Jul 7, 2015

Church-hunting in Aceh

Don't get me wrong, I love this heavily Muslim place. The women look so graceful in their headscarves and long skirts (and they ride motorbikes too, it's awesome); the men are very nice; the children are lovely. I fall asleep to the recitation of the Quran blasting out of the mosque and I think, how awesome it would be if we could blast Hillsong music out of our churches at night. But while it's beautiful, it's also tiring, being surrounded by a different religion. I'm the only Christian volunteer at the center, and sharing a room with 4 others means I don't have the space to worship and pray out loud. We're not to eat in public, or in front of the kids, because everyone else is fasting. And everyone is speaking a language I don't understand. It's tiring to be present but not included.

On Sunday I was determined to find a church. The night before, I was told that the Methodist church has an English service on Sunday afternoons. I couldn't find the service details online, so I left at noon with the address in hand. Hopped into a rickety becak and told the man the address. Red polo tee, red motorbike. Where the left side mirror should've been was a green screw instead. I think he thought I understood Indonesian, so he kept talking and talking and I'd nod in agreement or laugh at whenever it seemed appropriate. I loved how his speedometer wasn't working; his needle was just jumping around.  I think towards the end of our ride he realised I didn't actually understand him.

A blue concrete arch: "GEREJA METHODIST INDONESIA". "Ohhh, methodist, this one methodist," the driver said. He offered to pick me up after I was done, too. I didn't know how to say "I don't know what time it ends, so it might not be a good idea, I'll just get another becak when I'm done", so instead I just asked him to come at 5pm. After all, I didn't know if the afternoon service was at 2pm or at 4pm, so 4.5 hours would probably be a good buffer. Right?

A woman from the church approached me and conversed with me in Chinese. Hearing her speak Chinese made me feel so much at home, made everything sound less foreign. Their Chinese sounds less foreign to me than their English, because their Chinese kind of sounds like Malaysian Chinese, whereas their English's mostly not very fluent and heavily, uniquely accented. Turned out they only had English services on the third week of every month. They did have Chinese services every week, though, but in the mornings; I'd missed today's service. Great. So now I had 4 hours left. It was still so refreshing though, seeing crosses on the walls and a hall with pews for worship. I wanted to ask if I could just go in and sit, but they might be suspicious.

As I walked out of the church compound I realised there was another church right beside this one. The doors were right open. I walked into a small, unimpressive hall, with a few pews and a little podium. Oh. A tiny congregation, huh. The gates to the stairs were also open, so I tentatively tiptoed up. A beautiful hall greeted me. It wasn't colourful or magnificent, no stained glass or fancy crosses. But it was peaceful. Transparent glass tiles forming crosses in the white walls, wooden brown shophouse-style windows, pews of polished wood. It was a magical moment, just me and a house of God.

(Bethel: house of God. I want to name my future child Bethel.)

A man appeared. I stood apologetically, asking about English services. In Indonesian, he said no, they only had Indonesian services here. He was short, very tanned, and jolly. We had a little conversation with what we could muster: him not understanding English, and me not understanding Indonesian. He was from Papua New Guinea (ah, that explains the skin colour - it was much darker than other Malay Indonesians); came here 10 years ago after the tsunami, and I think he came to complete his last 2 years of education here. (I might be wrong. He was saying all of this in Indonesian.) He manages the sound system at the church. I left after a while, not wanting to disturb him further; we probably wouldn't have been able to understand much more of each other at this point. I wanted to say "God bless you" in Bahasa but I couldn't remember how, so I just thanked him.

I walked and walked and walked. Everything was closed. Came across another church, Catholic, but it was closed. I walked and walked and it was still only 2.30pm. Hot sun, black pants, I forgot my hairtie. So many empty becaks came my way, slowing down for me, asking if I wanted a ride. I was so tempted to just go back to the center, but I had made an agreement with my becak man, and I didn't want him to come all the way here for me only to be let down by another irresponsible customer. I told myself to persevere. I decided to go back to the Methodist church and read Fireseeds (Dan Hayes) until it was time.

It felt so free, sitting in an empty compound within a church, reading a book about God's work in university campuses across the world. It felt free being able to pray out loud. A rat was running about in the drain at my feet, making all the trash clatter - drink packets, plastic cups. A group of ladies walked out - they must've just finished a meeting. One was going into her car when she noticed me, and came to sit beside me. We chatted in Chinese, again, and I asked her how she felt living in a place that was so strongly Muslim. She said it was generally quite alright, both religious communities largely left each other alone, it was quite peaceful, well sometimes restricting but generally alright but remember not to eat in public when the Muslims are fasting; they will scold you! When she left, I saw an old man walk slowly and sheepishly into the church compound, looking behind him as he entered; he crouched in a corner and took out a packet of food and started eating.

Just before 5pm, I decided to hunt for dinner. Outside the church there stood a woman selling gado gado. I noticed that she wasn't wearing a headscarf or long sleeves, so I asked if she belonged to this church. She said no, she was Catholic. Pointed in the direction of the Catholic church I'd walked past. This time I wanted to say it, so I asked her to wait while I took out my phone and searched for Carissa's Bahasa cheat sheet. "Tuhan memberkati mu". The Lord bless you. She seemed very happy.

5.07. Becaks still passed me by, but I was like no, the red polo tee guy said he'd pick me up. I kept on the lookout. 5.10. Finally he showed up at 5.12. Raised his chin to me like he was greeting a familiar friend.

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