Indonesia is the largest archipelagic nation in the world. It’s made up of an astounding 17,000 islands, with 70 percent of the population living in coastal areas. Many view the country as a divers’ haven because it is home to vibrant coral reefs teeming with colorful fish, and it’s also where the largest mangrove ecosystems on the planet exist.

But my country is facing a severe marine ecological crisis today because of destructive fishing, pollution, climate change, and greenhouse gas emissions. Our ecosystem of mangroves, seagrass, and coral reefs is in decline. Fish stock is also decreasing, while other sea creatures are frequently poisoned by land-based pollution.

This crisis is a serious threat in the Indonesian context, where ecological and social lives are often inseparable. Over half of the population’s annual protein intake comes from fish and seafood, and around 7 million people depend heavily on the sea for their livelihoods. But now, more than 2.5 million Indonesian households involved in small-scale fishery activities are at risk of losing their way of life and source of income. Fishing grounds are increasingly limited, triggering conflicts among traditional fishermen.

Poor people in our coastal areas have suffered the most due to their dependence on the sea for survival. Many use traditional techniques and equipment such as pudi—fishing weirs that channel fish to a particular location—and bubu, fish traps made of bamboo, to collect various kinds of seafood during low tide to feed themselves.

The marine ecological crisis, however, is increasingly destroying their source of food. It’s also erasing our culture of caring for the needy, in that coastal communities often give priority to the poor when it comes to gathering provisions from the sea.

In other words: The sea gives us food and cultivates compassion for the poor among us. But both its sustenance and communal care are now in danger.

Reflecting on the traditional practices of Indonesian coastal communities and churches, I offer the concept and practice of “blue” diakonia (pronounced “dee-ak-on-ee’-ah”), the Greek word for service and ministry from which we get the English word deacon.

Australian scholar John N. Collins’s study of diakonia in the New Testament and in ancient Greek sources stresses that the service and ministry conducted by humans point to God’s mandate to look after the poor. Danish missiologist Knud Jørgensen also sees diakonia as an invitation to participate in God’s work of looking after and liberating the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

Article continues below

Most Indonesian believers regard diakonia as a primarily human affair, demonstrated through caring for the poor by providing them with food or financial support. Such an understanding, however, does not incorporate ways in which creation itself looks after the underprivileged.

In my view, we need to develop a blue diakonia that acknowledges and supports the sea—which feeds the poor and gives life to all who rely on it—as an active participant in the triune God’s work.

A foretaste of the kingdom

A 2023 survey by government agency Statistics Indonesia found that 25.9 million people live in poverty in the country. This makes diakonia a crucial practice among believers, who comprise 11 percent of the population in the Muslim-majority nation.

There are three diakonia models that are widely accepted in Indonesian Christian communities, according to Indonesian theologian Yosef Purnama Widyatmadja: diakonia karitatif (charity), diakonia reformatif (individual/community development by training) and diakonia transformatif (structural/social transformation). Integrating the ecological crisis into how Indonesian churches practice diakonia is a promising new development. In fact, there is growing interest in a theological discourse known as eco-diakonia, which seeks to ensure that nature keeps expressing its agency, especially as a source of food, and that the poor have access to that food sustainably.

But in blue diakonia, it is specifically the sea—not nature more broadly—that Christians strive to serve and protect. The waters that cover the face of this planet are God’s good creation, as are all the creatures within it, which he blesses and empowers to “be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas” (Gen. 1:10, 20–22). The sea and its creatures experience God’s love as he looks after and renews them (Ps. 104:24–30; 145:9).

Moreover, the sea and its creatures are not outcasts but part of God’s coming kingdom. As American theologian J. Richard Middleton says, the phrase there was no longer any sea in Revelation 21:1 is good news, because the sea will no longer be used by the Roman Empire as a means to expand their exploitative economic power. Instead, the sea will take part in worshiping God as new creation: Its creatures will join others in heaven, on earth, and under the earth to sing to “him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb” (Rev. 5:13).

Article continues below

Through this perspective, churches can proclaim the gospel (Mark 16:15) by letting the sea and its creatures have a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God. Preserving and restoring the sea so that it keeps embodying its role of providing food, particularly for the poor, is that foretaste—and an outworking of blue diakonia.

In the province of East Nusa Tenggara, the evangelical church Gereja Masehi Injili di Timor (GMIT) has sought to improve marine conditions in its vicinity for the past five years.

