The Big Apple has become an exporter of religious ideas, regaining a role that it had in the 19th Century. I came across this phenomenon while reporting for A Journey through NYC religions from a far-flung outpost on an island in Indonesia.
Following up my reporting on Indonesians in New York City, in January I was on my way to a Christian orphanage in remote West Timor in Indonesia. The paved roads there were only built ten years ago and are not lit at night. Chickens and cows mix with people on the edges of town. Lunching at a cafeteria, I was surprised when the conversation changed to a pastor in Brooklyn. "Are you familiar with Reverend A.R. Bernard?," Sharon Yeap, a volunteer at the orphanage, asked.
Yeap and I were not in New York City, or even on the same continent of the city that never sleeps. We were sitting in a cafeteria with chickens pecking outside of the window on the outskirts of Kupang, the capital of West Timor.
The question would not seem peculiar at a cafe on Broadway in Manhattan where many of Bernard’s members work in the theater. Pastor of the mega-church Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, Bernard ‘s members are found throughout New York City society. This fact lead New York Magazine to pronounce him as one of the most influential New Yorkers.
In the 19th Century it was common to hear in the far flung parts of the world about New York City faith. The city was a center of religious innovation that radiated outward. The famous evangelist Charles Finney made the city his headquarters. Evangelist Dwight L. Moody also circled in and out of the city. Bible House, the first cast-iron framed building ever built, sent Bibles in multiple translations with missionaries around the world. The first prophecy conference was held with the encouragement of Trinity Church and influenced the movement to re-establish Israel. Then, it all receded from view. From the 1960s onward we were more apt to read about religious innovations coming from California. Now, the pendulum of religious innovation is shifting back into New York through the international influence of people like Bernard.
Far from the notoriety of The Big Apple, West Timor is not a name much on the lips of people around the world. It is just part of one of Indonesia's 17,508 islands. Kupang resides in anonymity about six hours west by car from its more infamous neighbor East Timor, which grabbed international headlines in 2002 for a bloody war of independence from Indonesia. The cruelties of war flowed into West Timor and neighboring islands in the form of orphans, broken families, hunger and homelessness. Of the over 200,000 refugees, West Timor received the most.
The area is not a hospitable place for children without their parents. It is dangerous and very poor. Budi and Peggy Soehardi came from Singapore to help in 2002. They founded Roslin Orphanage, which now holds 130 of these children, most or all from Christian families, ranging from 25 year olds to babies. Some are literal orphans; others are virtual orphans because the parents were unable to raise them during the ravages of the war. Life is still hard in the area and more orphans show up all the time.
Many of the parents are subsistence farmers living in sheet metal shacks, cooking on wood burning stoves, and eking a living from meager crops of rice, mangos, bananas and kang kung.
Both Yeap, 31, and her friend Jennifer Haw, 20, work as flight attendants for Singapore Airlines. The two met at a cell group set up by City Harvest Church for Singapore Airlines crew. The women were “saved by Jesus” just months apart in 2009. Yeap’s spiritual turning came in June while Haw’s came in October.
Last July, Haw came with other Singapore Airlines' cabin crew to help at the orphanage. The volunteers pitched into the work of laying the foundation of a new school building and clearing weeds from a rice field. The founder of the orphanage sees education as a key to breaking the cycle of poverty among the subsistence farmers.
Yeap and Haw now were back on a six day trip to volunteer at Roslin. They were drawn to the task of helping the orphans by Bernard’s preaching about the cultural mandate of the Bible. The women connected this mandate with Jesus’ love of children.
Bernard has a close relationship to Yeap’s and Haw’s City Harvest Church in Singapore, a city with a fast growing Christian population. After the church was rocked with scandal last year, the New York City pastor has served as an advisor and preaches there regularly to maintain some stability in the church. The church has announced that Bernard will next preach at its services on May 11-12. His December sermon on the cultural mandate in the Bible was the key in moving Yeap to join Haw on a trip to the orphanage in Kupang.
"He preached about the cultural mandate and how you can bring the Gospel out in anything, in where ever you are and anything you do," Yeap said.
The idea comes from the Book of Genesis verse, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Bernard interprets the text as a command to Christians to be creative and mindful about culture which includes everything from the arts to zoology. In particular Bernard teaches that God values doing things of lasting value like helping an orphan to make good in life.
Haw nodded in agreement and added, "Whatever values are in the Bible, we can take it out of the church and make it relevant to everyday life." Haw heard Bernard’s sermon being fruitful in producing culture as a spiritual call to return to Roslin for her second time.
"Our father God wants us to make this trip and he is with us. When I said to myself I wanted to do this mini-mission trip, I felt very strongly," Haw said. She then saw how the needs that were arising at the orphanage and the arrangements for the trip fit her conviction. "Everything just fell into place after I decided to come to Roslin."
The two “sisters in Christ,” as they call themselves, are quite a pair. They finish each other's sentences and act like sisters even though they have opposite physical traits. Yeap has short black hair that hits right above her ears and highlights her fair skin. Haw's wavy black hair flows neatly down her back and matches her tan skin. They came to Kupang with three suitcases filled to the brim with art supplies, goods for school like pencils and blank notebooks, and Lego toy sets.
Each had their own ideas of what kinds of activities they wanted to organize with the orphans. Haw couldn't wait to arrange a day of face and finger painting. As an amateur music producer, Yeap wanted to expose the children to her love of DJ’ing. In another sign of New York influence, she brought her portable mixer and a poster she made that told an overview of hip-hop's beginnings in the Bronx. Both agreed that they wanted to teach the children songs, particularly from the musically-famed Australian church Hillsong.
During our twenty minute walks to Roslin orphanage from Hotel Christati, the cultural mandate was often a main topic of conversation.
One day, I asked the women to discuss their decision to come on this a mini-mission trip. Why would she leave Singapore to come to a remote place and people about which they knew very little?
Recalling something Bernard had said, Yeap explained that she was a like a detective sent by God to find out about people’s problems and conditions and to help them. "It's like what Rev. Bernard said the last time he preached in our church: 'You are a private investigator for Christ.' It's like you are a Christ detective." Private investigators develop contacts, probe, collect information, and assemble stories of the unknown. Then, they propose solutions
Consequently, Haw pointed out that her second visit is based on more knowledge and deeper contacts with local people than before. She felt that she could make more impact because of her first investigation. “The first time I came to Roslin I felt like I was treated more like a guest,” Haw observed. “This time, I am treated more like family participating in the everyday life of Roslin.” The women were really pouring themselves into helping the kids.
One day, they arrived at the orphanage at four in the morning to get the children ready for school and prepare them breakfast meals.
Haw is considering her next step in living out more fully the mandate to impact the culture of West Timor. She is thinking of changing her career to become a teacher so that she can work at the orphanage’s on-site school which opens this summer. Haw has already lent a hand in layhing its foundation, and the superstructure is being completed. The school will train new teachers in Montessori methods of education to provide free education for all the orphans.
The young Singaporean’s dreams now are focused on changing Kupang one child at a time.