Across the street from our home here two extended families live in simple, Javanese houses. The elderly men of the families are uncle and nephew to each other. But they are almost the same age so I can never remember which is uncle and which is nephew.
One of these men, Uncle Darmin, is one of the very few Christians in the village. He is a simple man with a lovely gentle smile. I doubt he considers himself poor, although he earns less than $200 a month by working hard from morning to night. Every morning at 6:00 a.m. he is already busy raking the leaves off of our garden.
Even though he earns so little, he manages to save, and all three of his children have now graduated from top Indonesian universities. He himself barely completed grade school. Uncle Darmin is as honest as the day is long, sincere, gentle and always kind to those around him. He is a model for me of a Christian who displays the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, meekness, hope.
Once he told me about some zealous young Muslim activists who came to his house to teach him about true Islam. He listened to them patiently but did not want to offend them by telling them he was a Christian. Finally, on their fourth or fifth visit, he kindly explained that he was a follower of Jesus. They apologized profusely and immediately left with a smile and a warm handshake.
Uncle Darmin did not find it easy when he first became a Christian as a young man. His family was deeply grieved by his apostasy from Islam. He moved away from his village for many years and lived near his church so his children could easily participate in Christian activities. But finally he reconciled with his family and moved back into his village home, next to his nephew. They now accept him as a devoutly Christian member of their Muslim family.
Next door to Uncle Darmin lives his nephew, Uncle Muji. Uncle Muji is the village Modim. He is a leader in the mosque down the street and often leads Koran reciting and study groups. He always leads the services when anyone dies or if there is a selamatan (ritual meal), to give thanks to God for a birth, marriage, graduation or other joyful event.
Uncle Muji has the same gentle smile as his uncle. He also is kind, honest, hard working and generous to those around him. Muji worships God, the Holy, the Just, the Merciful, bowing his face to the ground five times a day. Most mornings he greets me with a smile when I go out to run with my dogs.
When my brother died, Uncle Muji ordered the large tent, brought the chairs and made all the arrangements for the burial in the village graveyard. If Uncle Muji were a Christian, I would say he is full of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Since he is a Muslim, I suppose I should just say he displays the love of God to those around him. He is a light to me.
When they were younger, Uncle Muji’s children all used to come to the Javanese pavilion (pondopo) at our house to learn classical Javanese dance, listen to stories and sing. Some Muslim neighbors were suspicious that this was a sneaky attempt to convert them to Christianity. The village elders came to visit us and ask if this was true. We suggested they ask Uncle Muji.
His children attended and he and his wife knew exactly what went on in the children’s activities. Uncle Muji defended us and suggested that those who were suspicious were just jealous because the children didn’t hang out at their houses. In the early years we had two groups, one of neighborhood Muslim children and one of Christian orphans from the Moluccan islands whose parents were killed in violence between Christians and Muslims.
They started off dancing separately, but eventually they joined together and danced a dance of peace before the Sultan in his palace (kraton). They were so proud. Now, fifteen years after we first started, the free dance lessons still continue every Saturday, but now there are new groups of children. Our neighbor’s children are all in university or already graduated.
Not only children but also their grandmother lives with Muji’s family. She is very old, but no one knows exactly how old. Every day I see her hobbling down the street to pray at the mosque. She wears white prayer robes and struggles to cover the short distance because she is literally bent over double to the ground by osteoporosis. I don’t really know how she can walk like that.
Many Muslims don’t even pray five times a day at their homes, but Grandma Muji wants to pray every day at the mosque, bending her knees, as well as her head, down to the God of the universe. Perhaps she is getting ready to meet her Maker. She reminds me of Jesus’ story of the widow’s mite. In the eyes of God, she who had little, gave far more than Mr. Moneybags, because she gave all she had.
Farsijana and I are academics who teach graduate students in university. But part of our joy in life is in learning from people who have had a different kind of education from us. God has gifted us with relative wealth, education and opportunities to travel the world. But that does not necessarily make us wiser or more virtuous than our simple Javanese neighbors.
Nor does it make us happier. We are just thankful for the grace of God and that we have the chance to live in community with people who experience the world so differently from us. We hope that the love of God shines out to them from us, just as God’s light flows to us from them.
Farsijana and I will be on leave in the United States from July 2013 to June 2014.