INDONESIA – It wasn’t tropical tourism that first brought Rosemary Brackey* to Indonesia more than a decade ago. It was her desire to offer healing hands to the country after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed an estimated 170,000 Indonesians alone. At the time, Rosemary was a telemetry nurse, monitoring patients’ vital signs for Liberty Hospital in a Kansas City, Mo., suburb. She and her husband Howard* had felt called to global missions but were waiting for the Lord’s timing.
Nearly 88 percent of the population, an estimated 205 million people, profess Islam in Indonesia, making it the most populous Muslim country in the world. Even though the majority claims adherence to Islam, groups in the islands have a multitude of non-Islamic practices – most incorporating animism and ancestor worship.
On Dec. 26, 2004, an earthquake off the western coast of Sumatra spawned a tsunami that killed nearly 250,000 people in 13 countries. The disaster took the lives of 170,000 people in Indonesia, most of those in the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra. Giant waves surged in, engulfing villages, turning the region into a deluged wasteland and eradicating entire communities.
Then, reports of the catastrophic tsunami spurred her to action when she discovered that a local church was sending a disaster relief team to help survivors in Aceh Province. By the time she learned about the trip, however, the team was already complete and the organizer suggested that she volunteer for a later trip. But Rosemary’s heart couldn’t take “later.”
That night, during the small group Bible study she led, her group prayed she could be part of the relief effort. She felt strongly that she needed to be on the team leaving in less than two weeks. When she returned home after the study, a message was waiting on her answering machine. One of the nurses had dropped out of the trip for medical reasons and if Rosemary wanted to go, then she had nine days to raise the funds.
“In nine days, I got three weeks of [nursing] shifts covered, I found people to watch our kids after school and I raised a ton of money – $3,600,” she said. “It was clearly God’s plan for me to go on that trip. I got on the plane, and I didn’t even know [exactly] where Indonesia was. I didn’t have time to look that up. I knew I was called and I just went.”
Where in the world
The country of more than 250 million people – fourth in population in the world – has the largest economy in Southeast Asia and is the most populous Muslim country in the world.
Today, international travelers to this archipelago, a collection of islands, straddling the equator often go there for vacation. The island of Bali, since Europeans discovered it centuries ago, has been considered the ultimate island paradise, with its sun-bathed beaches and extravagantly colorful culture. But it wasn’t pristine beaches that first brought explorers to Indonesia’s shores. Arab and Asian merchants sailed through these island-studded waters as part of the maritime Silk Road to avoid crossing the formidable Himalayas when transporting goods between India and China.
A family of four navigates a busy roadway in one of Indonesia's megacities. The country of more than 250 million people has the fourth largest population in the world and the largest economy in Southeast Asia.
The islands were discovered to be the single source in the trade for exotic spices such as nutmeg, mace and cloves, which at that time were found nowhere else in the world. Europeans joined in trade explorations, and by the 17th century, the Dutch controlled the islands as part of the Dutch East India Company, managing a tight monopoly on the spice trade until nearly the 19th century.
As ships from afar traveled the trade winds, foreign religions were introduced to the islands by the merchants: Hinduism sprang from India, Buddhism came from China and, a few centuries later, Islam arrived from South Asia. Islam swept down through the archipelago from its northwest tip and took a firm hold that remains today.
Though nearly 88 percent of Indonesians profess Islam, Indonesia is a mosaic of peoples, cultures and languages throughout its roughly 13,500 islands. The nation’s motto, Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity), reflects the challenge of a national identity with the educated urban elite and factory workers living in densely populated cities, hunter and forager groups stalking island forests, inland rice farmers harvesting fields by hand and coastal fishermen sailing clear ocean waters.
Five major islands are home to most of the population base. Java, about the size of New York State, carries the weight with nearly 60 percent – about 140 million. However, Java has only 7 percent of the nation’s landmass. By contrast, Sumatra, much larger than Java, is home to more than 50 million. Sulawesi, Kalimantan (the southern part of the island of Borneo) and the western part of New Guinea (known as the provinces of Papua and West Papua or collectively known as Irian Jaya) are the other major islands.
Many places in Indonesia are tough to reach – physically and spiritually. There are diverse groups of people spread across the vast collection of islands, from sea gypsies who live in stilted houses over water, to hunter and forage groups who inhabit island forests, to fishermen sailing along the coast.
And though Bali isn’t one of the major five islands, it is significant with its economic impact in capturing tourist dollars. In recent years, it has become the new gateway island, routing hundreds of thousands of international visitors through its massive new international airport terminal, rather than the congested capital city of Jakarta.
Most of the thousands of smaller islands belong to island groups, of which there are about 30 clusters. Examples include the Moluccas (also known as the Spice Islands) east of Sulawesi and the sparsely populated Banyak Islands off Sumatra’s western coast.
Many places in Indonesia are tough to reach – physically and spiritually. So it takes creativity for International Mission Board (IMB) workers to share the gospel there.
The right time
Rosemary doesn’t live in Kansas City anymore.
Once in her seat for the volunteer team flight to Indonesia, she pulled out the flight magazine, looked at the map in the back pages and suddenly realized just how far this trip would take her. It wasn’t just distance, though. It was also the place she and Howard were in their lives. By her third day there, she was deeply touched by the people she was working among.
“I just loved it. I loved the work,” she said. She sent Howard an email in which she remembers writing something along the lines of: Sell the house and call the IMB because I want to live here. It was that moment in time when God crystalized His call on their lives.
Supported through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, Rosemary and Howard, with their four children, have been living and working in Indonesia since 2007 to bring spiritual healing, hope and truth to this island nation.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Writer Elaine Gaston has served overseas with her family in restricted-access countries. She is now based in the U.S. Indonesia is the current country of focus for Woman’s Missionary Union’s International Mission Study. International Mission Board workers featured in this study are supported through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering: imb.org/give. Find IMS study resources at imb.org/ims and wmu.com/IMS.)