Saints of the
New Millennium
Faith stories of ordinary Catholics in Asia

An Indonesian Catholic’s encounters with God

Agustinus Sina Koten is retired and lives frugally with his wife, believing God will not burden them beyond their ability
Agustinus Sina Koten stands in the corner of his room, near the altar where he usually prays every day.

Agustinus Sina Koten stands in the corner of his room, near the altar where he usually prays every day. (Photo: Ryan Dagur)

By Ryan Dagur

Agustinus Sina Koten shows several pictures of saints, briefly explaining their profiles. Some of the pictures — of  St. Anthony of Padua, St. Monica, and St. Teresa of Calcutta — are tattered, apparently because they are often touched and kissed.

“I often seek their intercession, for different intentions,” says 67-year-old Koten as he puts back the pictures on top of a small cabinet in his house in Medang in Banten province, some 25 kilometers west of Jakarta.

“This is the place where I usually pray in the morning, noon, and night,” Koten says standing in front of the altar.

A statue of the Virgin Mary, a Bible and prayer books are also placed nearby.

“At 3.00 p.m. I routinely recite the Divine Mercy Prayer, which reminds us of Jesus' death on the cross. Unless I'm really busy, I don't miss it," he said.

A man for the parish

Koten’s St. Helena Curug parish, under Jakarta archdiocese, has more than 7,000 members spread across 56 base communities.

For 12 years, Koten was a lay volunteer chosen from parish members to help with church services, such as distributing Communion during Mass, giving Communion to the sick, and leading certain services.

“Usually each volunteer serves for two terms of three years each. However, I was chosen to serve four terms but I stopped it in March of this year for health reasons," he said.

He says at his age, he is not “strong enough to go back and forth to church,” which is eight kilometers from his house to assist at all Masses.

But as a pastoral volunteer, he was “happy to visit the sick and elderly and to give Communion to them and chat with them” every Sunday.

"I feel like I have my own joy when I have to visit them and share the experience of faith for the remainder of their lives,” Koten says.

In his base community, he regularly participates in the Rosary which is usually held from house to house on weekends, particularly in May and October. The community also joins in Bible-sharing sessions in September.

Augustine Sina Koten shows pictures of saints, which are kept in the prayer place in his house. (Photo: Ryan Dagur)

Painful childhood

Koten says he chose to become involved with the church after experiencing that “God was working in my life. That’s my way of being grateful to God for what I gained through simple experiences of my life," he said.

Koten was born to poor farmer parents in a village some 80 kilometers north of Larantuka, the capital of East Flores Regency, in Christian-dominated East Nusa Tenggara province.

He said he originally had four siblings. Two younger ones died soon after being born unassisted, at their home. His mother also died during childbirth.

"I was four years old then. I saw my father hugging my mother, who was withering in pain in our house," says Koten.

"I have no other memories of my mother. Her death was the only experience."

His father then remarried and gave him five more siblings.

Koten recalls that his father was a catechist and the limited income forced him to drop out of school after junior high school.

"After that, just like other young people in the village, I worked in the fields, cultivating rice," he said.

God’s protective hand

Poverty and lack of prospects forced Koten and a friend, just like most other young people did at the time, to migrate to Malaysia. In 1977, at the age of 21, Koten and the friend decided to leave the village.

“Our parents didn't stop us, because the situation in the village was difficult," he said.

“We sailed for two weeks on a crowded boat full of people from our village and nearby villages. It was also loaded with livestock such as goats and chickens. The ship smelt very bad. Many passengers were sick," he recalls.

They landed on the Malaysian border in Nunukan in Indonesia’s North Kalimantan province and worked on a cocoa plantation for three months to save money to obtain passports.

In Malaysia, he worked on an palm oil plantation and then switched to a timber company, as an assistant to a tractor operator moving huge logs of wood.

One day when both were on the tractor pulling down a large piece of wood from a height, a log slid and hit the tractor.

“The tractor was pulled into the river and was destroyed. The driver suffered serious injuries … and his feet and hands were crushed by the wood," Koten said.

“Surprisingly, I only had a minor injury to my hand. Even though we were on the same tractor," he said.

“That experience was an unforgettable experience of God protecting me. I still remember how I prayed before we pulled the wood," he said.

