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Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

An Unexpected Encounter

Community involvement is strong in Indonesia. This can be seen in its purest dose during gotong royong, which translates roughly to “working together”. Gotong royong is an Indonesian custom whereby members of a village or neighborhood commence regularly to perform service work for the community. Following church on our first Sunday in Indonesia, I had the privilege of joining the people of Pakem in service. Serving others was my primary reason for coming to Indonesia, so this, being my first service opportunity, was particularly meaningful. On this day our gotong royong focused on rejuvenating a public riverwalk in town through brush clearing and sweeping. Eager to pitch in, I approached a man named Toncho and attempted to make “helping” motions with my hands (whatever that may constitute). Toncho delightedly put me right to work.

My only compunction is that my help may have been counterproductive, though not out of anything I could control. Toncho, who had previously been pulling up elephant ears, stopped his work and followed me around with a cell phone extended forward, presumably taking pictures of me as I cleared brush. Many of the other workers also stopped their work and began talking and laughing amongst themselves as they looked at me. No language skills are necessary to recognize when others are talking about you.

I found these events highly amusing, as well as heartwarming: during the work, I sustained a minor injury. Focused on the task at hand, I decided to keep on pulling weeds. Toncho, now back at work by my side, noticed what had occurred. He immediately comforted me, making sure I was okay to continue. Seeing that I was fine, he smiled and patted me on the back, and we continued our work together. This man and I did not know each other from Adam. We could communicate only nonverbally. Yet this interaction imparted to me a love and care more profound than words could relay. If my future service contains moments of human connection such as this, I am truly in the right place.

In return, I believe Toncho and the other workers were affected by my willingness to serve. Concepts of race, “whiteness”, and the West are complex in Indonesia, but, put simply, the villagers were likely surprised to see me working hard in the mud and grime beside them. I received many bemused looks, but I also received even more smiles and “Hello!”s. I hope to continue serving like this, as a humble and loving ambassador for my country and culture, and as an example of Jesus Christ.