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Finding my religion in Indonesia



I'm from one of those Catholic families that causes heartburn among those concerned with the future of the church in increasingly secular Australia.

Chris Johnston cartoonBy the mid-90s in suburban Canberra, four children was enough to be considered a 'big Catholic' family. If you needed a child to do a reading or if children's Mass was a baby doll short, a Cook could be reliably called upon to avert crisis. But even then it was clear, we were the type of family who would only be back for major holidays (if that) after the youngest had finished their sacraments.

Maybe it's because, by virtue of birth order, I spent far more Sundays in pews than my siblings did that I'm the only one self-identifying as Catholic. The church has always meant more about family than religion to me — sure, my grandmother's grandmother did it all in Latin, but isn't it kind of cool that we went through the same motions? — and I thought it always would. But then I got lucky: I moved to the world's most populous Muslim country.

Indonesia's approach to religion certainly has its problems. Intolerance has been a major issue in recent years, particularly following the attacks on former Jakarta governor Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama and his subsequent jailing on blasphemy charges.

The political scandal was widely seen as some factions of the city's Muslim majority targeting the ex-governor for his double minority status — ethnically Chinese and identifying as Christian. Demonstrations saw thousands of hardline Islamists take to the streets and demand the governor's jailing, and even death, during the gubernatorial election campaign at the start of last year — a scary throwback to other incidents when minorities were targeted during social upheaval.

But largely, my own experience in a tiny sliver of one of the world's messiest megacities has been one of tolerance, curiosity, and religion as a middle ground between strangers from different cultures. This, of course, comes with a massive caveat that I belong to one of six religions recognised by Indonesia. For Jewish friends, or indeed Indonesian nationals who adhere to Indigenous religions or are minorities within major religions, it is a different story entirely.

Back home, talking religion can feel like a minefield. It's better to stay quiet — remember to Google that later — than embarrass yourself or cause offence. Confessing to my own religious beliefs beyond 'I went to Catholic school' has repeatedly opened me up to ridicule.


"As the policeman with an assault rifle handed me a missal on Good Friday it occurred to me that the relationship between your religion and the perception of threats to it is a bizarre one."


But here in Jakarta, it can feel like there's no such thing as a dumb question. Religious holidays and the entire month of Ramadan are crash courses in how religion is intrinsic to Indonesia, even with a diversity of religions practised. Public holidays underscore the value Indonesia places on treating major religions the same, with seemingly constant days off celebrating the birth of Muhammad, the birth of Buddha and the birth of Christ.

And maybe that's why it is here I feel far more comfortable walking back into a church than I do at home. Gereja St Theresia, a gorgeous church built in the 1930s in the middle of the city, asks no questions when I walk in the gate. No 'oh, is it a family thing?', no suggestion that I'm somehow being forced against my will.

Mass at St Theresia is a novel affair for someone used to the last gasps of a suburban parish in an ageing area of Canberra. Often, Mass will reach capacity and the slowpokes will spend a morning under a marquee in the overflow section (the car park).

These last pews are the ones I feel most comfortable in. Twenty years ago, the back rows would be filled with my family and our friends, little brothers playing with toy cars and grandmothers threatening to murder us all if we didn't take the handshaking and 'peace be with you'ing seriously. Now, little brothers play on phones and grandmothers sit inside where it is air conditioned.

As the policeman with an assault rifle acting as security handed me a missal on Good Friday it did occur to me that the relationship between your religion and the perception of threats to it is a bizarre one. Even for members of Indonesia's Muslim majority, insecurity is a key anxiety driving much of the aggressive displays in recent years.

Whether that is reasonable or not is another question. Indonesia's Catholics and Christians — considered two distinct groups — have been targets in the past, most notably on Christmas Eve in 2000 when churches across the country were bombed.

For Catholics in Australia, those threats predate us now by generations. The threats to the faith now come from inside the house, with the expression of Catholicism by so many of my peers reduced to ticking a box on the census form and pancakes for dinner one night of the year. If I'm honest with myself, I know that exploring my own faith in Indonesia rather than at home is made much easier by no one asking me tough questions I continue to force further down into a tiny pit in my stomach. No, I don't agree with the church on xyz and especially not on that.

So what is it that I do agree on? Why do I even feel a draw to return? That, I can't answer yet. But Indonesia has let me ask.



