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SabangMerauke – Setting the Interfaith Table in Indonesia

From the Friendship of Children 

SabangMerauke – Setting the Interfaith Table in Indonesia

by Vicki Garlock

Our hope is that these children will share their stories of love and peace and compassion with their friends, families, and other circles, becoming ambassadors of peace.
                           –  Ayu Kartika Dewi, Co-founder of SabangMerauke

SabangMerauke, a non-profit organization in Indonesia, offers a loving, yet straightforward antidote to the fear that sometimes finds its way into human hearts and minds. Their message?  Get to know one another! SabangMerauke (pronounced SAH-bahng may-ROW [as in “ouch”]-kay) is the brainchild of a small group of adults who all had spent time as foreign exchange students. Recognizing the power of those experiences in shattering their own stereotypes about others, they devised a way for young Indonesians to have similar experiences while remaining in their own country, “because tolerance cannot only be taught but must be experienced and felt.”

Video: Two Faiths, One Roof, and Shared Humanity

The name, SabangMerauke, has a couple of different meanings. First, it is an acronym of sorts, stemming from the organization’s tag line: Seribu Anak Bangsa Merantau untukKembali, which translates to “a thousand children travel to return home.” Second, SabangMerauke is a way of expressing something like “from one end of Indonesia to another” since Sabang is on the western end of country, and Merauke is on the eastern end. For a string of islands that spans thousands of miles, that’s really saying something!

The organization honors both meanings by pairing Indonesian kids in junior high with Indonesian host families of a different ethnicity and/or religion. In many cases, kids travel to different islands as well. Program participants live together as they share meals, family chores, and fun outings. Interestingly, it can be hard to determine who learns more – the kids or the hosts! As one host put it, “We are the provider…he should learn from us. But actually, we as hosts, we also learn….” Either way, the results are profoundly touching and deeply moving.

Indonesia’s Interfaith Mix

Understanding the need for SabangMerauke’s program requires some knowledge of Indonesia more generally. The country is home to more than 250 million people who are united both linguistically and religiously. In 1945, when Indonesia declared its independence from centuries of Dutch colonial rule and the Japanese occupation during World War II, Bahasa Indonesia was declared the national language. As the language of education, government, business, and the mass media, nearly everyone in the country speaks it.

  Photo:    pixabay

Photo: pixabay

Religiously, Indonesia also appears somewhat homogeneous. It is the most populous Muslim-majority country on the planet, and while the government officially recognizes six religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism), almost 90 percent of Indonesia’s citizens (more than 225 million people) identify as Muslims.

These statistics make it easy to assume that the Republic of Indonesia is a mostly uniform country, but nothing could be further from the truth. The country is made up of thousands of islands that are home to more than 300 distinct native ethnic groups, in addition to numerous citizens of Chinese or Japanese origin. More than 700 different languages and dialects are spoken, and while Bahasa Indonesia is widely-spoken, it is often a second (or seventh!) language for native speakers. There is religious diversity, as well. About ten percent of the population is Christian (both Protestant and Roman Catholic), and there are also very small percentages of Hindus (mostly in Bali) and Buddhists (mostly from China). Recent legal rulings have also opened the door for Indonesian citizens to self-identify as “believers of faith,” which includes Baha’i, Jewish, and indigenous belief systems.

  Ayu Kartika Dewi – Photo: AKD

Ayu Kartika Dewi – Photo: AKD

Like many other countries, Indonesia struggles to find harmony between its widespread majority and ever-present minorities. Tensions can run particularly high between Muslims and Christians, and that socio-cultural unease is often exacerbated by segregation. It was this fear that hit Ayu Kartika Dewi head-on when she accepted a one-year appointment as a school teacher on the island of Bacan, with its religiously troubled past.

In 1999, thousands of Bacans died in Muslim-Christian riots. To restore order, the island was divided into Muslim villages and Christian villages. Contact between the two communities became rare. The result? Nearly 20 years later, Christian kids and Muslim kids almost never interact, which leads to serious trepidation and distrust.

During Ayu’s tenure at one of Bacan’s Muslim schools, a rumor erupted about a possible riot on another island. She was stunned at the level of fear expressed by her elementary-aged students. They were convinced the riot would arrive, by plane, to Bacan – that houses would be burned, that people would be killed, and that there would be nowhere to hide. Ayu decided to do something about it. Remembering her own time as a foreign exchange student, she concluded that these kids would be much less likely to fear “the others” if they actually knew them. “This is exactly how we can teach peace – by giving kids positive interactions with others,” she thought, as she began pondering ways to facilitate real-life change. 

SabangMerauke was born the following year. Middle-school students – ages 12 to 15 – spend three weeks during the summer break with host families who are different from them in terms of religion and ethnicity. For example, a Muslim tween/teen from the island of Aceh might be paired with a Chinese Catholic family living on the island of Java, or a Balinese Hindu tween/teen might be paired with a Japanese Christian family. The goal each year is to find 15 kids, 15 host families, and 15 program mentors. Over the last six years, SabangMerauke has placed about 70 students. Since most host families have more than one member, Ayu estimates that over 350 people have been directly affected by their program.

  Photo:    SabangMerauke

That reach is even more impressive given the program’s grassroots nature. Over the years, SabangMerauke has been able to take advantage of help from various supporters, including more than 800 volunteers and a minister of education who offered free space for some of their programs. They are also able to spread the word inexpensively through social media platforms like WhatsApp and by word-of-mouth through organizations (like teacher associations, scouting troupes, and nursing groups) with whom they have nurtured a relationship. Like many NGO’s, SabangMerauke also continually scrambles for money. They hold fundraisers, solicit individual donations, host silent auctions, and apply for grants. A previous governor even donated money from his personal funds.

Despite various obstacles, SabangMerauke continues to share its message of real tolerance and ongoing appreciation for both our similarities and our differences. As one host suggested, “This is the love God wants. Although we are different, although we have different beliefs, different tribes. But God wants us to love each other.” SabangMerauke is clearly doing its part to give kids a real opportunity to live into that universal message.

Many thanks to Ayu Kartika Dewi for taking time for our interview. For more information or to make a donation, please visit the Sabang Merauke website.