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Ringing Bells in America

A letter from Farsijana Adeney-Risakotta in the U.S., on Interpretation Assignment from Indonesia

August 2016

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If I had a bell, I’d ring it in the morning,
I’d ring it in the evening, all over this land.
I’d ring out danger; I’d ring out warning;
I’d ring out love between
My brothers and my sisters, all over this land…

Well, I’ve got a hammer and I’ve got a bell;
And I’ve got a song to sing, all over this land.
It’s a hammer of justice; it’s a bell of freedom;
It’s a song about love between
My brothers and my sisters, all over this land…

Dear Family, Friends and Colleagues,

Twice the bells rang in Wrangell, Alaska. Dr. Harriet Schirmer showed us our little room in the old bell tower at First Presbyterian Church. A big rope hung tantalizing from a hole in the ceiling. Harriet said, “Go ahead, pull the rope!” Bernie pulled the rope hard and the bells rang out for the whole town to hear. The second time, I was sitting alone in the tower, meditating on the Bible story about the widow who keeps bothering a judge to give her justice. Finally the judge gives in to her pleas. I felt like I wanted to cry out to God for justice, just like the widow. I’m kind of little, but I stretched up, grabbed the knot at the bottom of the rope and pulled with all my might. The bells pealed out in the early morning over the startled little town. I had a bell, and I rang it in the morning.

We are on a three-month trip around the United States, ringing our bells for whoever will listen. It seems like we’ve come at the right time. Darkness and fear spread over the land. Clear notes and songs of hope are difficult to find. Wrangell Island, Alaska, has only 2,000 people, and someone spread a rumor that there were Presbyterian mission workers in town who were planning to bring thousands of Muslim refugees who would eat all their dogs and cats and make their women into sex slaves. Fortunately, most people in Wrangell knew better and the many folks who came to our three talks were hungry for good news. Even a little bit of truth dispels a lot of fear. Few people seem to know that Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world or that Islam and Christianity are both flourishing there, side by side.

At a church in New Jersey we heard a strangely familiar story. The small Muslim community wanted to build a mosque, but the old New England community didn’t want a mosque in their midst. The town is divided and the case has gone to court. The story is familiar because in Indonesia, in towns with a large, majority-Muslim population, it is often difficult for Christians to get a permit to build a church. People are afraid of the “Other.” The New England church graciously offered the use of their fellowship hall to the Muslim community. But the Muslims want a place of their own. Would Christians be satisfied if the only place they were allowed to worship was inside a mosque? How do we love our neighbors as ourselves?

Presbyterians are generous. In New Haven, Conn., a couple offered to let us use their lovely 18th century home and two cars for the month of June. Amazing. We spent weekdays doing research in the Yale library and weekends speaking at churches. One day we went to a free concert in the park. We were surrounded by a crowd of all races partying to R&B music. Behind us was a Muslim couple, fasting during Ramadan and clearly very nervous. We turned to them and asked how it felt to be fasting in the summer in the U.S.A. They shared their experience as foreign students at Yale. Gradually they relaxed and began to enjoy the music. From strangers and foreigners they became part of the community.

In some churches it seemed like there are two congregations: the church of ministry and the church of worship. In the shadow of the White House, in Washington, D.C., Bernie preached in the church of Abraham Lincoln to a mostly white congregation that has a vigorous ministry to mostly non-white homeless people. Early Sunday morning the church hall is filled with homeless people receiving a free meal while next door the sanctuary fills with affluent white folks. My heart was pulled toward the church in the hall, which is sustained by the church in the sanctuary. Ministry and worship are one, yet the communities are separated by a huge gulf.

In Rock Hill, S.C., generous Presbyterians shared their homes, their revolutionary war history, and the changes that came with the civil rights movement. We sat at a counter where black activists defied a demand to leave the restaurant because of their race. Yet there is still a great divide between the rich and the poor. As I shared about my work to empower village women and families to escape from poverty an elder asked me a question that continues to haunt me. She said, “We need those kinds of programs here in our town. Can you help us tackle the problems of poverty in Rock Hill?” The three priorities of Presbyterian mission are: sharing the good news of God’s love in Christ, alleviating poverty, especially for the most vulnerable, and bringing reconciliation and peace to communities torn by violence. It’s clear that all three of these missions are desperately needed in the U.S.A. as well as overseas.

In Grapevine, Texas, a pastor shared how much they need to hear the bells of justice and peace. In this community near Dallas literally thousands of Muslim refugees are moving into their neighborhoods. The people are scared and many are arming themselves. They have no idea that Muslims don’t eat dogs or cats and are commanded to honor women. The weekend of our visit five Dallas police officers were shot. It was not by refugees, most of whom are fleeing from violence. The police officers were killed by fear and prejudice. We were reminded of how vulnerable we are and how important it is to overcome alienation and make enemies into friends. Of course there are good reasons to fear some Muslims. But then there are good reasons to fear some Christians, some atheists, and some people of all beliefs.

When we visited a church in Los Gatos, Calif., we saw how Presbyterians are sharing space with vulnerable, displaced human beings. The Presbytery of San Jose transformed a valuable house in Silicon Valley into a home for refugees from Syria. Some members asked why the house was opened for Muslims. Shouldn’t the church prioritize helping Christians? But the presbytery understood the gospel: that God loves everyone and so should we. An elder commented that by opening the house to Syrian Muslims, the church received the great gift of getting to know some wonderful people from the other side of the world. We are so impressed with the generosity of churches who open their hearts, not only to their own kind, not only to the neighbor next door or the stranger at the gate, but also to poor villagers on the other side of the world. To our surprise, when we visited a church in Champaign, Illinois, the church had organized a “raindrop project.” They had a big display of raindrops, each of which had the description of a need and what it would cost to fulfil it. Without our asking, they were raising money to fund my work to help villagers in Java, Indonesia, escape from poverty.

Now there are just a few days left before we head back to Indonesia. It has been fun to go around ringing bells in America. It makes me feel like an Indonesian missionary to America. Every morning in Java we hear the call to prayer: “Wake up! Wake up! Prayer is better than sleep! God is great! God is great!” Maybe our ringing bells is a little like that call. We are calling the Church to remember who they are and who God is. There is a ringing in our head that wasn’t there before. The bells are calling us back to Indonesia with confidence that many of you will continue to support us financially and in prayer. Please forgive us if we didn’t visit you on this trip. We will be back.


Farsijana and Bernie

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