Indonesia is a country most of us know only through the media, but a recent visit to America House by a member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart brought it into closer focus for me. Back for a home visit, Sister Nance O’Neil has been teaching in Jakarta for 14 years, at AtmaJaya University, a Catholic university founded in the 1960’s by a group of lay people. The student body, though, is primarily Muslim, and she herself lives with several other sisters in a Muslim neighborhood—circumstances that led her to speak of the Islam she knows as “very tolerant.”
Asked what major changes she has seen in Indonesia, Sister O’Neil spoke of the huge difference that came about with the end of the Soeharto dictatorship in 1998. “When I first went to AtmaJaya University,” she said, “you couldn’t have any conversations about politics—the students were afraid. ‘It’s too dangerous,’ they told me. Now,” she went on, “politics is almost all they talk about.” Television and the printed media also enjoy much more freedom.
But significant problems remain. Unemployment is high, and in their search for jobs, poor people from the countryside arrive in cities only to find that few opportunities await them. Education is hampered by the limited funds it receives from the government. “Our own neighborhood children go to school only four hours,” Sister O’Neil said, “which is not enough. Some don’t go to school at all,” she continued, “because they have no shoes, or else because they try to earn a little to help their families. I myself teach teachers of English, but few people want to be teachers, because the salaries are so low that it’s hard to support a family.” While actual starvation is rare, she said that malnutrition among both children and adults is widespread. “There are three rice harvests a year, but the quality is poor, without much nutritional value,” she observed.
Corruption at many levels adds to the nation’s difficulties and goes hand in hand with human rights abuses. In January, Human Rights Watch published a report outlining abuses against indigenous communities stemming from the huge pulp and paper industry in Sumatra. Land seizures have been made without compensation, accompanied by physical attacks on local residents by Indonesian police and company security forces. Because the pulp and paper industry consumes large swaths of land, on which indigenous communities depend for rice farming and rubber tapping, this illegal appropriation of these lands has meant the loss of local livelihoods.
The corruption, Sister O’Neil said, extends to all levels of government, including the judicial system. Poor people have little chance of receiving just treatment under the law. One of their few avenues of hope, she noted, lies in the Jesuit-sponsored Jakarta Social Institute, an advocacy group for the urban poor through whose legal branch defendants can seek help. “We’ve worked with the institute from the beginning,” she said. Sister O’Neil also noted that another Religious of the Sacred Heart, a native Indonesian—Sister Maya—currently trains Papuan students in Javanese universities to be human rights advocates.
The overall vocations picture in Indonesia is positive, Sister O’Neil observed. Besides several native-born candidates and professed religious of her own order, other congregations of both men and women that have been established there for many years are thriving. But because of changes in the law, missionary visas for more newly arrived religious like herself are no longer issued. “When I came in 1988 as the first R.S.C.J. to work in Indonesia on a permanent basis, I had to apply for a visa as a professional person—a teacher—not as a religious,” she said.
When asked how her years in Indonesia have affected her faith life, Sister O’Neil replied: “My faith actually has expanded, because through our Muslim friends I’ve come to understand their different view of God and their different mode of prayer.” At a time when reaction to the entire Muslim world has grown more negative both here and abroad, this wider perspective is sorely needed.