At the age of 22, Herry Priyonggo felt he had found his calling. For the past six years, he had grown a reputation as the best movie banner painter in Indonesia in the ’60s and ’70s, with his artwork of famous Hollywood and Hong Kong actors gracing movie theater fronts in Jakarta and other cities. His income supported his family.
But one fateful day in 1975, his right hand failed to cooperate. Every time he picked up the paintbrush, his hand shook uncontrollably. It became impossible to work.
Priyonggo, now 71, remembers going into the bathroom and wrestling with God. He demanded God heal his hand: “If you are indeed almighty, it must be so easy to heal me. If you don’t heal me, I will not believe in you any longer.”
Hour after hour, in the damp and cold bathroom, he poured out all his despair until he was too exhausted and fell asleep.
“When I woke up in the morning, my hand was not healed,” Priyonggo said. “I was very disheartened, but I decided to keep my faith in [God].”
To this day, despite continued prayers and consultations with doctors, Priyonggo has yet to see God answer. Bouts of despair continue to overwhelm him at times. Yet in time he has found a fulfilling life he could never have imagined: a career as a well-known worship music composer and the founder of a music group that has performed in churches all over Indonesia. In his later years, God has allowed him to even return to painting—this time, Christian art.
“The longing for my hand to be healed remains high, even today,” he said. “But I started realizing that God has a much better plan for me. He has opened up other opportunities for me to be a source of blessings for many more people.”
Painter of movie posters
Priyonggo was born into an ethnically Chinese Christian family in Bondowoso in East Java. He started painting at age 12. Soon, he was exhibiting his artwork in bigger cities like Jakarta. A deputy school principal in Jakarta saw his paintings and urged him to move to Jakarta to pursue a career in art. At age 14, Priyonggo moved to the capital.
At the time, Indonesia had started importing films from the US, Hong Kong, and India, as well as producing films nationally. Locals flocked to theaters to see popular Hollywood, Hong Kong, and local actors like Kirk Douglas, Wang Yu, and Chen Pei Pei on the silver screen. To market these attractions, theaters relied on giant hand-painted movie posters.
The then-16-year-old artist felt up for the challenge. Priyonggo approached a local producer and asked him for a commission.
But it was hard for the producer to take the teenager seriously.
“I was wearing shorts,” said Priyonggo, noting his attire, which is considered childish in the culture. “He told me to keep going to school and to enroll in art college … before asking for orders from him.”
Undeterred, Priyonggo decided to show the producer his skills. He painted a 5-by-5-foot poster for the Hong Kong movie The Three Smiles and brought the painting to the man. “He was flabbergasted and started giving painting jobs to me.”
He began juggling his new job while still in high school. “I woke up at five to make sketches for the banner before going to school.” After school, he started painting, sometimes late into the night. He soon became responsible for creating the master poster, which other painters would duplicate for other theaters.
Priyonggo used his earnings to support his family. His parents were teachers in a Chinese school in Bondowoso in the 1960s, but in 1965, Indonesia suffered from a bloody political and social upheaval that led to an intense anti-Chinese and anti-Communist sentiment. The new government severed ties with China and ordered the closure of all Chinese-affiliated schools.
He encouraged his parents and his siblings to move to Jakarta, where they rented a house. Priyonggo, who could complete a large 10-by-16-foot poster in two days, became the primary breadwinner. One time, a producer asked him to create a 55-foot tall movie billboard “where cars could pass between the legs of Wang Yu, a famous Hong Kong actor.” Another time, he painted a 45-foot billboard of Sean Connery for the movie Goldfinger.
Yet at the age of 22, his career abruptly came to an end as his hand began to shake.
Despair leading to new ministry
Priyonggo’s symptoms made little sense to doctors or to Priyonggo. Family and friends wondered if the condition was hereditary or caused by his exposure to paint. Yet medical experts ruled out either explanation. To this day, the exact cause of his tremors is unknown.
But his physical challenges took a toll on his mental health and left Priyonggo mired in despair, taking different medications prescribed by his doctors and actively seeking a miracle. His sister, Herlin Pirena, recalled, “Sometimes Herry even screamed and screamed in his room to release his despair and frustration.”
To find solace from his pain, Priyonggo turned back to his love for sacred music and hymns. As a child, he had often sung at the church with his parents, older brother, and Pirena. “Our family sang about two times every month,” he recalled. “I also often helped my father, who was the choir conductor, prepare the music sheets.”
By 1978, Priyonggo, then 25, had started to make peace with his hand tremors and agreed to conduct his church’s youth choir. This led to the creation of the Yerikho Vocal Group in 1980 with some friends in the church, including Pirena.
