A letter from Bernie and Farsijana Adeney-Risakotta on home assignment from Indonesia
It’s crisis makes reality, real,
Intensity, intense. -William Everson
Dear Family, Friends, and Colleagues,
How do we find or create meaning out of tragedy? Sometimes Americans ask me if it is dangerous to live in Indonesia. We have exotic dangers there, like active volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, mass violence, terrorism, pirates, elephants, tigers, huge spiders, little mosquitoes. The only ones that scare me are the mosquitoes. I’ve had dengue fever twice. Violent crime is rare where we live in Yogyakarta. I always thought that if I died unexpectedly in Indonesia it would be from a traffic accident. Those gentle Javanese are like wild cowboys when they drive. Motorcycles drive without lights at night, sometimes carrying whole families. There are huge potholes, chickens, old farmers on bicycles, no speed limits and hardly any signs to warn you of danger. “Right of way” is a foreign idea, and traffic lanes are just for show. People drive like a school of fish. The little fish just move out of the way of the big guys. In Indonesia, you stay alert at the wheel or you die. After returning to the US a friend wrote: “I miss driving with you in Indonesia. Driving in America is so boring.”
OK. Boring. But safe, right? Well, not exactly. Farsijana and I just had an accident in California that should have left us dead. As we drove through the night from one heavy day of meetings to the next, our rental car struck a cement highway divider, flipped and rolled, spun around, slammed into a wall and burst into flames. Just like in the movies. A pickup truck with two young men who, my wife says, were handsome and sweet, stopped and urged us to get out of the car because it was on fire. I woke up Farsijana and released her seatbelt. We both made it out of the car. And we walked… away. Except that Farsijana’s back started to hurt, and at the hospital the doctors discovered she had two fractured vertebrae (T-11 and L-4): in other words, a broken back. The miracle is that she can expect full healing. There is no injury to her spinal cord. The down side is that she has to wear a body brace, like a suit of armor, or a turtle shell, for 12 weeks. In three seconds our life was changed. Farsijana says she is a mama turtle.
Farsijana is an expert on finding meaning. In the mythology of native peoples, the world rests on the back of a turtle. Her spine is broken so that she can have a turtle shell and carry the world on her back. She also likes ducks. When she first went to Holland in February 1996, Farsijana thought she would die of the cold. How can you live in a refrigerator? But ducks, swooping through the air on a snowy, birthday morning convinced her that if God blessed ducks to have fun in the ice, so could she. She took off her shoes and danced in the snow.
Last month in New Mexico, Farsijana bought a Navajo blanket with the Chief Joseph design. Chief Joseph was a brilliant warrior who endured incredible hardship in leading his people to find a land where he could live in peace. His courage and longing for peace touched even his enemies. He said, “It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death… my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” Farsijana clutched her Chief Joseph blanket wherever she went. By a cold river, she saw ducks playing. She reached into the water and pulled out a yellow stone. On it, she saw the image of two ducks--her image of survival in hardship. Everything is linked in the imagination.
Can we find meaning in an accident that brings pain and radically rearranges our lives? I must confess I am not so sure. I don’t know why it happened. The best I can do is a rather feeble admission that we are meant to slow down. During the two days before the accident we had eight meetings (lectures, sermons, seminars) and were rushing on little sleep towards more. But the accident seems like a rather extreme way to get our attention. Why was I, the driver and author of the schedule, relatively unscathed? Now I have to learn to be a nurse instead of a professor. Farsijana, who loves to serve, has to learn to be served.
Farsijana sees a different reason for the accident. She has been working for months on a campaign to get Indonesians and Americans to care about the injustice suffered by the people of West Papua. After she got out of the hospital, we stayed for a few days in the home of Charles and Katherine Farhadian in Santa Barbara. We stayed in a room full of Papuan art, and there she read Charles’ book of stories of Papuan suffering at the hands of the military. She said, “My suffering is nothing compared to the suffering of many who have died in Papua.” For Farsijana, the accident happened so that she would stay in that room and read those stories. Ducks, turtles, stones, blankets, Chief Joseph, falling leaves, smashed up cars, fractured vertebrae, a room with paintings and the suffering of the Papuans are all part of one story in Farsijana’s creative mind. We believe God preserved our lives because there is still work that we must do.
The gift of faith is precious in our cynical world. Even more precious is the gift of love. Expressions of love and care for us have flown to us from Christians, Muslims and unbelievers in America, Indonesia and elsewhere. The Presbyterian Church (USA) makes our work for peace, justice and reconciliation possible. Many of you who read this participate in supporting this work through your gifts and prayers. For this we are profoundly grateful. Your partnership will sustain the work we still have yet to do in Indonesia. Thank you and may God’s blessings be upon you this Christmas.
Bernie and Farsijana Adeney-Risakotta