The Mission Aviation Fellowship single-engine Cessna 185 flies low over the expansive rain forest in Indonesia's East Kalimantan Province on Borneo, the world's third-largest island. Pilot Dar Bone points out the wisps of smoke marking brush-clearing fires set by village farmers and then lands the Cessna on a tiny grassy plot. Because of drought, crops are meager and money from the sale of rice is scarce.
The cargo hold of the small plane carries supplies ordered by the Dayak villagers living in isolated settlements. With fuel costs rising, it is questionable whether these supply flights can continue. The Asian financial crisis has rippled into the remotest corners of Indonesia, a nation of 3,000 islands and 207 million people.
Despite the difficulties, even the smallest village supports a church. Evangelization of the 21 Dayak tribes began nearly a century ago. Formerly animistic headhunters and cannibals making intervillage raids, the Dayak now live peaceably, and 95 percent of those in East Kalimantan are Christian.
SURVIVAL AND REVIVAL: In spite of the success of evangelism among the Dayak, economic hardship has threatened the survival of their villages. At the same time, church leaders are engaged in a second battlefront for spiritual revival within their churches.
Dayak congregations are not immune from modern pressures. Church leaders say it is difficult to keep villagers focused on their faith, and pastors are not always accorded the respect they once received.
Ngau Ifung lives with his family in the small town of Long Nawang in the deep green thicket of rain forest along the Kayan River. Although a layperson, Ifung, a Christian since 1963, serves as district superintendent to more than 15 village churches.
"My parents were animists, but they thought that if I became a Christian I would be able to go to school," Ifung says. He was pressed into service almost immediately as an overseer of the church. "In those days, a preacher was like an angel. Every word that a preacher said was accepted. But now it is not the case."
Today, the educational level of the typical Dayak pastor and church members is almost equal. Ifung thinks that Dayak Christians have become accustomed to being instructed from outsiders and have difficulty trusting one of their own.
YOUTH FLIGHT: Dayak Christian parents watch as their children leave their village homes for postgrammar-school education or for work opportunities in cities. This conflicts with a tribal culture's main means of perpetuating itself: through the support system of the tribal extended family. Some young people lose their way and their faith. To help those facing an unfamiliar world, Ifung writes letters to pastors of churches that young people attend in cities. He also leads weekly prayer meetings on behalf of those who have left.
Some Dayak young people aspire to Christian service. In 1978, the Christian and Missionary Alliance and Dayak leaders helped launch the Theological School of Tenggarong, along Kalimantan's northeast coast. The school has a good reputation, and the government waives property taxes. Students and teachers gave money to support a building program. A new cafeteria and boys' dormitory have recently been completed with financial gifts and volunteer help.
EXTERNAL PRESSURES: As a pilot for MAF, Bone knows that churches in the Kalimantan rain forest are subject to intense outside pressures. "There is nothing we can do to stop the process of globalization, because that is already in God's plan," Bone says.
Although the economic and political situation has caused strife, Dayak church leaders pray for revival within their churches and countrywide. Ifung, as he oversees village churches, urgently prays for "inspiration from the Holy Spirit" in facing the challenges posed by the global economy, which is opening up Kalimantan villages to economic development as never before.
"One of the things we struggle with in being here is how to help people with their [economic] needs," says missionary Eric Maxey, a teacher at the Theological School of Tenggarong. "Just giving money creates dependency. So we asked God to show us ways that we could help them. And God opened up a marvelous handicraft business."
Dayak leaders have trained 20 women to create beaded Christmas bells to be sold in North America through Bright Hope International of Wauconda, Illinois (847-526-5566).
Loly Dungau, the principal at Tenggarong, says his tribe has reserved the best of their art, dance, and beadwork. In turn, proceeds from selling beadwork may support a family, plus pay school costs.
Kelso Uleh, the student body president at Tenggarong, traces his commitment to Christian ministry to a time when he was nearly killed working for a logging company in Kalimantan. "I got stuck between a boat and a log on the river. The rapids were washing over me," Uleh relates. "I was released and the boat went into the rapids and was destroyed." Soon after that Uleh became a Christian. Now, at 31, he studies theology and is a student leader. The income his wife generates from beadwork allows the family to be self-sufficient and to pay for his education.
"It's a good time to pray for Indonesia" Dungau says. "When the institutions we think are secure collapse under us, many people start to question eternal things. We're praying that in this time of suffering, we'll see God use it for his glory."
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.