Finding Jesus in the slums

Christmas with the urban poor in Indonesia is neither silent nor calm. Amid the noise and hustle, Jesus breathes life, hope and joy.

The author and her boys walk to visit her students’ homes, built on a pile of garbage in Jakarta, Indonesia. — Courtesy of the author The author and her boys walk to visit her students’ homes, built on a pile of garbage in Jakarta, Indonesia. — Courtesy of the author

When I was 3 years old, I lost the baby Jesus. He was my favorite part of the nativity scene, and I loved playing with the miniature porcelain figure. One day I forgot where I put him. My mother found Jesus a few weeks later, hiding under a corner cupboard.

This experience provides a lesson that has stayed with me: We often find Jesus where we least expect him.

For 11 years, I have been looking for Jesus in unlikely places. My quest brought me to the outskirts of one of the largest cities on earth: Jakarta, Indonesia. In the country with the most Muslims in the world, I am finding Jesus in a slum community.

My friends and neighbors are trash collectors, garbage scavengers and beggars. My husband, two sons and I serve with Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, in partnership with Virginia Mennonite Missions.

We live and serve here because we meet Jesus here, and he has much to teach us.

Over one billion people live in urban slum communities. The Western church knows little about them. Few workers are sent to serve in these communities. After 11 years of living in a squatter community, I long for the day when more Christians will hear Jesus’ invitation to come and learn from him here.

My husband and I started a free school in our neighborhood. House of Hope offers a kindergarten and after-school program for the children who live near us. House of Hope has been open for nearly a decade now, serving about 100 children a year.

Our students’ home life is unimaginable to most Westerners: shacks haphazardly pieced together, makeshift toilets over a canal that runs through the neighborhood, homes on top of and surrounded by garbage.

The mystery is that if I can get past the stink, the flies, the rats and the heat, I can have powerful encounters with my Savior in this place.

My neighbors teach me about hospitality. They humble me with their generosity and selflessness. They surprise me with their joy, though in the eyes of the world they have little to be joyful about. My friends teach me about resilience, the gift of community, the freedom of simplicity.

‘What have the rats destroyed?’

Living with the poor, we see much that is broken, horrible, gut-wrenching. There is pain and death. Neighbors fall sick with diseases I had only read about: tetanus, leprosy, measles, typhoid, whooping cough, tuberculosis. Elementary school dropouts and underage marriages perpetuate poverty.

Where can I find Jesus amid such brokenness?

My own family has wrestled with questions of suffering and grief. We have experienced lots of illnesses (dengue, typhoid, rubella). Every time we returned to our house, we had to jokingly ask, “What have the rats destroyed today?”

We have tasted the despair of feeling alone and forgotten, wondering if the church cares about slum communities at all. We have wept as students died. We have felt the loss of dreams as students dropped out or a parent’s divorce moved them away.

Yet we believe Jesus is here. Jesus sees our friends as they scavenge for recycling on roadsides, weighed down with sacks full of cardboard, plastics and bottles. Having borne the wooden beams of the cross, Jesus knows how to carry a heavy load.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus came to the rough fishermen of Galilee and invited them to be fishers of people. Today, God is the Great Garbage Scavenger. Jesus wants to rescue and restore what the world views as worthless and trash. Jesus wants to invite my friends here to be scavengers of people.

We long for the day when our friends will believe this good news. Until then, we will sow seeds of the gospel and seek to be agents of peace.

Christmas for Muslim neighbors

Many years at House of Hope, we have hosted a Christmas party, adapted to our context, for our Muslim students and neighbors. As we tell the nativity story, we call children volunteers to the front to wear simple costumes and act out the parts.

When I picture Yusuf (Joseph), I see a 10-year-old boy with a Muslim prayer cap and sarong fabric wrapped around his legs.

Maryam (Mary) wears a colorful headscarf and looks slightly frightened.

The angel Jibrail (Gabriel) wears a baggy white shirt and cardboard cutout wings covered with shiny silver paper.

In my memory, the shepherds and the wise men will always be a motley crew of young guys searching for hope.

Nothing about the story is silent or calm. But it breathes life, hope and joy.

Over a decade in a slum community, I have learned Jesus can be found far from a comfortable pew on a Sunday morning. Jesus is in the noise of life, in the hustle of crowded slums. Jesus is waiting for his followers to find him here, to love him and to receive love in return.

As we celebrate Christmas, let us remember our Savior, who moved from a divine gated community to the slums of Earth and calls us to care for the least of his children.

Anita Rahma is a pseudonym for a mission worker in Jakarta, Indonesia, with Virginia Mennonite Missions and Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor. Her name is withheld for security reasons because she works in a sensitive location.

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