Imagine travelling halfway across the world at your own expense for a religious calling. A handful of Indonesians are doing just that to join the Islamic State, while a few Americans have been quietly coming to Indonesia to talk about the Mormon religion – if they are asked about it.
Racing to beat Jakarta’s gridlock traffic a few weeks ago, I boarded a bus and noticed a couple of white faces. They didn’t look like tourists destined for the old city district. Clean-cut and immaculately attired in black trousers, white shirts and ties, and clutching what appeared to be Bibles, these two young men stood out like what they were: Mormon missionaries in the world’s largest Muslim-populated country.
“Even though there are differences, there are similarities between our two religions,” one of them cheerfully tells a local Muslim man seated beside him. The man politely concurs without great enthusiasm.
I had never seen a Mormon before, so I start talking to one of them. He is Elder Hayes. We swap phone numbers and arrange to meet later for an interview.
My knowledge of Mormons had hitherto come from an episode of the long-running American cartoon show South Park, which poked fun at the religion’s origins but made the point that Mormons are such nice people that they’re hard to criticize. The South Park creators later created a musical that elaborates on this theme.
For those unfamiliar with Mormonism, here’s a precis: In 1820, a man named Joseph Smith was grappling over which denomination of Christianity he should follow. He said God appeared to him in a vision and told him that all churches had “turned aside from the gospel”. Next, Smith said that in 1823, an angel appeared and told him about a book made from golden plates and some “seer stones” (for translating the book) – all hidden in a hill in New York. In 1827, he said he had retrieved the plates and stones, which he was initially not allowed to show to anyone. He later dictated from them (having concealed them in a hat) and The Book of Mormon was published in 1830.
So what is The Book of Mormon all about? In brief: A small group of Israelites left Jerusalem around 600 BC at God’s behest and went to America. They eventually split into two feuding factions: the Nephites (who followed the law of Moses) and Lamanites (who were wicked). God cursed the Lamanites by giving them dark skin. Then Jesus came to America and converted everyone to Christianity. Later, the feuding resumed and the Lamanites killed just about all of the Nephites (who became the Native American Indians). All of this was forgotten until Joseph Smith came along to explain that mainstream Christianity had deviated from the true teachings of Jesus. The early Mormons were persecuted and Smith was murdered by an angry mob at age 38.
Mormon missionaries always travel in pairs – for reasons of safety and to provide moral support. I met with Elder Hayes and his partner Elder Tuttle at their unadorned church concealed at the back of a block of nondescript shop-houses near the Harmoni busway hub in Central Jakarta.
We spend a couple of hours chatting about Mormonism and comparing experiences in Indonesia. They are such nice, upbeat guys that it’s easy to see why Mormonism appeals to those yearning to fill a yawning spiritual chasm.
Mormon men should perform two years of missionary service, usually after turning 18 and before commencing tertiary education. They can serve within America or abroad. Elders Hayes and Tuttle were selected to go to Indonesia. They first underwent about eight weeks of intensive Indonesian language study at the Missionary Training Center south of Salt Lake City, Utah.
In Indonesia, the missionaries are allowed to email their family only one day per week and have just two family Skype calls per year (usually Christmas Day and Mother’s Day). That may seem strict, but it’s still more communication than some expatriates in Indonesia bother to do.
Permission to Preach?
A group of Mormon officials visited Indonesia in 1969 and sent the first missionaries the following year. After complaints from Muslim groups that well-funded Christian missionaries were a threat to Islam, the government in 1978 banned proselytizing and decided that foreign missionaries should be replaced with locals.
By 1980, the Mormons had only about 500 active members in Indonesia. The Mormons have become more active in Indonesia since 2001 thanks to former president Abdurrahman ‘Gus Dur’ Wahid.
The story goes that in the mid-1990s, when the near-blind Wahid headed the nation’s largest Muslim organisation, he received a visit from a Californian businessman, Hal Jensen, seeking advice on doing business in Indonesia. When Jensen was offered a cup of tea, he responded, “I don’t drink tea. I’m a Mormon.”
Mormons are not allowed to consume tea, coffee, alcohol or tobacco. Gus Dur’s curiosity was piqued.
Always a moderate Muslim and a champion of inter-faith tolerance and learning, he struck up a friendship with Jensen. This culminated in Gus Dur in 1999 making two trips to the Moran Eye Center in Utah for treatment for his poor vision. While there, he met with Mormon leaders. After being elected president in October 1999, he paved the way for more Mormon missionaries to visit Indonesia.
The missionaries are still not allowed to actively proselytize and cannot operate near mosques. All they can do is chat to people and offer English lessons. If asked about their faith, they are happy to answer questions. But they don’t push their faith on others. Their Sunday church services run for three hours, including an hour of recreation, such as music and games.
Elder Hayes has spent most of his two years in Indonesia in Jakarta, the Central Java city of Solo and the East Java capital of Surabaya. While some people may consider it daunting to talk to Muslims about a little-known Christian sect, Elder Hayes considers his work a “blessing”. He was also able to spend some time in the North Sulawesi capital of Manado, where the predominantly Christian people were more welcoming.
One of the more astonishing things that Elder Hayes tells me is that he paid his own way to come to Indonesia and supports himself with money he earned from part-time jobs in America. All Mormon missionaries should be supported by themselves and/or their families. They believe they are doing God’s will by travelling abroad to talk about the joy of their faith.
Also believing they are doing God’s will are young Indonesians who travel to Syria to join the fundamentalist militant group Daesh (also known as the Islamic State, ISIS), which is seeking to establish a global caliphate by killing people. Some of the Indonesian recruits, eager to fight the oppressive West and win plunder and sex slaves, are disillusioned to find they are supposed to kill fellow Muslims in a civil war.
It may seem absurd to compare Daesh and Mormonism, but just about all religions have some history of violence, sex crimes and racism. One of the stains on Mormon history is the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which a Mormon militia in 1857 killed about 120 men, women and children in a wagon train in Utah. More recently, a Mormon offshoot called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints saw its polygamous leader Warren Jeffs receive a life sentence in 2008 for multiple counts of child rape.
The mainstream Mormon Church of Latter-Day Saints has excommunicated extremists like Jeffs. The Mormon religion is willing to adapt to become more progressive, and unlike radical Islam, there is no death penalty for those who quit the religion.
In 2015, the Mormons recorded having over 75,000 missionaries serving in 418 missions throughout the world. More than double the estimated 30,000 foreign fighters who had joined Daesh.
Point-scoring aside, there are always dangers in following orders from people claiming to be speaking on behalf of God. Religion may be beneficial when kept personal, but when people travel abroad to share their faith, it’s better when they are friendly, even in the face of rejection.