BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (BP)–From the comfortable cab of an air-conditioned SUV, it was hard not to feel as if the scene I was seeing outside the window was simply images from a movie.
It couldn’t be real. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the extent of the destruction. As a writer, describing things is what I do. And yet what I had seen had extinguished my verbal ability. Now -– like everyone else in the vehicle -– I sat quietly, feeling numb and useless.
Reality flooded back, however, as our vehicle ground to a halt and we unloaded for yet another survey of the devastation. We stood in what was once a fairly affluent area of Banda Aceh. The rubble seemed nicer. A short ways away, a mangled Mercedes Benz was perched haphazardly atop a heap of crumbled concrete. Nearby was a bicycle folded like a taco shell in the tsunami.
Along the road, which had been cleared by bulldozers, bodies wrapped in plastic lay in the sun. Three here. A dozen there. The stench of decay hung heavy in the air. Our medical masks did nothing to break the odor. For miles in every direction, the landscape was unchanged.
An Acehnese man climbed through the rubble –- tension and stress etched in his face.
“The only people who are removing bodies are family members,” he said, drawing deeply on a clove cigarette. “But whole families are dead. There is no one to take the corpses out.” He pointed to a line of palm trees in the distance. “There are thousands of bodies back there.”
Back in the car, Tom* was quiet. I couldn’t imagine the thoughts going through his mind. Normally jovial and talkative, Tom sat entombed in his thoughts and emotions, his face partially hidden by the end of the red-and-white checked scarf that turbaned around his head and Muslim prayer cap. This had been his home. These were his people.
I imagined that he was dwelling on the destruction and loss of life -– as I was. But this devout Muslim surprised me and helped me refocus my perspective.
“I wanted to cry,” Tom said. “I wanted to get out and help everyone I saw and help pick up the dead bodies. But while I was in the car, I was praying, ‘Is this something you want me to do now?’ I knew that I needed to figure out what Allah was saying to me.”
“Did he tell you?” I asked. Tom, who is a descendant of the original Acehnese, nodded.
“Allah spoke to me, saying: ‘Don’t love the world too much until you forget about me.’ You see,” Tom explained, “if we love the world too much, we forget about Allah.”
The biggest problem is the lack of spiritual devotion, he continued. The people need to return to Allah.
“Before all this happened, so many weren’t that strong in their faith. About 80 percent don’t understand the Arabic language, so they don’t understand the holy book. They don’t know what Allah is saying to them. That makes me incredibly sad,” he said.
Repeatedly during our time in Aceh, survivors and surveyors alike asked the question: “Is Allah punishing us?” An Indonesian television station began an aid program called “Indonesia is Weeping,” bolstered by a three-minute music video which aired multiple times a day.
The lyrics speak of the brokenness of the people and plead with the Almighty for mercy:
“Forgive us for our sins, O Allah.” “How long will we be punished?” “Have mercy on us.”
The most effective way to rebuild lives and to heal Aceh, Tom said, is to “focus on Allah and not on the devastation. We’ve got to move forward.
“I’m at the place where I know I could help Aceh,” Tom said. “But to be a help to the people here, I’ve got to start with myself, my own heart. Then I can help meet the spiritual needs of these people.”
Tom finally broke into a smile as he spoke of his upcoming marriage and his desire to have five children.
“InsyaAllah [if Allah wills], and he gives me a long life, I won’t tell the story of this time to my children,” he said. “But instead, I will tell them of all the things I did wrong so they will be better people and will be able to take care of Allah’s creation.”
In the midst of a horrifying tragedy, the spiritual insight from a Muslim friend resonated within me and humbled me to the core of my being.
“Can I tell you what I think of you?” Tom asked before we parted ways. “I know you aren’t doing what you’re doing for yourself. You’re doing it for God.
“I can see that your heart is strong with the Messiah Jesus,” he said. “I’ve read the Injil [the New Testament], and I believe what I’ve read about Jesus. What I see in you is what I’ve read about Jesus.”
Tom showed me that it’s time to focus on the living. Yes, the devastation is like nothing the modern world has seen before. But as Christians mobilize in the face of seemingly insurmountable anguish and destruction to carry aid and perform acts of service and selflessness, the survivors of Aceh — as well as the people of Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives, and Thailand –- will see the difference of those who come as the hands and feet of Christ Jesus.
*Names changed for security reasons