Gordianus Setio Lelono holds the award he received from the Union of Christian Media Journalists for his efforts to obtain building permits for churches. (Photo: Katharina R. Lestari/UCA News)
When Gordianus Setio Lelono served as a neighborhood community chief several years ago, he had a recurring dream.
He saw himself standing in the pulpit of his parish church in Bekasi, in Indonesia’s West Java province, telling the congregation about the importance of having a sense of belonging to a parish.
St. Michael Catholic Church in the Kranji district of the town was considered illegal because it did not have a building permit.
The parish was established in May 1991 in a province regarded by many as the most intolerant in Indonesia and home to various radical and extremist Muslim groups.
Parishioners were unable to obtain a building permit for their church due to strong objections from these hardline groups — until one day in 2000 when the parish priest asked Lelono, a local Catholic businessman, to look into the problem.
He formed a small team called Team 9 and tried to find out the exact reasons behind the objections to the building permit.
“We found the root of the problem within three months. It was simply because parishioners separated themselves from others and did not mix as they automatically thought that they were a minority being rejected by the majority. It seemed a ridiculous situation to me,” he said.
A few years later, at the parish priest’s suggestion, he set up a parish body called the Committee of St. Michael Catholic Church Complex Construction, which had about 60 members.
The idea was for the parish to actively seek to build a church, a residence for priests and buildings for charity work, such as a clinic.
The first thing the panel did was to study a joint ministerial decree first issued in 1969 on places of worship.
Issued by the religious affairs and home affairs ministries, the regulation lays out onerous requirements to obtain a permit to build a place of worship.
Church officials must provide a list of the names and signatures of 90 worshipers and get signed support from at least 100 local residents and approval by a village head.
Along with the committee’s members, Lelono started to visit residents. He also met all neighborhood leaders to try and garner people’s support to allow a building permit to be issued.
“I tried to present our case in an open and friendly manner,” he says.
It was not easy, though. Protestations often came from outsiders or hardline Islamic groups that simply continued to reject the existence of churches in the town, claiming the aim was proselytization.
Despite the obstacles, however, Lelono and his committee succeeded in obtaining a building permit for a church in September 2004 after getting the more than 100 signatures needed from residents, mostly Muslims.
However, soon after that, a stranger came to his house calling him to a meeting with a group of people wanting to speak with him.
“I called a few parishioners and asked them to go with me. But they all refused. I was not afraid. I just wanted to have some witnesses,” he says.
At the meeting, he was threatened and assaulted and told the parish church must not be built.
“I knelt before them, pleading with them to let my parish build a church. I assured them that no proselytization would ever take place,” he says.
“But they insisted it must not be built and even threatened to kill me if I did not tear up the building permit.”
Despite the threat, the parish began construction work and in November 2008 the church was consecrated.
He said he hasn’t heard from those who threatened him since.
Word of Lelono’s success spread. In 2010, a priest from St. Clara Parish, also in Bekasi, asked him for help in obtaining a building permit for a church.
St. Clara Parish was established in August 1998 and, like Lelono’s, was facing strong opposition from hardline Islamic groups over building a church.
“The two parishes had a similar problem. So, I used the same approach as before. I was lucky that the mayor, Rahmat Effendi, was very understanding. He always says he wants to serve all people in Bekasi no matter their religious background,” Lelono said.
St. Clara Parish finally obtained a building permit in July 2015 but opposition from hardliners refused to go away.
“Small protests often happened but there were two huge rallies,” Lelono said.
The first one took place a month after the parish obtained the permit. More than 1,000 gathered, claiming the parish got it through improper means.
The same claim was made at the second and that the site for the church was in an area where pious Muslims resided which should bar any churches being built in the area.
“But local residents were good about it. The opposition was coming from outsiders, which often happens in such cases,” he said.
Last year he was asked by another priest to help obtain a permit for a church at St. John Paul II Mission Station in Rawalumbu, also in Bekasi.
“This went more smoothly. It only took a year to get,” Lelono said.
The mission station got the permit in February this year. The groundbreaking ceremony for the church’s construction will take place in January 2021.
Lelono, who recently received an award from the Union of Christian Media Journalists for his efforts, said that although he has been successful in helping parishes, he had to spend a lot of time, energy and money doing so.
“But the whole problem these parishes had to face just for a simple permit concerned me a great deal. I did not do it for an award. I am 67 years old now. I do not consider myself a good person and, believe me, I have sinned. Maybe it was part of a plan God has for me. He wants me to do good things.”