On the first Sunday of November, our lead pastor was out of town and asked me to lead communion in our Indonesian language worship gathering. We share small wafers and tiny cups of juice monthly as a reminder of Christ’s presence. As part of a congregation of 300 people with four worshiping languages, this action that binds beyond words has become deeply meaningful for me.
I stood leading the congregation, tripping over the Indonesian words for bread and wine (roti and angur), trying to use what Indonesian I know while being interpreted by an elder. I watched as most of the 150 or so people came forward. I recognized that morning how few I knew by name. Building relationships across language and cultural differences is hard work.
Every day, many in our congregation grind out the work that keeps our city moving — in factories, kitchens, dry cleaners, delis, construction sites. It’s tough and monotonous work, with repetitive tasks that require little verbal interaction. They assume roles as part of a relatively flexible and inexpensive work force, nameless but essential to the daily operations of the global economy from Southern China to South Philadelphia.
Late in November, a member of our congregation, Handi Gunawan, was killed en route to a job site. Packed into a minivan with six others, he was crushed in the back seat by a tractor trailer unable to stop on the slick road as an Audi spun out of control in front of them.
He died on the expressway. His life was briefly statewide news. The Schuylkill Expressway is a vital point of access to Philadelphia. The incident resulted in a closure that backed up traffic in the city for much of the day.
I didn’t know Handi (whose last name translates into “useful one”). He was 47, divorced, with no children. He had no biological family in the country. He was a quiet but faithful part of our congregation. He worked to support his family in Jakarta. He was literally crushed by the forces of the global economy.
Our pastor worked to organize a memorial service for Handi along with a time of prayer for those who survived but remained hospitalized. They were all Indonesian and from different Indonesian-speaking congregations. Hundreds of people gathered. The community felt both solidarity and vulnerability. In Philadelphia, thousands of workers travel in vans to worksites in the early morning. They began to pray more often en route.
It’s painful to admit that Handi was unknown to me until his death become news. He likely was one of those who came forward for communion earlier in the month. Even at his church, some of us didn’t know the name of this quiet Mennonite migrant worker.
I think back to our taking of the angur and roti in November. I hope that in that moment and act, Handi felt God’s presence, knew he was loved. I hope that knowledge and feeling lingered even into that rainy morning on the expressway.
Handi’s body was returned to Jakarta. His funeral was the third in our church’s eight-year history.
Every time we take communion, we have a chance to affirm human value and community across language and culture. We have a chance to show the love of Jesus, who loved so much that he thought a good way to remember him was to celebrate a small meal.
I trust that our November communion was a foretaste of the grand divine banquet where Handi now is an honored guest, in a city without a crushing grind but with a place prepared for him in fullness of life and light. And that he is called by name, not only a useful but a beloved son of God.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.
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