Me, Ali, and The Fourth of July

In the hustle and bustle of the July fourth celebration I write this blog.  I just got back from seeing fireworks in a nearby neighborhood. In my hunt for dinner, I met Ali a 68-year old Pakistani owner of a pizza parlor, which happened to be the only food stall open while people were getting ready to see fireworks. I told him I had a friend the same name with his back home in Indonesia. As soon he heard the name of my origin country, he asked me if I was a Moslem or not. I told him I was a Christian. Avoiding the awkwardness after revealing my identity, I took turn to ask if he fasted during this past Ramadhan. He said that he did not fast because of his health situation. He had a heart-bypass surgery three years ago which impedes him from fasting. The next few minutes as I was waiting for my 20-minute pizza, I’ve learned about Ali and his family, his first time to be in America 44 years ago, and his new Honda Accord 2017 that he just bought.

I told him I graduated last May and am doing training for the next year. When he realized that I would be going on three years in the States through next year, he teased me, “After three years you can’t go home, you’ll be trapped here. Trust me.” I grinned and replied, ”Oh, really? I don’t believe you, Ali”.

Now let me tell you a bit of my story.

Growing up as minority in my country, every time I heard the word ‘America’ I would think about a form of Christianity that shaped a foundation for values across the nation. Having had some displeasing experiences as a Christian in the largest Moslem-populated country in the world, I was ready to believe that America was an idyllic place for a Christian to live. Without ignoring the prevalence of secularism and materialism in the US, the pervasiveness of Christian values in every element of the nation seem to overshadow everything.

I was raised at a time where my church and my parents often repeated the same messages but with different wordings: we Christians are always socially “monitored”. I understood the messages clearer later as I expanded my access to the out-world during my college years. Christian Indonesians are seen with double views.  In terms of our minority status, the majority always fear that we could be a backlash politically given the fact that some Christians in Indonesia are economically powerful. On the flip side of the coin, Christians are favored because, relatively, they are not part of social problems.

In 2010 when I attended a conference on Integrity in response to the rampant corruption sweeping all nations, I came across the idea of how Indonesian Christians can become answers to the nation’s major problem. The keynote speaker at the conference, Yonky Karman, coined the terms “salt Christianity” and “dye Christianity”, drawing from Indonesia’s unique socio-cultural context. He argued that Christianity in Indonesia should be more like salt that blends perfectly in water without an apparent notice yet it has a tangible transformative effect as opposed to dye which alternates the color of water obviously yet has no contribution to its taste.  Electrified, I found those particular pieces from Jesus’ sermon very powerful in a way I never had before. Somehow, I could see a plausible connection between the condition of being socially monitored and our minority status. Like salt, Christianity in Indonesia should be unobtrusive yet pervasive.

These insights contradict my own experience in America. Christianity has a unique position in the country. Though it is an undeniable fact that liberal secularism is aggressive in today’s America civilization, yet nominal Christianity seems to remain a powerful machine in the country, especially in terms of political constellations. Such Christianity is associated with power and privilege.  Later, sadly I found it was convoluted with white-ethnocentrism and social-justice indifference. It has been dye rather than salt.

My encounter with Ali reminds me of my presumptions that I had of the relationship between America and Christianity which have been challenged a lot. Ali might have assumed I was a Moslem because I’m an Indonesian. Ali’s wrong assumption could be accepted as I mull over Islam is also a powerful political machine in Indonesia.

I go to bed with my mind pierced into afterthoughts caused by the July fourth celebration and an encounter with Ali: there should be a transcendent element for every conditioned-Christianity around the world regardless majority or minority status. In my mind, I hear a voice saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

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