We arrived in Singapore at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday morning after an eight-hour flight from Minneapolis. The Singapore airport is beautiful and was decorated for Christmas. Huge colorful bouquets of flowers in the garden area were held by glass mosaic containers about ten feet tall and six feet wide. There was also an orchid garden. Both of these gardens were completed by ponds of four different kinds of large Koi fish. In terminal two, there was a shopping mall and two areas called Sanctuary and Oasis. Both were built to allow travelers a place to sit in comfortable lounge chairs and recharge batteries. The Oasis was dark and quiet but at one end there were flat screen TVs. At the far end were the lounge chairs with side tables and sleep timers. This is where we planted ourselves. I learned immediately that humanity shares three things no matter what nationality: coughing, sneezing and especially snoring!
Pr. Bimen Limbong went off to walk a bit and catch up with his family by phone. When I saw him again, he had a friend with him from Bali who had flown in for the baptism of a niece or nephew. They spent the remaining time visiting and catching up. They had served as pastors in Alaska together.
Bishop Gafkjen sat in the middle of the vacant E corridor working on his laptop, catching up on correspondence and reviewing his sermon for Sunday’s celebration.
We boarded the plane for Medan, Indonesia at 7:15 a.m. and landed two hours later in Medan. Feeling relieved to stay on the ground for a few days, we entered the beautiful new airport. The temperature was about 80 degrees.
We were greeted by our hosts, Loraine, Luis, and Edward, three young adults who are a part of the ecumenical focus of the HKBP church. They were our gracious hosts who made sure that we had everything we needed. Before leaving the airport, they treated us to breakfast at the A & W root beer restaurant in the airport. I had a piece of chicken, a bowl of tasty chicken noodle soup and of course, a root beer!
We drove another seven hours to get to our destination on Lake Toba. Apparently the lines in the road separating each side from the other are merely suggestions. Oh my goodness! It was like Chicago or New York traffic on steroids! I could not look out the front window, although I did notice that many individuals and families used scooters for transportation.
In our hotel room and throughout the night, we could hear a cock crowing and a cats fighting. At 4:45 a.m. we enjoyed the sound of a man chanting his morning prayers.
The next day, we traveled about 20 minutes to one of the larger HKBP churches where huge tent tops were erected for the 10,000 children and “mayors” from six regions who came to hear our Bishop Gafkjen preach the Word of God.
In November 2012 three HKBP Sunday School children were murdered by a knife-wielding assailant while at church. We in the USA know something of what a tragedy like this does to a community. Stunned disbelief, deep and abiding grief, confusion, despair, wonderings about God’s goodness, tears in the fabric of community…
Local and national HKBP leadership responded with compassionate care for the families, a fourth child who barely survived the assault, and both the local congregation and the surrounding community. Arising from the depths of this experience, one year after the horrible event, a new Sunday School building was dedicated on the site. It has three rooms, each named after one of the child victims. In this country where there is often tension between religious traditions, Muslim families from the community also participated in this dedication and brought gifts as a sign of solidarity.
Also rising from the ashes of this tragedy was the vision of a yearlong focus throughout the entire 4.5 million member HKBP on honoring, caring for, and empowering children. Regional celebrations of children were held throughout 2013. Most of these day-long celebrations included the planting of trees as an expression of commitment to care for the environment, which is also a commitment to caring for children in a country where the rainforest is being ravaged by commercial interests. We were privileged to participate in – and I was honored to preach at – the culminating church-wide Children’s Festival on December 1.
The images of the 12-hour celebration (the worship service was only a couple of those hours!) are too amazing to capture in a short blog post. Somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people where there, the vast majority of them children. Video, photos, and an article (in Batak/Indonesian) can be found at http://www.hkbp.or.id. The day-long event began with hundreds of children processing for more than a mile through the streets wearing masks and carrying trees as silent protest against air pollution and deforestation…traditional Batak dancers welcoming us at the gate of the church and dancing us in…planting of trees (mine were a mango and a durian) vigorous worship…children singing and dancing…swarms of children asking for our autograph and for a photo with each of us (we are probably already tagged on Facebook!)…warm hospitality and gift-giving…civic authorities speaking about the HKBP’s commitment to children and to the community…an anti bullying puppet show…children EVERYWHERE, happy and engaged, and did I mention the singing and dancing?
The strong response of the HKBP to a horrific tragedy and its profound and renewed commitment to honor children, provide safe places for them, to care for them and to raise them in faith is a stirring witness to God’s steadfast love for all, especially the most vulnerable among us.
And a child shall lead us…
5:00 a.m. Sunday morning in Balige, Sumatra, I was awakened by beautiful singing. In my post-arrival fog I thought it might be the TV, left on, although with no sound, when I fell asleep. Nope. Was it someone else’s music being played loudly in the next room? Nope. I laid in bed surrounded by the indescribable harmony of the voices of women singing a hymn. It sounded like it was right outside my door. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by a memory of my first trip to Sumatra 11 years ago. It had to be HKBP Deaconesses, but at 5:00 in the morning outside my hotel door?
I opened the door just wide enough to stick out my bed-head. There they were, deaconesses and students from the deaconess school, candlelit faces singing hymns in the darkness, welcoming me, blessing me, calling me into this Advent day. Before moving on they handed me a lighted candle and shared a scripture passage about God’s presence sustaining those who journey. With their heavenly harmonies gently ringing in my ears and heart I sat in the now candlelit darkness of my room overwhelmed with a sense of Emmanuel’s good and gracious presence and promise. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not, cannot overcome it.
Thank you, dear deaconesses, for shining with the light of Jesus.
