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13.04.2021

How do churches in Indonesia deal with Corona?

Removal of a Corona victim under strict hygiene conditions. (Photo: A. Purba)

Corona is currently our common enemy. This global pandemic has turned our lives upside down. Many people are shocked that one virus can change and limit their entire lives so much. This is also true for the people in my home country, Indonesia. By the beginning of April, a total of 1,547,376 people had become infected in Indonesia. So far, 42,064 people have died. Many friends of mine have been affected by the pandemic, both in Jakarta, my previous parish, and in Kabanjahe, my hometown and the headquarters of our church leadership.

Corona as a wealth destroyer

Indonesia is a very large country. Our population is about 270.2 million people living on more than 13,000 islands. On each island, the pandemic has a very different impact. It is particularly difficult in Java, the most populous island with the metropolis of Jakarta, home to 34 million people alone. It is the Indonesian capital and many people here live in great prosperity, unlike in the rural regions of Indonesia. Many local and international companies have their headquarters and production facilities in Jakarta. Therefore, many people looking for jobs have moved to Jakarta from all over Indonesia to find work and a good job in a company here.

As a result of the pandemic, our government imposed wide-ranging Corona restrictions last March, which have now lasted for more than a year. Our economy has suffered severe setbacks as a result. Many companies and businesses have had to lay off their employees and workers. Their products were no longer needed or bought by consumers. In my former congregation in Jakarta, many members are entrepreneurs and business owners. They told me that they had to close their stores and businesses and lay off employees.

Finding new ways with digital technology

Severe consequences of the pandemic are also being experienced by people in the villages. They now have to sell their agricultural produce at low prices, if they can get it sold at all. This is because many people now lack income and can only buy a few food items. One pastor wrote to me that a farmer came to the market with his freshly harvested tomatoes, but by evening he could not sell them. The farmer returned to his village without having earned anything. To avoid such difficulties, our church has set up an app called TIGATA APP. Through this app, a farmer can sell his products directly from home to a person who makes a corresponding order through this app. So this app has become a virtual marketplace, it helps the farmers but also the consumers.

The celebration of religious services is also very limited as a result of the pandemic, especially in urban centers. In smaller towns or the villages, church services can be celebrated, but under corona conditions: Several wash basins are placed in front of the church for hand washing before the service. Worshipers must not be older than 60.

In large cities, either online worship services or online Bible studies are celebrated regularly. In this setting, church life continues as normal, although church members are not allowed to meet. Sometimes I am also invited from Germany to give either a lecture or a sermon. When we then exchange ideas digitally, it's almost as if we were actually meeting for real.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the church leadership had the difficulty of paying the salaries of the pastors. In Indonesia, we do not know any church tax and depend solely on collections and donations. If there are no church services, there is no income for the congregations. But over the course of the pandemic, parishioners have sent donations, thus securing pastor salaries.

The official lockdown has led to the closure of schools and universities. Since then, there have been only digital classes. Children have to study at home under the supervision of their parents, and students take digital courses. But not everyone has the technical equipment to do so, and especially in rural areas, reception is not good, even though the government has offered low-cost access to the Internet.

Solidarity and hope

One year after the outbreak of the pandemic, we are also struggling with rising infection figures in Indonesia, mainly triggered by upcoming virus mutations. There is still no end in sight to the pandemic, and the social consequences are also becoming apparent in our country. But the way people live together is characterized by growing solidarity and a willingness to support one another. Particularly in the wake of the economic crisis, in which many families have lost their livelihoods, neighbors or relatives are offering help to those affected. We also feel the solidarity of our partner congregations in Germany, with whom our church is in regular contact. Across national borders, we are learning to live with the pandemic and find new ways to enable human communication despite Corona restrictions.

And we hope that the vaccinations will go ahead, which have also started in Indonesia, so that we can better cope with the pandemic.

Rev. Albert Purba, UEM ecumenical worker from the Karo Batak Church in the church district of Herford

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