INDONESIA – Few signs point the way to the village where Carter Bissey* is heading. Well into the three-hour drive across the Indonesian island, somewhere along a paved road that crumbled into a teeth-jarring pitted track, he pulls over and cranks down his window to ask a stranger for directions.
Cashew and banana trees, coconut palms and some rice fields line the way. Carter navigates off of the understanding of the island’s geography that he’s gained in seven years of living here, directions he gleans from passersby and a heap of grace.
American partners often join Carter and Jessica Bissey in journeying to remote Indonesian islands. They hike, carrying all they need with them, deep in the jungle to villages where there are no hotels and certainly no resorts. "We would just walk in the villages and pray that someone would open their home to us but also their heart to God's Word, and we would stay in people's houses and live life beside them," said Billy Donaldson from a Baptist church in Tennessee.
Finally, driving into a loose collection of houses that make up the village he’s been seeking, a cluster of parked motorbikes down a side road signals the end of the search and the beginning of the celebration.
Carter, his wife Jessica* and their three children – Elizabeth,* Aaron* and Abigail* – are attending a wedding. They left their house in a coastal town early Sunday morning to make their way to the village where a friend will be wed in an all-day event. It’s a long drawn-out affair, especially for the youngest children. The Bisseys smile, talk, eat, greet, pose for pictures and smile some more – all day long. Then, they say their goodbyes, load the children in the car and start the three-hour drive back across the island.
This is one of the challenges of trying to bring the gospel to one of the more remote Indonesian islands. It takes ample time and energy to simply get to places and participate in events that are important to those with whom the Bisseys have built relationships. Furthermore, the Bisseys are concerned not only with the people on their island but also with the people on the surrounding islands that are boat rides away. With 6,000 to 7,000 inhabited islands in Indonesia, there are tens of thousands of small villages that could slip under the radar.
In spite of the difficulties, the Bisseys are spurring efforts to bring the gospel to multiple people groups on scattered islands in their part of the world. They work with Indonesian partners, as well as intrepid American church partners who make the very long trip there to live rough for weeks at a time, just for a chance to hike into villages and share the gospel where it’s never been spoken.
It’s difficult, though, to share the gospel or nurture new believers in the islands.
“Transportation is a big barrier,” Carter explained. “You go out on an island, plant a seed and then you can’t get back there for months.” Additionally, there is challenge in relating to so many groups, from sea gypsies who live in stilted houses over water, to inland villagers who grow rice, to coastal farmers who raise oysters for pearls and farm seaweed, drying it on tarps to sell for export. “They’ve got so many other things to worry about, just making a living,” Carter said.
To many Indonesian islanders, religion is inherited. When Carter Bissey asked some men on one of the islands if they were interested in hearing about other religions, they told him, 'Not really. There's really no other choice for us. Our ancestors were Muslims. The mosque is here. There are no other places to worship here.'"
The majority of the islanders the Bisseys work with are Muslim. “We were talking to some guys here and asked if they were interested in hearing about other religions. ‘Not really,’ they said. ‘There’s really no other choice for us. Our ancestors were Muslims. The mosque is here. There are no other places to worship here.’”
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.
“They believe [ancestors’] spirits are still around, and there are certain rituals that they have calling [the spirits] for guidance,” Carter said. He explained how the Sufi vein of Islam allowed for the animistic beliefs that existed in the islands to be incorporated when Islam arrived.
Islanders did not want to follow all the laws and live like Arabs, he said. But this mystical dimension of Islam appealed to them. “[Otherwise] it would not have taken off. It was because Sufism had these real charismatic leaders, and they could kind of meld it with these local beliefs.”
American partners often join Carter and Jessica in journeying to even more remote islands beyond where the Bisseys live to share the gospel. They hike, carrying all they need with them, deep in the jungle to villages where there are no hotels and certainly no resorts.
“We would just walk in the villages and pray that someone would open their home to us but also their heart to God’s Word, and we would stay in people’s houses and live life beside them,” said Billy Donaldson* from a Baptist church in Tennessee. “We’d help prepare meals when they’d let us. We’d wash dishes. We would carry water to and from the well … anything that we could do to build a relationship.”
In three to four weeks of hiking, they ended up with sore feet and blisters but visited roughly 80 villages. “Nobody had heard the good news. Nobody had heard that Jesus can change their lives,” Donaldson said.
(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 country of focus for the current International Mission Study by Woman’s Missionary Union. IMB workers featured in this study are supported through the Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Find IMS study resources at imb.org/ims and wmu.com/IMS.)