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. 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.
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.
 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.