In 2020, the church partnered with the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries to transplant coral into the Savu Sea National Marine Park, located within the province, to restore the park’s ecosystem. Since 2021, GMIT has also planted and taken care of mangroves on Savu Island. This project is “an expression of our faith as we preserve God’s gift of life, restoring and protecting mangroves just as the mangroves protect us from cyclones,” said GMIT’s former synod moderator Mery Kolimon.

“We just cannot let the mangrove ecosystem [be] destroyed—we need to help restore it because that is our call as God’s people,” added Rowi Kaka Mone, one of the project leaders.

Other Indonesian churches carry out ministries that aim to conserve the waters around them. For many years, two churches in particular—Gereja Protestan Maluku (GPM) and Gereja Kristen Injili di Tanah Papua—have carried out the traditional sustainable fishing practice of sasi laut, which preserves marine ecosystems by keeping an area free from fishing activities for a particular period of time, ranging from three months to two years.

People often call GPM’s practice of sasi laut by another name: sasi gereja, or “church sasi.” This concept “carries the blessing of the local church and, for believers, the fear of God. To break ‘church sasi’ is to commit a sin,” said a Forests News report.

Caring for widows and orphans

Nevertheless, regarding the sea only as a recipient of diakonia—Christian service and ministry—is not enough, as this perspective could overshadow the sea’s agency in creation.

It is true that the sea needs humans to care for it. But the sea also has decisive agencies that we should recognize. The sea is not a passive object that is fully dependent on humans. Examining how the sea plays a vital role in carrying out God’s mission, even in its recovery from anthropogenic damage, helps us realize that humans not only do something for the sea but also with it.

Article continues below

What this means is that the sea can also be regarded as diakonos, a deacon or minister that looks after the poor by providing food for them. The coastal communities of Indonesia perceive the sea as a living entity that nurtures and sustains their lives with physical nourishment. For instance, the maritime people of Lamalera in East Nusa Tenggara call the sea ina fae belé or sedo basa hari lolo, phrases that describe how the sea is an all-loving mother who bears and raises her children and supplies everything they need.

A more specific portrayal of the sea taking care of the poor is found in a 1997 study, led by Indonesian theologian and anthropologist Tom Therik, of the fishing activities of Pantai Rote, Semau Island’s maritime community. In the local language and in traditional poetry, the poor are called ina falu (widows) and ana mak (orphans). Twice a day, these widows and orphans head out to harvest aquatic plants and sea creatures during low tide. This is a widely accepted cultural norm in the community, as the poor cannot afford boats or adequate fishing equipment and can only rely on the bounty of the sea for daily sustenance.

The sea shapes the people’s culture of looking after the poor: The waters in that area are part of the Coral Triangle, also known as the “Amazon of the Seas” because it contains the most marine biodiversity on the planet. It’s home to 76 percent of coral species as well as six out of seven species of marine turtles, and it serves as a prolific tuna spawning and nursery ground.

Perceiving the sea as God’s active agent, as I argue here, is not alien to our Christian faith. The Bible explicitly does so. In Genesis 1:22, God blesses and commands sea creatures to “be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas.” In Genesis 4:11–12, the land is portrayed as standing against evil by opening its mouth to receive Abel’s blood and refusing to yield its crops for Cain.

These biblical personifications of creation also allow us to acknowledge the significant role of the sea in God’s liberation of the Israelites from their oppression in Egypt (Ex. 14:20–21). The sea withdraws itself and piles up to let the Israelites pass through dry ground while it stops Pharaoh’s army from pursuing them, says Indonesian biblical scholar Margaretha Apituley.

Article continues below

Perceiving the sea as diakonos—an emissary of God’s work—is therefore part of a biblical framework. Just as the Sea of Galilee facilitates Christ’s work by providing two fishes, alongside five loaves, to feed the multitude (Mark 6:30–44), the Indonesian seas facilitate Christ’s work by offering all that swims and grows within it as food for the poor in the archipelago’s coastal communities.

In essence, blue diakonia is a mission for and with the sea. It recognizes and respects the sea as an active participant in God’s work. As churches support the flourishing of the seas as a means of feeding the poor, Christians and the sea can also become co-diakonos, or co-ministers, of God.

Encounters between Indonesian traditional maritime cultures and Christianity can be an important opportunity for churches to address the marine ecological crisis and its negative impacts on the poor. My hope is that blue diakonia can be a mission that belongs not only to Indonesian churches but also to churches all around the planet, just as Jesus commanded his disciples, “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37).

Elia Maggang holds a PhD from the University of Manchester, UK. Based in Indonesia, his theological work revolves around the intersections of Christianity and Indigenous traditions, especially their theology and practice regarding the sea and humans’ relationship with the sea.

[ This article is also available in Français and Indonesian. ]