ASIA/INDONESIA - Mission in the villages of the Mentawai Islands: traveling by canoe and on foot along dangerous paths

Tuesday, 2 January 2024 mission   missionaries   evangelization   indigenous  

Padang (Agenzia Fides) - "Love your neighbor as yourself, together we will enjoy what he has given us" sing the young people of the indigenous communities in the remote areas of the Mentawai Islands, west of Sumatra, one of the large islands of the Indonesian archipelago. The Xaverian missionary Father Antonius Wahyudianto SX, parish priest of the church in Muara Siberut(Mentawai), is entrusted with the pastoral care of the small communities in the various "mission stations" scattered across the islands, "authentic suburbs where evangelical simplicity, faith, humility are found: they are poor people from whom you can always learn a lot," says the priest, who visits the various communities scattered throughout the area, sometimes on foot through the dense forest, sometimes canoeing along the Sila'oinan river, sometimes on dangerous rocky paths.
The parish of Saint Mary of the Assumption, in South Siberut, in Kepupalaun Mentawai Regency, is part of the Diocese of Padang. It has 10,802 Catholics and is served by Xaverian missionaries (including four priests and a lay brother) who organize monthly visiting programs in the total of 26 mission stations in 26 villages scattered throughout the area. The difficult geographical conditions in the Sagulubbe region, near the southwest coast, which is hit by 4-6 meter waves during the monsoon season, have not stopped the Xaverians from planning quarterly visits to the communities. Their motto is "Caritas Christi urget nos" (The love of Christ urges us): "We are always ready to work for the proclamation of the Good News and the cultivation of the faith of the Catholics of Mentawai," says Father Wahyudianto. On one of the last mission trips, the priest reached the Sila'oinan area after a four-hour drive and was welcomed by Adrianus Sagulu, catechist and head of the local community council. The priest was joyfully welcomed by the people who were waiting for him to celebrate Mass together, meet the children and young people and proclaim the word of God to them. The village of Stasi Bekkeilu, inhabited by 26 Catholic and five Muslim families, is a remote mission station that has no electricity. In the small church built by locals, there is some light thanks to a small solar panel that some parishioners brought with them in the past, "but honestly, it doesn't help much when reading the Mass readings," reports Father Wahyudianto . "Of course there is no internet and the name of the village is not recorded in the Google Earth application." Nevertheless, in this remote settlement forgotten by the world, "the missionary-pastoral journey with four young people who accompanied me is always an exciting and enriching experience," he says. The mission station is located about 20 km from the center of the
the parish of Saint Mary of the Asumption and close to the other stations of Bekkeilu, Salappa and Magosi. "The people of the Mentawai," said the missionary regarding the situation of the local communities, "are blessed with abundant natural resources that our Creator has given us. That is why the natives, who get their food from nature, do not put in much effort to cultivate the land and make economic profits. They live off the free gifts of Mother Earth. Also due to this mentality, the economic initiatives in the Mentawai are generally controlled by entrepreneurs from outside, such as from Minang, Batak, Nias and Java who set up plantations, trade and other businesses. The deep contact and symbiosis with nature are elements that favor the presence of the Catholic faith. Compared to Sumatra, where a more radical and traditional Islam generally predominates, in this area there is no "competition" between Christianity and Islam, but rather a coexistence, understanding and exchange: "In the upstream village of this region, namely the village of Matotonan, between the 1970s and 1980s, the majority of the local population converted to Islam. In some areas such as Sarereiket, some Catholic families have also converted to Islam, but during 'Punen' (traditional festivals) or other occasions, they join Christians and also eat meat, which is forbidden in Islam. The local Mentawai use meat in almost all traditional ceremonies". Currently, there are only about 65 Catholic families in the Matotonan mission station alongside about 300 Muslim families. The priest reports an episode: "A Catholic student from a local family wanted to convert to Islam. This caused a stir among his parents, the believers and the members of the Matotonan Station Municipal Council expressed great disappointment. I visited the boy's father twice to reassure and accompany him. Freedom is the first gift of God, who will determine the good for his Son." "In the Mentawai region," he continues, "catechetical education is a priority. In particular, I have realized that it is important to talk about the mystery of the Cross of Christ and to make it known to people." For this reason, the parish priest, who also has an artistic streak, endeavored to paint 14 images of the Stations of the Cross on wooden panels made by the residents of Matotonan. "To complete the 14 paintings, I stayed and lived with the people in this station for four days. While I was painting on the porch of a parishioner's house, many interesting things happened. Our believers stopped to look at the painting and to observe my work. Even Muslim children and young people stopped to see the figure of Jesus, the Messiah. The artistic works are therefore an opportunity in a predominantly Muslim village for the local population to be open and trusting with their Muslim brothers and sisters to enter into dialogue". The people of the Sagulubbe region can only be visited two to four times a year, between January and April or between early October and December: "Visits to the stations are only possible outside the hurricane season, which is usually from early June to late September," he notes. "People are thirsty for the Eucharist and look forward to it with great joy," he reports. In order to unite the people of Mentawai in spiritual communion, the priest will celebrate a mass as soon as possible at the pastoral center in Sagulubbe, which will also be attended by representatives of the council from the other six stations. In the Sagulubbe region, to reach one of the seven mission stations, one must cross a steep path, accessible only on foot, on the side of a slippery rock face. The width of the path is only about 40 cm. "Meanwhile, to the left of the cliff flows a rapid and beautiful waterfall. If we are not careful, if we walk on the slippery rock, we may fall and drown. Although walking up and down valleys and cliffs is quite tiring, in one hour one can reach the chapel of Saint Lucia, in Mappinang station". The priest greets the people who "gather at dusk before the start of mass to receive the sacrament of confession," writes Father Wahyudianto. "Their voices that sing and praise God are the greatest gift and reward for me." The missionary work is bearing fruit. The Padang diocesan magazine "Vita" states: "Can one see a growth of the Catholic community in the Mentawai Islands within the Diocese of Padang? The answer is yes. The number of believers and parishes on the islands continue to increase . The missions in the Mentawai Islands have indeed received much attention from the local Church in the Diocese of Padang. Since the mission in the Mentawai Islands was founded by the first Xaverian missionaries, there has been valuable pastoral care to support the stations, Parishes, institutions and schools". "The civil province of West Sumatra made the Mentawai region one of its districts (the 'Mentawai Islands Regency')," it continues, "since then, changes have taken place in all areas, including the socio-religious area. In addition to the Catholic missions, the Mentawai -Islands also a mission destination for Protestants and Muslims. Modernization has taken hold. The local population is slowly transforming from a nomadic community to one that practices agriculture and settles in an area. The children of families on the Mentawai Islands receive a secondary education. Young people continue their studies and go to universities outside West Sumatra. "However, modernization is causing local youth to abandon their cultural roots. They are more interested in cultures that come from outside." The magazine therefore expresses "great concern that the culture of the native Mentawai people could be increasingly undermined by change". In this context, the Catholic Church "strengthens the Mentawai community not only from a cultural and religious point of view, but also in cultural and socio-economic development, especially through education, which broadens the horizons of the younger generations". The Catholic Church, the magazine "Vita" concludes, will continue to be committed to the pastoral care and development of the Mentawai community, in particular to the education of children, adolescents and young people, for example by providing scholarships to study in the main universities of the island of Java. The Diocese of Padang is located in the central part of Sumatra and covers an area with a total population of around 12 million, including around 130,000 Catholics. Among the 29 parishes there are some so-called "island" parishes on the Mentawai Islands in the Indian Ocean, 150 km west of Sumatra. (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 2/1/2024)