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Ephoruses: You can tell them by their humor and care

Sitting down with Bonar Napitupulu, the ephorus (bishop) of the Protestant Christian Batak Church (HKBP), I expected to hear a lot about the challenges of the 3.7 million-member Indonesian Lutheran church, still struggling to recover from last year’s tsunami.

I didn’t expect a joke. Hearing my last name, Napitupulu asked, straight-faced: “So ... what do you hunt?” Then he cracked up over his joke. With a friendly smile he gripped my hand in both of his, in a warm I-am-laughing-with-you-not-at-you way. I grinned and answered: “Today? Ephoruses.” We laughed again, especially after I flubbed the plural form of ephorus, adding a whole bunch of ‘s’ sounds at the end. It came out sounding a bit like “Snuffle-uffa-gus” of Sesame Street fame, but perhaps it was actually supposed to be “ephori.”

Friendly greetings came from other leaders in Napitupulu’s entourage, some from U.S. congregations that hold joint ELCA and HKBP membership. It was quite different from my first meeting with them years ago during the formalization of the HKBP-ELCA agreement to share congregations in Denver, New York, Seattle and Norco, Calif. That day was characterized by speeches, document-signing and a formal, albeit happy mood. It was neat to meet them under more relaxed circumstances.

Napitupulu described the difficulties of recovery after the tsunami, thanking the ELCA, his government and other churches for relief gifts totaling nearly $2 million. “After the tsunami and the bigger quake, we had little time to manage our own jobs,” he admitted. “But the first thing we did was send about 120 volunteers to Banda Aceh. We sent them to do health care, especially for Nias. We also built three water systems in Nias.” Today they focus on supporting children who lost parents in the tsunami and live in orphanages or with financially stretched relatives.

Steering the conversation away from the disaster, he said: “Our church is not only in Indonesia to help people recover from the tsunami but to empower people in rural areas. Let me give you an example: we have members of HKBP from Jakarta who are doing a pilot project in Sipahutar village [on Sumatra] to help people change the way they’re farming. We’ll start from this and grow to all HKBP areas.” To do that, he has 600 pastors in rural areas (half of the HKBP’s 1,200 pastors) telling people they must change farming methods, describing crop rotation and providing ways to access government and other help, such as the loan of a tractor to a village.

Moving on, Napitupulu said many Indonesian Lutherans in the U.S. continue to be “threatened with deportation after Sept. 11. How can our brothers and sisters in the U.S. help them?” he asked. I mentioned a June 2004 story, “To gather, build and serve” that ran in The Lutheran, as well as our staff’s hopes that we in the ELCA are becoming more aware of the situation.

Before our time ended, Napitulu said he encounters much curiosity from U.S. airport workers who have no problem asking (and are expected to ask) personal and other questions. “One of the things they ask: ‘Oh, are you a pastor? What is that like in a Muslim country?’ ” he says, miming their surprise. “I explain that the 2 to 4 million people who are [Islamic fundamentalists] are actually 1.5 percent of the [population]. [HKBP Christians] have no problem with the government and the majority of Muslims. We can live together peacefully. But it is those among that 1.5 percent who make the image of Indonesia as a country with much terrorism. ...We have very good relationships with the formal organizations of Muslims. When we hold a pastor’s conference, we invite their delegations to come and give welcoming speeches.”

Napitupulu looks at me and smiles. “When I say this, people from your country have a better understanding,” he says.

Thanks, Ephorus. Now I do too.


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