Yerikho, which means “Jericho,” started singing at churches and released a worship album. Most of the songs were hymns that Priyonggo arranged, but it also included an original song he composed. The cassette spread among Indonesia’s Christian community and led Priyonggo to write more worship songs.
Yerikho’s songs are often rooted in the Psalms and other passages of Scripture and delve into Priyonggo’s own spiritual journey, full of trials, despair, mercy, and hope. Priyonggo’s songs are sung in Indonesian churches today, including “Jalan Tuhan” (God’s Way), “Tangan Tuhan” (The Hands of God), and “Mazmur 121” (Psalm 121). Priyonggo also produced several musicals, such as Permata untuk Sang Raja (Jewels for the King) and Laki-laki Pilihan (The Chosen One). The last one portrayed the life of Joseph.
“I could not count how many songs I have composed,” Priyonggo said. “There must be several hundreds. But not thousands like Fanny Crosby yet.”
Today, Yerikho still continues to travel and perform in churches, even as members of the band have come and gone. Churches are still booking them in advance: A church in Pontianak, West Kalimantan Province, recently contacted Priyonggo asking Yerikho to perform there in 2025.
Fighting spiritual warfare
Despite his success in music, Priyonggo still struggled with bouts of despair. He noted that his wife, Yanti, with whom he has three children, provided enormous support during those dark times.
He remembers falling into despair in 2018 after he stopped taking the medication that helped control the tremors and anxiety. He wept to his wife, crying out, “I want to give up … I can’t stand it any longer.”
Yanti handed him a guitar and asked him to play one of the songs he had written. Together, they sang the songs Priyonggo penned years ago. Then they began to sing “Sayap Pujian” (Wings of Praise):
Wings of praise take me up, weathering all the storms of my life …
Let me cherish the splendors of your presence in the light of your love …
Let me sing the symphony of victory.
In my life, you are the only source of my strength.
I want to sing psalms and always be grateful,
Faithfully believe that you will give me victory over all my misery …
“We sang and sang the song,” Yanti remembered. “And a miracle was indeed happening: Herry recovered from his despair. The Lord freed him through the lyrics of his own songs that he had composed to glorify him.”
Through the hard times, the couple learned to faithfully follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. “The Lord wants us to have deep spiritual experiences with him,” she noted. “What we have to do is just be faithful. Just obediently do what the Lord wants us to do.”
Their eldest son, Juan Krista Priguna, 34, has seen God’s work in his father’s life. “God allows my father to keep suffering from the shaking hand to show his sovereignty upon us, his children. And, through such pain, we can precisely witness the greatness of God.”
Painting once again
In late 2019, Priyonggo underwent bypass surgery for a heart condition. After the surgery, he suddenly longed to paint again. He decided that if his hand would cooperate, he wanted to dedicate all his paintings to God.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the then-68-year-old picked up his paintbrush once again. To control the shaking, he used his left hand to steady his right hand when he painted on the canvas. It was a grueling effort, but after a week, he completed his first painting in more than 40 years, which he called “The Good Shepherd.”
“In the midst of painting it, an idea sprung up to portray three wolves who were about to devour the lamb—and how Jesus had to fight against them to save the stray lamb,” Priyonggo said. In the painting, the wolves are in the background and Jesus has wounds on his arm and a torn robe.
“I was speechless when seeing the painting for the first time,” said Gabriel Goh, then-pastor of Gereja Kristus Yesus in Serpong, southwest of Jakarta. He received the reprint of the painting from a church member for his birthday not long after the painting was completed in 2021.
“I have seen so many paintings of Jesus saving the stray lamb, but this painting deeply touched my heart,” he recalled. “This painting truly represents the dimension of redemption that Jesus has done for us. He has indeed paid such a high price in order to save us sinners.”
Priyonggo is grateful that the Lord has enabled him to paint again and to compose new songs amid all his shortcomings. “I just wonder how God has used my dumb fingers to create the paintings and songs.”
He is now trying to enjoy the slower pace of his life. As a young man, he could finish a painting in just a few days. Yet in the last three years, he has only completed ten paintings.
“I am now taking much more time to explore ideas of what I should paint or compose next, that can glorify the Lord.”
His sister, Perina, who is now one of the most well-known Christian singers in the country, noted that her brother is like a fragile brush in the hands of God. “It is now so difficult to paint with his shaking hand,” she said. “Therefore, his paintings are genuine evidence of just how marvelous our Lord is.”
Additional reporting by Gouw Liena Winarsih.