+Bishop Bill Gafkjen
Pr. Bimen Limbong, Bishop Bill Gafkjen, Terry Michael awaiting flight to Tokyo in Minneapolis
From Liz: “So we are about to board for our MN to Toyko leg of our trip. Loving MN airport!! Learning about the monkeys, orangoutangs, peanut farms, tea plantations, water buffalo, coconut trees, palm oil plantations, durian plantations, rubber, rice, durian plantations. My favorite is CHOCOLATE PLANTATIONS!! Oh yeah!!! Guess where you’ll find me?? So excited!!”
Photo taken by Liz Michael
Tomorrow, Thanksgiving Day, Liz, Terry, Bimen and I will begin to make our way toward our sisters and brothers of the HKBP in Sumatra. As I packed today I remembered the last time I visited Sumatra. It was December 2002, just two months into my ministry as Assistant to the Bishop for this synod. Then-Bishop Jim Stuck, a small delegation, and I spent nearly two weeks getting to know the land, the people, and the church and exploring how we might accompany one another as partners in the Gospel. In the time since then we’ve walked with our sisters and brothers through a tsunami and its aftermath, offering relief and recovery funds that provided food, clothing, shelter, and new ways of making a living. We have hosted multiple delegations of HKBP visitors on our mission territory, building relationships, worshipping together, and supporting one another’s mission. Under the theme “Speaking as Lutherans Together (SALT)” we twice sent groups of IN-KY Synod folks to use English as Second Language methods to help sharpen the speaking and teaching of English teachers who work in the parochial schools of our companion district, District V Sumatera Timur, and to explore important topics like the role of women in the life and mission of the church.
In recent years, leadership has changed, there and here, and our companionship has been quiet for a while. Like the ELCA, the HKBP has a new presiding bishop, called Ephorus, Willem Simarmata. Ephorus Willem was the church’s Secretary General when we visited in 2002 and remained so until his election as Ephorus in the past year. Both of our roles have changed since he hosted our first real Batak meal in 2002, complete with durian for dessert. Our companion district also has a new Praeses (superintendent, similar to a synod bishop), Pastor Viktor Sihotang. I look forward to getting to know him and to exploring together how we might enhance one another’s mission in the months and years ahead. Even in this global companionship God is doing a new thing…even now it springs forth. I look forward to seeing it! (see Isaiah 43:14-21)
I am grateful for our sisters and brothers of the HKBP. I give thanks that our lives in this mission territory are enriched by walking alongside these sisters and brothers on the other side of the world. It’s as if by joining our hands we encircle the world with the goodness and grace of God and are blessed ourselves in the blessing of others. Mindful that Sumatra is 12 hours ahead of most of Indiana and Kentucky, as we fly over continents and oceans tomorrow and the next day, I will be meditating, with thanksgiving, on the great hymn text by John Ellerton:
We thank you that your church, unsleeping, while earth rolls onward into light,
through all the world its watch is keeping, and never rests by day or night.
As to each continent and island the dawn leads on another day,
the voice of prayer is never silent, nor dies the strain of praise away.
(“The Day You Gave Us, Lord, Has Ended” ELW #569)
+Bishop Bill Gafkjen
On Thanksgiving Day our I-K Synod travelers will fly from Indianapolis to Minneapolis, then from Minneapolis to Singapore, then from Singapore to Deli Serdang in the Indonesian province of North Sumatra located southeast of Medan, where the new airport is located, in Kuala Namu. On Saturday, Nov. 30, the group will travel from Medan to Parapat, a small town on the edge of Lake Toba, to Balige, the capital of Toba Samosir. The group will arrive in time to celebrate the first Sunday in Advent at the HKBP Nommensen Sigumpar church where Bishop Bill will preach and Pr. Bimen Limbong will translate his sermon. HKBP members will be celebrating “Children’s Year,” the year of the Sunday school. About 4,000 people will attend this worship service and our group has been invited to participate in the procession. Part of the celebration will include planting 4,000 trees.
HKBP Nommensen Sigumpar Church
In 2011, Lutherans in Indonesia celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Protestant Christian Batak Church (HKBP). Deaconesses, a strong HKBP ministry, are trained in Balige, located at the southern end of scenic Lake Toba in the crater of an ancient volcano. Watch a video of Sister Serepina as she speaks about the ministry of deaconesses in the HKBP.
On Thanksgiving morning, five members of the Indiana-Kentucky Mission Territory will travel to North Sumatra, Indonesia (shown in green on the map above) to re-establish a relationship with the new leadership of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan – HKBP (pronounced ha-ka-bay-pay) District V, Sumatra-Timur. The HKBP is the governing church body in Indonesia that is part of the Lutheran World Federation, has about 4,000,000 members and is one of the largest Lutheran churches in the world. The presiding bishop or Ephorus is the Rev. Willem T.P. Simarmata, MA. The HKBP is divided into 26 districts, with 1,300 ordained pastors and more than 220 women pastors. The majority of people belonging to the HKBP live in the Tarutung and the Batak regions in the mainly Muslim nation of Indonesia. The church also runs a theological seminary, a teacher-preacher school, a Bible women’s school and a deaconess training school.
The Cross of Love was built to honor the place where missionary Ludwig Nommensen prayed to God for help in carrying out his mission to spread the Gospel to the Batak people on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. In 1878, Rev. Nommensen translated the New Testament into the Batak script and Latin alphabet. Nommensen University, opened in 1954, includes, among many other colleges, a faculty of theology. Watch and listen to Bishop Bill Gafkjen tell the story of Ludwig Nommensen and his ministry to the Batak people.