The hot cup of freshly roasted Indonesian coffee is beside me, ready to be enjoyed. The kitchen where I brewed it has good plumbing. The toilet in the restroom down the hall flushes on command.
I live with the comfort of easy water.
But today I’m thinking about my colleague Theresia Saragih, principal of a tiny school in remote Papua, Indonesia. In contrast with my easy-water life in suburban Jakarta, Theresia struggles each day just to drink, cook, and bathe.
Theresia’s school is about as far from civilization as you can get. The final leg of the arduous route involves descending in a Mission Aviation Fellowship floatplane onto a swampy river in the middle of a jungle.
Theresia, who could be living in a comfortable city but instead chooses to live in this village, describes her work with great understatement: “This is not an easy ministry.”
In dry season, she and her fellow teachers seek clean water by travelling in a canoe up stagnant streams to a small spring far away. They weave through nearly impenetrable forest inhabited by wild boars, snakes, and crocodiles.
In rainy season, everything is flooded. For months at a time the community’s entire life unfolds on wooden walkways and in buildings erected on stilts, perched above brackish waters.
A Lantern of Hope
Theresia leads one of the ten schools our organization, YPPH, has built over the past decade in the remote jungles of Papua. Each one shares the same mission that guides our big-city, English-language, International Baccalaureate schools: proclaiming the preeminence of Christ and engaging in the redemptive restoration of all things in Him through holistic education.
Theresia’s school is one of our newest. Named Lantern of Hope School Saman, it opened in 2022 and has 77 students enrolled in kindergarten through third grade. Theresia leads a team of five teachers who teach the Indonesian national curriculum from a biblical perspective.
“They strive for changed hearts and minds, they say “yes” to God in the face of hardship, and they possess a deep desire to share with thirsty children the gospel’s living water.”
When it comes to highlighting “schools that inspire,” other schools can point to special technologies and pedagogies and facilities. But this humble school offers the deep inspiration that comes from embodying the ideals of Christian education. At the heart of every beautiful Christian school, whether in Papua or suburban Jakarta or North America, is the commitment of Christian educators like Theresia. They strive for changed hearts and minds, they say “yes” to God in the face of hardship, and they possess a deep desire to share with thirsty children the gospel’s living water.
Changed Hearts and Minds
When asked about her students, Theresia’s face lights up with a beautiful smile. But when she describes their home circumstances, her eyes well with tears. Villagers follow a traditional animistic faith that leads them to worship ancestors, fear curses, and practice superstitious rituals. When someone dies, family members throw themselves into the mud and spend the next forty days totally naked. The small community is also harmed by promiscuity, polygamy, and teen suicide. It is a culture in profound need of transformation.
In Foolishness to the Greeks, Newbigin describes how the gospel challenges culture: it “alters the total human situation and must therefore call into question every human culture” (3-4). Christian educators around the world believe this wholeheartedly, as does Theresia. In her context, she and her team work to change their students’ belief systems from ancestor worship to true Christian faith.
She acknowledges that paradigms do not change easily, but the power of Christ can change hearts and minds: “It’s not easy for any child to choose a belief system, but what we continue to do is to preach what is true and allow Christ Himself to work in the life of every child whom we are teaching.”
Saying “Yes” to Hardship
In this interview Theresia explains her deep faith that “God protects us and keeps us in whatever circumstances. We learn how to be thankful in everything. God is present in every one of our struggles.”
Theresia and her colleagues were evacuated once when rebels were advancing on their village.
When the danger subsided, she faced a decision about whether or not to return: “When God has already called me to go to one place, wherever that is, I must be strong to face all circumstances.” She did not give up: “Against all my fears, I decided to go back to the village.”
“No matter the hardships . . . Christian schools exist to bring living water to students.”
Facing these hardships, Theresia describes the abundant joy she receives from fellowship with her teachers: “Just looking at one another’s faces gives us strength to continue to have joy even when we have no water.”
Sharing the Water of Life
Amid the daily search for drinking water, Theresia knows better than most that the water her students need most is that offered by Jesus, who says to anyone who thirsts, “Come to me and drink.”
In her view, one of her most important tasks as a teacher is to preach the gospel. She describes herself and her colleagues as an open Bible, “so our kids can see Christ in us.”
No matter the hardships, and whether water flows from the taps or not, the fundamental call of Christian education is the same in every swamp, town, or city: Christian schools exist to bring living water to students.
To see what day-to-day life is like in Papuan schools, check out this Instagram feed from Principal Andi Rumbrar. You can also read in this Christianity Today article about how YPPH school communities are being transformed through a powerful combination of Bible translation work, healthcare, and education.
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