I have the distinction of being among the first missioners to arrive in Indonesia 40 years ago. But times change. Now I’m the last working Catholic American priest in Papua, one of the last three in Indonesia.
My mission is witnessing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in service to the Asmat people who have a long and difficult history. Today, the Asmat’s very survival is threatened. Most are quite poor even though their land is rich. Many logging posts, for example, employ the Asmat but operations are owned by foreigners, and worker abuses are just a fact of life. The lack of adequate healthcare is another threat to their existence.
Parish life in the neighboring villages of Sa and Er is where I offer hope. My approach has always been integration of our Catholic traditions with Asmat culture. Here’s a good example of what I mean. Instead of the usual Gregorian-style building, the shape of our church is the traditional Asmat longhouse. And it was built by the people themselves with materials from the jungle.
The church has two doors, one on each end. One entrance is for the people of Er, and the other for the people of Sa. Inside there are open-fire hearths representing different family groups. I say Mass from the center of the building.
“Respect for tradition also informs the way we celebrate the Sacraments. Baptism, for example, takes place in the jungle where the Asmat spend most of their time.”
Respect for tradition also informs the way we celebrate the Sacraments. Baptism, for example, takes place in the jungle where the Asmat spend most of their time. If you were here to witness a baptism, you would see me being lifted onto a stretcher along the riverbank. Then with loud chants and yells, the people parade me into an area where families have gathered.
Eventually, we arrive at the Em Tem, a place that symbolizes a mother’s womb. An elderly woman is squatted there humming a sound of welcome as parents carry their children in. When the ceremony is over, villagers carve the names of their newly baptized unto a wooden pole and erect it in the middle of the jungle.
As in other parts of the world, change in Er and Sa is inevitable. So in 2015 I formed a volunteer group of young Indonesians who live among us. They act as lay missioners, helping with projects such as farming, and the preservation of carving and weaving skills. They also teach basic hygiene and educate people on the spread of HIV. The lack of medical care, however, is a real problem. Searching for doctors in the jungle is not unlike hoping for a miracle.
The Asmat have been mistreated for more than a century. But the spirit of Maryknoll is here. Be assured, your prayers and support are a comfort. Together we are witnessing the Gospel by helping the Asmat write their own destiny as people of God, and that is a gift all its own.
~ Father Vincent P. Cole, M.M.