Beatrice Hillman reflects on her time in Thailand, China and Indonesia.
After a tricky childhood with unconventional, rigid parents, I had no idea what life was about. As a non-believer I was uncomprehending and angry, but curious about religions. My need to explore who I really was – or wanted to be – and what made other people strive to be who they really were, led to lots of exploration both inside the box (i.e. my head) and ‘outside the box’ of my familiar life, culture and social norms. What really matters? And in particular, what does ‘God’ mean?
After university, and several visits to Taizé in my twenties, loving the breadth, depth and simplicity of the liturgy there, I became an Anglican. But I still wrestled with the meaning of life and God and didn’t know what I wanted to do.
So despite various ‘delay-making-a-decision’ ploys, I did teacher training and found myself teaching for a few years in universities in Thailand (the ‘undeveloped’, pre-tourism Thailand of the 1970s) and China in the 1980s (pre-Tiananmen events). I loved learning both Thai and Mandarin – both tonal languages – mostly forgotten now.
In China in the 80’s, life was tough and grey. All assumptions I’d ever made about what makes people tick, relationships, society and the role of religion were challenged. Obviously Thai Buddhism pervaded every aspect of life, relationships and society at that time in Thailand. In China, although official religions were not encouraged, they were ‘tolerated’. Yet the divine love that suffuses the universe does flow through everyone, and people express that in whatever language and concepts are available.
Those years were rich times for reflecting on who I was, what is meant by ‘God’, and “why, who, where and how God revealed Godself” through people and populations.
This week the Season of Creation starts, and I’m thinking back to a time, also in the Far East, when I had first-hand experience of the Divine working through a group of dedicated, God-loving people in an environmental conflict.
In the 1990s I spent a few months in Indonesia, teaching Pastors of the Batak Church in North Sumatra, at their seminary high up in the equatorial rainforest. The Batak people, renowned in the past for their determined fighting, and, incidentally, some unusual animistic practices (more details on request) were converted by German Lutheran missionaries towards the end of the 19th century. The wonderful people I was with, mostly pastors and their families, were devout ‘evangelical’ Christians working in a traditionally animist and rural culture. So for that time I joined in with the language and style that was uniquely theirs.
The Batak church and the pastors were at the forefront of courageously challenging the central (Javanese) government’s ruthless logging programme and its devastating environmental consequences. It was excruciating to hear the chainsaws and to see vast tracts of rainforest being felled around us. The Batak pastors were persecuted ruthlessly for their opposition, and suffered appalling human rights violations as a result of their resistance (more details on request). They were extraordinarily brave in word and in action.
They also set up inspired social development projects. I helped them write an application to an international NGO for a grant, and before leaving, I asked them to send a copy of their final application to me in London. Which they did. But to my horror, when I received this in the post, I noticed that the Indonesian stamp on this 4 page letter cost 3,000 Rupiahs, which was precisely the same amount that landowners of the forest trees were being paid for each (enormous) tree that was felled from their land… That’s like £1.80 paid for each tree! It still gives me goose-bumps to recall that.
I was, and am, in awe at the courage of those Batak pastors, stirred by the deep flow of God’s spirit. And now I no longer need to ask, ‘What really matters?’ and ‘What does ‘God’ mean?’