lord all my life;
    I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
    on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God.

He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them—
    he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
    and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free,
    the Lord gives sight to the blind,
the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down,
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the foreigner
    and sustains the fatherless and the widow,
    but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

 The Lord reigns forever,
    your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord.

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Rahma and her husband and two boys have lived and served in a slum in Jakarta for the past ten years. She enjoys learning piano, playing in the rain, and devouring Amy Carmichael books. You can learn more about the organization they serve with at servantsasia.org.

Washing the Feet of Jesus

by Rahma

It was a normal afternoon. We were just finishing up the school day (at the free kindergarten we run in the slum community we live in).  All the students had gone home, and another teacher and I were sweeping the playground area. The other teachers were cleaning up inside.

Suddenly, I heard the other teacher yell angrily: “Hey! Don’t come in here!” She lifted up her broom threateningly. 

It was Agung. He took a step into the entrance to the playground area. Agung is the man in our community who suffers from some sort of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness. My husband and I have known Agung for as along as we have lived in this slum community. He used to live with his grandma in a little shack by the canal that runs through the neighborhood. When his grandma died a few years ago, someone else took possession of their house and Agung left to wander the streets. Sometimes he disappears for months at a time; other times we see him walking past our street almost every day. He refuses to talk to almost everyone; but occasionally he will answer someone he trusts. I would guess he is only a few years older than me, perhaps 36 or 37 years old.

We are not scared of Agung. We are not scared because we know his name. We have sat with him in his (previous) house. We have watched him play dominoes and know that he used to have a radio that he liked to listen to. But the three other teachers present did not know much about Agung. They only know him as the “crazy person” who wanders around, sometimes peeking in people’s houses. They know him as the person who always wears the same dirty pants and shirt and does not have a home.  I could see fear in their eyes and body language as they retreated into the school— all of course in the same moment that my friend shouted “Hey! Don’t come in here!”

I quickly tried to assure them it was ok. “Don’t be scared. It’s just Agung.” I said. “He is not dangerous.”

I walked towards Agung and asked what the matter was. (Normally he only appears at our door if he is sick). He pointed to his foot. Underneath all the black dirt, I could tell that his foot was very swollen. I asked what had happened, but he would not speak an answer.

My husband came soon after that, and he too tried to ask Agung what had happened. No answer. Right at the entrance to the school is the large water tank and spigot for kids to wash their hands before entering the playground. My husband knelt down and washed Agung’s swollen foot. It just happened to be a few days after Easter, and I could not help getting teary-eyed as I watched my husband follow our Lord’s example.  

The foot did not have any visual wounds on it. “Did your foot get run over by a car?” We asked. No answer. We felt helpless to really do anything to make a difference for Agung. We gave him some ibuprofen for the pain, a glass of water, and some ointment to rub on his foot. My husband gave him a shirt from his dresser. Then Agung was on his way again, limping away to wherever his feet would carry him.

Living in Jakarta for the past ten years, I have seen many mentally ill homeless people wandering the streets. Often their hair is long and messy, their clothes a brownish-gray color like the streets they live on. I feel so powerless to help them — and so aware that each person struggling with mental illness has a family somewhere, a story, and a name. This touches me particularly because my own brother struggles with very severe bipolar disorder.  My brother has navigated multiple hospitalizations, ups and downs, and countless medications and doctors and therapist appointments over the past ten years.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, I have struggled with the realization that these people I see could be my brother. And actually, they are my brothers and sisters— precious people to be loved and cared for.

It has now been over a month since the incident with Agung, but it keeps playing over and over again in my mind. The fear my friends had in the face of interacting with the unknown, “crazy person.” The simple yet counter-cultural act of my husband stooping to wash his feet. This to me was a living picture of the gospel—of what our Lord has done for us. And we are to follow our Lord in serving those the world is fearful of, views as “unclean,” unwanted, dangerous even. Knowing their names.  Speaking in Love. Offering hope.

Agung’s name means “Great.” It is often a title used for God. And somehow his name seems appropriate to me. In washing Agung’s feet, my husband was indeed showing love to our great Lord. The one who promises to meet us in whatever we do to the least of these.

We still see Agung walking past almost daily. He did not put the new shirt on, but he carries it on his shoulder. It is now almost as dirty as the shirt he is wearing. We do not know what is going on in his mind or heart—but somehow we know he knows we care.

Originally published here.

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Rahma and her husband and two boys have lived and served in a slum in Jakarta for the past ten years. She enjoys learning piano, playing in the rain, and devouring Amy Carmichael books. You can learn more about the organization they serve with at servantsasia.org.