Reaching Muslims, Hindus in Indonesia

Posted on April 13, 2013

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By David Ettinger

From the age of 16, First Orlando member Barbara Bush knew that the Islamic/Hindu nation of Indonesia was in her future. “It was at that age that I felt the Lord calling me to go to Bali,” she said, referring to the diverse island of more than 3 million people.

Caption: Harry and Barbara Bush, longtime missionaries in Indonesia.

For her husband, Harry, the calling to Indonesia would come a few years later. When the two met at South Florida University in 1962, Harry wasn’t even a believer. “I was wild at the time,” he admitted. “But my best friend was part of a group of Christians.”

Among those people was Barbara. “We fell in love,” Harry said, “but I knew it wasn’t going anywhere because I wasn’t saved.”

However, that was about to change. “Over time, I had begun feeling the weight of my sin,” Harry said. “Then one night I heard God saying to me, ‘It’s your choice. You can choose your path or Mine.’ ”

Fortunately, Harry chose the Lord’s. He was now a Christian and free to marry Barbara, but he was serving a stint at the 82nd Airborne Jump School of the U.S. Army in Fort Benning, Georgia. During his training, Harry suffered a broken femur caused by a jump that went awry. A lengthy hospital stay followed. “Barbara sent me a little book called ‘Missionary Journalist,’ ” he recalled. “That book showed me that you could actually serve the Lord overseas.”

That planted the missionary seed. Following his release from the Army, Harry and Barbara wed in 1964, but it would still be 10 years, two children and seminary for Harry before they went to Indonesia as church planters.

Upon arrival, the Bushes set up residence on the island of Java and spent their first year in language school. Now fluent in Indonesian, it was time for Harry to go out and win Indonesians, 85 percent of whom were Muslim, to Christ. “At that time, the nation practiced a moderate form of Islam,” Harry explained. “It was easier to share the gospel then.”

But it was still a huge challenge. “By its very nature, Islam hinders the advance of Christianity,” Harry explained. “They are not allowed to read the Bible; the trinity is a major problem for them; and calling Jesus the Son of God is blasphemous. Though the people were open and friendly, sharing the gospel was a huge challenge.”

So, how did he do it? “Being a white person who spoke Indonesian, I always had an audience with them,” Harry said. “I would ride my motorcycle, and whenever I saw a group of people, I would just go up to them and start talking.”

According to Harry, Indonesians love to banter. “I would start off by saying, ‘Hi, how are you?’ They would ask you, ‘What are you doing here?’ What do you want?’ I would then say something like, ‘God is the creator of this beautiful day’ and tell them that I was a teacher and that I taught ‘life.’ If I had come up to them and said, ‘I want to share about Jesus Christ with you,’ the conversation would have been over right away.”

But, eventually the conversation would turn to Jesus. “They would say, ‘Oh, you’re a Christian!’ At that point, many of them would just walk away,” Harry said. “Of 25 people, I might get three who showed interest.”

Despite that, there were enough curious Indonesians who wanted to hear more. “I would always seem to get at least one invitation to eat as someone’s house,” he said. “I would go and then arrange to meet with them again. That’s how I built connections.”

It was tough going, but Harry was making an impact. “Whenever I led someone to Christ, I was very careful to start discipling them as soon as I could,” he said. “I usually started discipling within the first 48 hours. Barbara discipled the women.”

Eventually, the Bushes were able to start a church that grew to about 50 people by the time they left Java. “Our congregation was the only [spiritual] light for miles and miles and miles,” Harry said.

In 1979, an opportunity arose that allowed the Bushes to go to Bali, the place to where Barbara had gotten her original calling. “Bali, unlike Java, is 97 percent Hindu,” Harry explained. “Their society is framed by their religion, and their culture is their religion. In practice, though, the people of Bali are animists.”

Animism is the belief that souls, or spirits, exist in humans, animals, plants and other entities. “As animists, they believe in thousands of gods,” Harry said. “As Hindus, they believe in reincarnation. To win Balinese to Christ is to extract them from their culture. Converts to Christianity are often cut off by their families and lose their inheritance. Others are returned forcibly to Hinduism. They have a high price to pay.”

Despite the incredible challenges of sharing the gospel in Bali, the Bushes persisted for nine years. “You had to prove that you had power,” Harry said. “Satan is worshiped. To their thinking, Satan and God are equal. There is good and evil and you have to placate both. So, when you start speaking about Christ, they want to know, ‘As a Christian, what kind of power do you have?’ I would explain about eternal life. They believe that life is cyclical — you keep repeating it. But in Christianity, life is linear, and it ends up in heaven — guaranteed. That’s power!”

Slowly but surely, the Bushes began to reach Balinese for Christ. “Those years were extremely fruitful,” Harry said. “We started the first Baptist church in Bali and two missions. Our church had about 80 members.”

“We also mentored and trained the first Balinese Baptist pastor, as well as trained other Balinese Christians to teach Sunday school,” Barbara added. “We were eventually able to turn the church over to them.”

That was a good thing, because in 1988 the Bushes were forced to leave the country. “The government decided that Christianity was growing too rapidly and they came out with a policy that all missionaries who were there 10 years or longer had to leave,” Barbara said.

The Bushes were heartbroken, but had no choice. They returned to the States for five years. Harry pastored an Orlando church and Barbara worked in the Missions Office at First Orlando. Then, in 1993, another overseas opportunity arose when they joined a group called SAPIM — South Asia Pacific Itinerant Mission. SAPIM is a leadership-training outreach where missionaries train Christian nationals in the basics of Christianity to where they can turn around and teach it to their countrymen.

“It was totally different from anything we had ever done, and yet it didn’t take long to see the tremendous eternal value of it,” Barbara said. “Our base was in Singapore, but we traveled to India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as well as other countries.”

Eventually, the Bushes took over the leadership of the organization and expanded into Central Asia. That lasted until 2004, when they had the opportunity to return to Indonesia. “We were going to try to establish our ministry there,” Barbara said. “But this time, we went back to Sumatra.”

“Sumatra is an entirely different culture,” Harry added. “It is very strongly influenced by Islam. We made progress, but it was more difficult than in Java and Bali. The radical influence of Islam was much more apparent.”

After four challenging years, the Bushes returned home in 2008 to officially retire from the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, but are still hopeful that the Lord has something more for them. “We are determined to have an impact,” Harry said. “Our hearts are still in Indonesia, and that’s where we want to be.”

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Posted in: World Missions