Apa kabar! The toddler clung to his mother and screamed. When I smiled at him encouragingly it only seemed to increase his terror. He was fine with all the other women, just fearful of me.
I was in Sorong, a major city in the “Bird’s Head” region of Papua. The event was the Fifth Congress of the Indonesian Baptist Alliance, held for the first time in Papua, and I’d been invited to speak to some of the women. As I came down from the stage there were smiles all round, until I encountered this little fellow. Then I realised he probably had never seen a white-skinned woman before. So I moved on, not wanting to prolong his discomfort.
It had been an adventure from the start. Most New Zealanders have been to events where there has been an official powhiri, or Maori welcome. A Papuan welcome is just as memorable. Grass skirts and warpaint adorned the dancers who escorted us visitors into the sports arena for opening night. And as part of the welcome they presented the guests with woven grass hats which we wore throughout the evening.
Although sung in Indonesian, their worship songs were easily recognisable to those of us who went to church in the 1950s and 1960s – “Great is thy faithfulness,” “Onward Christian soldiers,” “Stand up stand up for Jesus.” In Papua the influence of the early missionaries (many of them Southern Baptists from the United States) lives on in hymns that the Western church has largely abandoned.
Papua (formerly called Irian Jaya, and not to be confused with Papua New Guinea, its independent neighbour) is the largest and easternmost province of Indonesia, and also the poorest. Formerly the most Christian part of Indonesia, Papua has a population of 4 million people. Now half of them Muslim, and the Muslim proportion is growing. Life is not easy for the Baptists. In the face of increasing political and religious pressures, they need our prayers.
The congress ran for four days, Wednesday through Saturday, with each morning session beginning at 7:30 (ish.) We were expected to rise at 5am daily for quiet time, but this was not difficult. Each day at exactly 4:45am came a loud, wailing call to prayer from the mosque across the road, jolting us awake.
And pray we did. During the congress, the women of Papua held their annual Day of Prayer, as thousands of other women around the world are now doing. This was led by Patsy Davis, the director of the BWA Women’s Department, and “kindness” was the theme.
Terimah kasih, women of Papua – thank you. You welcomed me when your government was reluctant to let me in, and I’ll always remember your kindness.