A few Sundays ago, I went to church. Here, in Indonesia. At home, I left the church as an institution more than 20 years ago, because I didn’t feel, it was a place I belonged. But when they asked me if I wanted to join them for church in the neighboring village Kabui, I accepted with joy as I was eager to find out what ‘going to church’ was like in West Papua and also how people live around here.
I was told to dress ‘decently’, meaning a dress covering my shoulders and my knees. When we gathered at the jetty to take one of the dive boats to the island on which Kabui is located, I hardly recognized our local staff, all dressed up in long trousers, shirts and shoes for the men and Sunday dresses for the women. Of course, they brought their guitars, I think they never go anywhere without them. They had been practicing a beautiful song they were going to sing at the church the evening before. It almost brought tears to my eyes when they played and sang it one more time at the jetty before entering the boat.
Off we went on our 20-minute ride. The staff’s excitement about getting away from the island and meeting their friends and family in the village was almost palpable and they were joking and laughing all the way as usual. After arriving at Kabui, we were invited to one of the staff’s very simple houses where his family was eagerly cleaning the floor and placing a mat to sit on. They also brought two chairs for our intern and me to sit on, but we both decided to sit on the floor in a circle with the others, as we didn’t want to be exposed. After another round of practicing the song, we started walking towards the church, painted in shiny white with ocean blue roofs and light green walls surrounding it. It looked very neat and tidy compared to the simple houses the villagers live in. There were dozens of children waiting and playing around the church entrance as it seemed to be too early to enter. They were also wearing their colorful Sunday dresses which looked beautiful on their dark skin. But the two ‘bule’ (pronounced ‘bulai’), as westerners are called here, were clearly the attraction of the day.
After a while, we were ushered into the church where the ceremony was about to begin. It started with a few songs – what else! – and everybody was singing at the top of their voices. It sounded fantastic, like a big choir, and since half the church was filled with children, they also contributed to this very impressive musical experience. I remembered the pathetic singing of church goers in Switzerland which always made me feel ashamed of being there. Here, it seemed to be the highlight of their week to sing in church on Sundays. There is not much else to do in a village like Kabui. And singing is simply part of their lives, also here on the island. They sing whenever they have a moment. I guess it gives them a feeling of belonging together and of remembering their families back home.
I didn’t understand anything the priest was saying of course, but I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere during the ceremony. Children were playing, talking, singing, walking in and out and babies were sleeping in their mothers’ or siblings’ arms, sometimes also crying. Nobody seemed to feel disturbed, they are all part of the community and the church is a place for the entire village to gather once a week. To me, this is what ‘going to church’ should feel like, a place you feel at ease and naturally want to spend time at. Unfortunately, I never had this feeling in a church back home, which is why I left it. And because we can’t sing, but maybe we just don’t try hard enough…
I never even dreamt of working on a remote island in Indonesia, but life has a way of taking care of itself…