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Growing leaders to love the land

Rural institute teaches organic farming, leadership and community-building

Next time you're buying specialty coffee, look for "Sumatra Lintong Light Roast," grown by indigenous Batak people around Lake Toba in North Sumatra. Those beans may well have come from an Indonesian cooperative organized by Debora Purada Sinaga, the first female superintendent (bishop) of the Protestant Christian Batak Church, a Lutheran World Federation member since 1952.

Sinaga founded the co-op in 2000 with 25 farmers. It now has 350 participants and fair trade certification. She encourages the growers to embrace organic farming to fetch higher prices and eliminate expensive fertilizers. While it's an unusual role for a bishop, it's all part of her effort to improve the lives of the farming families who make up the majority of her district's 119 congregations.

Gani Silaban (right), a 2008 graduate
Gani Silaban (right), a 2008 graduate of the Asian Rural Institute, works with members of the fair-trade coffee growers association he manages. He also works with big buyers from the U.S., Japan, Germany and other countries.

Yet Sinaga freely admits she is a city girl, born and raised in Jakarta, who "didn't know rice from grass."

She found her calling as an advocate for the rural poor at a teaching farm located in the countryside of Nasushiobara, two hours north of Tokyo. The Asian Rural Institute (ARI), an ELCA partner, gathers about 30 students each April for nine months of intensive classes in organic farming, leadership skills and community building.

The institute takes a holistic approach toward agriculture and the gospel, said Y. Franklin Ishida, ELCA program director for Asia and the Pacific. "It is not just about development and economics but about stewardship of the land and community building as well," he said. "ARI [lifts] up leaders who can empower their home communities as they seek to put their faith into action in God's world."


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