A Lifetime of Tolerance and Love Illuminates Indonesia

A Lifetime of Tolerance and Love Illuminates Indonesia
Photo Credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simões@Flickr CC BY 2.0

What you need to know

Amid growing intolerance in Indonesia, an elder example highlights the joy of friendship across racial and religious lines.

“All my friends are dead!” My grandfather replied to me one Saturday morning when I asked why he was watching TV alone instead of hanging out with his friends.

His delivery was the perfect mixture of funny and morbid, so much that I would retell the story to everyone I meet. It wasn’t strange for him and my grandmother to joke about death; they do it all the time, making us laugh while scratching our heads, unsure of how to respond. So when he suddenly passed away on what was an average Sunday afternoon, all I could think of was how he’d now be with his friends.

My grandfather wasn’t famous. But everyone who knew him, from my friends' grandparents to my surgeon, always told me about what a good man he was. How he was extremely charitable, how he always prayed at the mosque, and how he helped develop Islamic education in Bogor, a city in the West Java province in Indonesia. Pak Haji was a very devout man.

On the day he passed, our house was flooded with people. Women came in their headscarves; many were in tears. We let them in, showing them the way towards my grieving grandmother. They sat on the carpet we had laid out on our living room floor; some stayed for hours, others left right after they had said their condolences.

Among those that stayed was a group of old Chinese Indonesian ladies, all wearing different styles of clothing, and side-by-side they sat at the dining room table. They might have stuck out like a sore thumb, but they shared just as much grief as all the other people who visited that day.

My grandparents met when they were attending a Catholic high school. They married when he was 22 and she 18. Along with the love they had for each other throughout the years, they also held onto their high school friendships. Their friends came over from time to time. I am familiar with some of them, but sometimes new faces come along, greeting, “I haven’t seen you in a long time!”.

This was my grandmother’s high school gang. I’ve never seen a photo of them from back in the day, but I assumed they were all the coolest. Among the group of ladies sitting at the dining room table was one of my grandmother’s best friends, who come over so often that my grandmother sometimes takes a nap while her friend continues to hang out in the kitchen.

Oma, as I call her, is an incessant gossip, but I enjoy her company sometimes. One thing she said when we were reminiscing really struck me.

“People are always bemused why Ibu Haji hangs out with Chinese Indonesians, and it’s weird because I want to say we’re saudara (being related) — because that’s how I feel — but we’re not really.”

It’s not unusual to find interracial and interfaith friendships in Indonesia, but it is strange enough for people to take note of it. People at the wake might have wondered who these women were, but you could see in my grandmother’s face that she knew every single one of them. She accepted every word and took every prayer from them. My grandparents always encouraged their friends, no matter their religion, to be faithful and to keep worshiping.

I think we can learn a lot from my grandparents. With the growing racial and religious intolerance in Indonesia, and amid deepening political polarization caused by this year’s Jakarta gubernatorial election, we should remember that friendship across religious and racial lines is possible. Even among the religious; even among the conservative.

My grandparents are not perfect people, but their tolerance and their inter-religious and interracial friendship seem rare today. Their faith doesn’t turn them into prejudice people.

In a short interview at his high school reunion, my grandfather was quoted as saying, “The students built friendships without considering their race and religion. We respect each other’s religion”.

It’s not our differences that divide us, rather it’s the lack of respect that we have for one another — and that is taking a toll on society.

This article was originally published on Magdalene.co, a Jakarta-based online publication that offers a fresh perspective beyond the typical gender and cultural confines.