Agustinus Sina Koten, 4th left, with members of the Catholic Charismatic Prayer Fellowship at St. Helena Curug church, under the Archdiocese of Jakarta. (Photo supplied)

Resisting push to recant faith

Traumatized by the accident, Koten quit the job, just six months after starting it.

For the next three years, he worked delivering goods to shops and then for seven years, he worked for a Muslim man, who owned 12 restaurants in Kota Kinabalu. He became close to his Muslim boss.

"Apart from working for the restaurants, I also took his children to school," he said.

Because of the closeness, one day his boss invited him to marry a Muslim woman by converting to Islam.

“He told me that I didn't need to think about costs. He also promised to give me a house, as long as I continued working with him," he said.

But Koten refused.

“I told him firmly that on matters of faith, I would not compromise. I don't want to convert just for getting married," he recalled telling his boss.

His employer did not force him but allowed him to continue working and be involved in church activities.

Sundays were not holidays. But Koten used to complete his work in the morning so as to attend the 11.00 a.m. Mass at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral in Kota Kinabalu.

“I was also active in activities, such as the choir. We were very close to the priests in the parish at that time,” he said.

An old photo of Agustinus Sina Koten (far right) when he visited Catholics in a remote area of Sintang diocese in the 1990s. (Photo supplied)

A pastoral worker by chance

In those days, in the 1990s, liturgical books in Kota Kinabalu were obtained from Indonesia, including spiritual magazines such as Hidup, the Catholic weekly belonging to the Archdiocese of Jakarta. Such books were not yet available in Malay and Bahasa Indonesia was similar to Malay.

One day, Hidup carried an advertisement saying that Sintang diocese in West Kalimantan was looking for pastoral staff to be assigned to inland areas.

The then parish priest, Father Cornelius Piong, who was also the vicar general of Kota Kinabalu diocese and later became Bishop of Keningau, recommended Koten and three others for work in Sintang diocese.

The diocese trained them in basic theology and the Bible and immediately sent them to the remote areas as catechists.

Some 30 young people were then integrated into a religious community initiated by Bishop Isak Doera, the then-bishop of Sintang. The community did not get the Vatican’s approval and it was disbanded in 1996, when Doera resigned.

Koten then moved to Jakarta and worked for a textile company, as a debt collector.

After two years there, he chanced upon a newspaper advertisement placed by Elisabeth Lili Herlianah, a teacher looking for a partner. He married her in 1998. She is now aged 56.

Agustinus Sina Koten shows a photo of when he was in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia in the 1990s, together with Father Cornelius Piong, the then vicar general of Kota Kinabalu diocese who later became Bishop of Keningau. (Photo: Ryan Dagur)

A parental role

Koten and Herlianah soon realized there was little chance of them having their own children.

Soon they learned Herlianah’s younger sister was neglecting her only child and planning an abortion as she faced severe problems with her husband.

“We immediately met her. We asked her not to abort the child but told her about our wish to adopt it. She gave birth to the child," he said.

Koten and Herlianah then adopted both her children.  “We chose to be their parents not because we were economically capable but thought this was a gift from God. We feel like God himself is moving us," Koten says.

Their first child is working in a private company in Jakarta and the second one recently left for the United Kingdom to study.

Agustinus Sina Koten, his wife Elisabeth Lili Herlianah, and their daughter pose for a photo before they took her to Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport for her flight to the United Kingdom in September 2023. (Photo supplied).

‘No burdens beyond ability’

When looking back at his life's journey, Koten says: "There were lots of twists and turns, but God was present at important moments that had a big impact on my life."

He said that with his current retirement status, he was living just barely.

"We still have housing loan installments to pay. We sometimes eat rice mixed with eggs, and sometimes just tofu. But, we are still grateful that we lived this far," he says.

He wants to visit his hometown in Flores to see his relatives. The last visit was 20 years ago.

“My family there has asked me to visit them. But I can't go because I don't have the money,” he says with a smile.

They both decided not to ask their children for money "so that they can focus on their future, which, of course, still has a long way to go."

Their only income comes from Herlianah, who still teaches at a Protestant school. She is tired, Koten said.

“I feel sorry for her, but there's nothing I can do. I can only pray that she stays healthy. She will retire in two years,” he said.

“God will not allow us to be burdened far beyond our ability. My life experience tells me that,” Koten said looking at the pictures of saints on the cabinet.

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