Erin CookErin Cook is a Jakarta-based journalist with a focus on South East Asia, and editor of the SEA news digest Dari Mulut ke Mulut.

Topic tags: Erin Cook, Indonesia, Catholic Church



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Existing comments

Fascinating account of your relationship with Catholicism, Erin Cook. You ask some very important questions. When you find the answers (which I am sure you will) please tell the Catholic Church where it has gone wrong - someone needs to. Sadly, however, I'm not sure its agents (the bishops mainly) will listen.

john frawley | 04 May 2018  

Some years ago, my wife and I went to a packed Easter Saturday night vigil in a church in Indonesia. The church had a Hall underneath where the overflow watched on TV. We didn't speak much Bahasa but we could follow what was going on pretty well. It had everything: baptisms for infants, adult initiation ... the works. Three hours later, we walked out and I think we were both glad we had gone - we certainly hadn't noticed the passage of time. What was amazing was that it was the second such liturgy of the night. The first went from 6.30 pm to 9.30 pm, ours from 9.30 pm to 12.30 am. I later mentioned this doubling up to my brother, a priest, who blanched but politely said nothing more. We also were struck by the separation of Christian and Catholic in the Indonesian constitution. I used to joke that some Christians would probably say that was a good thing!

ErikH | 07 May 2018  

Once the meaning of what is happening when a Christian community gathers is not obvious without explanation to those who attend, it is time to change what is being done.

Richard Hallett | 07 May 2018  

Very interesting reflection on your relationship with your religion. Don't push your questions down - let them surface and let them be informed over time by your experience and ongoing reflection. None of us, I'm sure, believe in exactly the same way as we did as children, nor should we. Personally, I find I can love the Church - warts and all - most of the time, as long as I accept her humanity, limitations, brokenness, errors and failings. It's when I expect her to be perfect that I have trouble.

Joan Seymour | 07 May 2018  

It is always important to seek to understand the ways that we can be better church - a people in relationship with God. And I have had experiences of good Christian community in other countries - probably the best being in Dubai attending a packed mass in the one catholic church allowed in the city. But I don't think that a country that has crowds crying for the blood of former Jakarta governor Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama because he is a christian, or where a Good Friday liturgy needs a "policeman with an assault rifle acting as security", is necessarily a role model for us. Neither do I think that catholics whose contact with the faith and the teachings of the church is limited to "ticking a box on the census form and pancakes for dinner one night of the year" really have a lot to contribute. I would rather listen to people who are involved and committed - people who know what they are talking about.

David | 07 May 2018  

The categorisation of Protestants and Catholics as two separate religions goes back to the Japanese occupation (1942-1945). The occupiers set up a Department of Religion to control an influential element in society. In 1942 Catholics were not yet ecumenical. Why no change since then? Probably because each "religion" has its own office, officials and budget.

John Prior | 07 May 2018  

The benefit of living in another culture is apparent in your reflections Erin. I managed to do so without leaving Australia’s shores by being accepted in an indigenous community where those of us who were Catholic Christians were few compared to those who lived by their traditional beliefs. Some things I learned, or had reinforced for me were respect for others’ beliefs, the importance of reflection on my own and the commonalities that exist in all eg the significance of sacred stories and remembrance through sacred rituals.

Ern Azzopardi | 07 May 2018  

I asked myself, perhaps 30 years ago, "Why do I go to mass? I get little out of it." And, one Sunday, the answer came back, "Not for you alone, but for all of you here". I do not know why others choose to continue to attend or choose to leave, as the case may be; but, as a result, the question no longer bothers me. Recently, I attended a mass away from home, and had this sad feeling that the performers, for that is what they were, did not care about their performance, merely that it was done. The sermon was dreadful, the cantor could not be heard, the overhead slides on several screens were not synchronised with one another and were often late. It was duty done, not a community gathering. To say the least, it was demoralising. What is forgotten there, and fortunately, not in my parish, is Community, "the Body of Christ" in St. Paul's words, and the intimacy of belonging and knowing one another, that has kept me going. And, I think that is what Erin's account is expressing in Indonesian churches.

Peter Horan | 07 May 2018  

I believe the separation of "Christian" and "Catholic" may owe a lot to the former Dutch colonisers' prejudices against the latter. But I agree with David that Indonesian religion, which is 90% "communal" rather than personal choice, is no model of how to form a faith community based on inner conviction and inner self-discernment.

Pat Mahony | 12 May 2018