News Articles

Indonesia: Sharing faith amid pride, fear

EDITORS’ NOTE: During the 2003 International Missions Emphasis, Nov. 30-Dec. 7, Southern Baptists will focus on the theme, “That All Peoples May Know Him: Follow God’s Purpose.” The national goal for this year’s Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is $133 million, with a challenge goal of $150 million. The International Mission Board relies on the Lottie Moon offering for approximately 50 percent of its annual support. The Cooperative Program along with the Lottie Moon offering undergird Southern Baptists’ strategy for international missions, such as the ministry highlighted below in Indonesia.

LAMPUNG PROVINCE, Sumatra, Indonesia (BP)–A curtain of rain billows over the mountain in angry gray waves, descending on the coastal Lampungese (lahm-poong-eez) village. Ignoring the imminent deluge, the villagers work on — raising a house’s wooden frame.

Precariously stacked rocks serve as piers as the men balance barefoot atop beams becoming slick from the first drizzles of rain. Working together, they push a section cockeyed to achieve a desired alignment. It must be a house for someone significant — it will sit next to the home of the king.

Perched at the edge of a pristine beach, the village is two short rows of drab, wooden dwellings facing roaring surf, hedged only by arching coconut trees. Beyond the houses, small plots of rice paddies butt against the abrupt mountains clothed in rain forest attire.

“We’ve been here for eight generations,” says the king, sipping stout homegrown coffee in his dim living room next door to the construction. “It is a good life.”

There has always been a king in his family, the stoic middle-aged man says. As legend has it, a giant eagle dispersed a tribe from the upper west coast of Sumatra and populated other parts of the Indonesian archipelago.

A man and woman were dropped here on the southernmost tip of Sumatra, and all the surrounding villages in the king’s domain descended from these first two people, explains the village headman matter-of-factly, taking another draw from his crackling clove cigarette.

The village probably hasn’t changed much in several hundred years, except for the loud diesel “chug-chug-chug” coming from a shed at the edge of the village. Pounding rice from the village’s fields into rice flour using a machine is as automated as this village gets.

Many Lampungese have had little or no exposure to the modern world and live minimally in locations whose natural grandeur would mesmerize anyone — from the wandering surfer lusting for the perfect waves to the international five-star hotelier coveting the next great resort location. All along the coastline, black-sand beaches emerge from rainforest foliage, washed by rolling surf whipped up by decks of coral.

All other work in the village is at a standstill for the moment — pending the completion of the new house. Communal projects are one of the defining characteristics of the Lampungese people. “It helps the village be strong,” notes the king.


In the same vein, many distinct Lampungese attributes are what make them so difficult to reach with the Gospel, says “Calvin Walters,”* a missiologist committed to seeing a movement of God among this unreached people group.

Lampungese are a fierce and admittedly proud people, Walters explains. “Guarding your honor — personal, family, tribal — at all costs is paramount.”

As little as 30 years ago, at the height of the clove industry, the Lampungese were among the wealthiest people in Sumatra. Lampungese men tell stories of rolling their own clove cigarettes using banknotes.

Today, the pride remains, but poverty paints the people. Out of Indonesia’s 26 provinces, Lampung ranks 24th in education and is by far the poorest province on Sumatra, Walters says. Sixty percent of Lampungese villages have no electricity or running water.

Most Lampungese still live in small coastal or mountainous villages, living off the land farming cloves, coffee, pepper and the resin of dammar trees — sold for use in chemical and cosmetic industries.

Prosperity is still available but rarely realized — “a facade of greatness” outweighs sensible spending and living. A Lampungese farmer with a small grove of dammar trees could earn enough to live a comfortable life in the city and send his children to school.

But, “it’s all spent,” says a tree farmer, living in a one-room, dirt-floored shack in the forest. By a pond outside, toothbrushes stick bristles-up from the mud by a rusty bowl holding dirty soap.

“We have to pay for so much,” the farmer says, shrugging. Social protocol requires each Lampungese to attend weddings and frequent parties — and to bring lavish gifts. Mediocre giving is shameful.

“Lampungese say: “It is better to die than to lose face,'” explains an Indonesian Christian who lives among the Lampungese. “They are so proud, but so blinded by their apathy and poverty.”


Once the largest ethnic group in Lampung Province, the 2 million Lampungese are now outnumbered by Javanese transplanted from other parts of Indonesia by the central government’s migration policy. This territorial infringement has bred deep-seated resentment and increased Lampungese solidarity and mistrust of outsiders.

Many researchers say the loyalty and tight knit Lampungese communities stem from their claim to be orthodox Muslims. Walters disagrees.

“They may say they are 99.9 percent Muslim, but they are ‘high-identity’ Muslims,” Walters says. “They say, ‘I am Lampungese, so I’m Muslim.’ But they don’t know really what it means [to be a Muslim] beyond fasting, praying and covering their women.”

What defines and binds the Lampungese is animism and fear — fear of death, the spirit world, superstition, the future, and fear of bucking their age-old cultural traditions.

“If a Lampungese has a problem, they go to the ‘dukun’ [witchdoctor], not to the imam at the mosque,” Walters says. “And no self-respecting Lampungese parent would let their child go out without a protective amulet.”

In Lampungese homes, Walters points outs rocks and figures over doorways, which “have no other function than to ward off evil spirits. It’s all around,” he says, adding that the Lampungese draw a distinction between black and white magic — “the difference between putting curses on someone or getting a good wife.”

Lampungese draw their Muslim lineage to 14th-century Arab traders. The supposed grave of an Arabic sheik on a nearby mountaintop draws Lampungese from all over the province, who travel to seek his blessing — asking the sheik to intercede to Allah on their behalf and make their prayers effective.

“This makes sense to them,” Walters says. “God is so transcendent — not personal or concerned about them — so they go to a man who is close to God and appeal to him.”

Effectively reaching the Lampungese will require a groundswell of local, indigenous believers — a daunting task, considering the fear that permeates the Lampungese themselves.


“There are churches all over the province,” Walters says. “But fear keeps the Lampungese from searching out [truth about Jesus] and the national churches from reaching out.”

Fear keeps them firmly planted in the status quo. “It’s not a question of what a person wants, it’s what brings uniformity,” he explains. “The community is everything to them.

“Whenever a Lampungese is won [to Christ] and brought into the traditional church, at best they are kicked out of their village,” he says. “At worst they are threatened with death. There’s not much opportunity for growth there.”

To date, there are fewer than 20 known Lampungese Christians — most of whom live in fear of reprisal from the strong Muslim community.

“My prayer is that people will see one person saved — giving confidence that ‘yes, there can be Lampungese Christians.’ And when persecution does come,” Walters says, “there will be such a large number of believers who are living out changed, Christian lives that there won’t be a lot that can be argued with.”
* Name changed to protect ongoing ministry. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: COMMUNITY AT WORK, KEY INDUSTRY, COMMUNITY SPIRIT, EDUCATIONAL CHALLENGE and TRADITIONAL TAPESTRY.

    About the Author

  • Staff