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On a mission to overcome adversities in Kalimantan
Work to improve the lives of ethnic Dayak people on Borneo island is now led by local Indonesian missionaries
On a mission to overcome adversities in Kalimantan

Father Ruben Basenti Moruk (right) and Father Desideramus Ansbi Baum walk along a rocky path in an interior village of Kalimantan to visit Dayak Meratus people. (Photo supplied)

Published: November 24, 2021 02:05 AM

The winding, slippery mud roads to the interior villages of Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo island, are now familiar to Father Ruben Basenti Moruk.

For the past three years, Father Moruk has taken care of a large mission area on the island, where development remains a pipe dream for most villages even seven decades after Indonesia gained independence in 1945.

“We work in a parish which has 23 mission stations with a total of 2,297 parishioners. There are six stations where almost all of the people belong to the Dayak Meratus tribe [Dayak people inhabiting the Meratus Mountains in South Kalimantan],” he told UCA News.

Native priests like him now completely manage the mission that Western missioners began over a century ago in Kalimantan. It reflects a trend of local priests replacing Western missionaries across Asia.

The Dayak are the second-largest tribe in Kalimantan after the Banjar. To reach them in their remote, hilly villages is quite a task. And yet 35-year-old Father Moruk has a personal commitment to take care of these indigenous people.

“I visit each station at least twice a month. I leave the parish on Friday and spend time at the station until Monday,” he explained.

During his visits to these remote areas, he promotes not only Catholic values and performs the sacraments but also boosts the morale of the people as he is well aware of the multiple problems faced by them.

Franciscan Father Ruben Basenti Moruk with members of the Dayak Meratus tribe at a Catholic baptism. (Photo supplied)

The Dayak Catholics

Father Moruk, a native of Laktutus in East Nusa Tenggara province, has been in Kalimantan since 2018, continuing the mission work among Dayak people and palm oil workers who migrated from East Nusa Tenggara, Sulawesi and Java.

Father Jacques Bernard Gros, one of the last foreign missionaries, left Kalimantan two years ago after nearly 30 years of service in the island’s remote areas. Now the French missionary of the Congregation of the Mission or Vincentian is passing his old age in Surabaya, East Java.

Father Moruk, who was ordained six years ago, seamlessly stepped into the shoes of his French predecessor after having served as the first priest of a subparish managed by the Vincentians where Father Gros served before retiring.

These missions were initiated by foreign missionaries, including Father Gros and are now taken care of by Father Moruk.

Apart from serving in the parish, he is also chairman of Banjarmasin Diocese’s Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) Commission.

The Dayaks are largely Christian and live in the interior, traditionally along rivers in longhouses, unlike the largely ethnic Malay and Muslims who live mostly in coastal areas.

In the past, their complex religious practices involved numerous local spirits and omen animals. Tribal warfare was common. But since the mid-20th century, they have steadily adopted Anglicanism, Catholicism and Protestantism.

Their numbers are currently estimated at 3.1 million or 19.49 percent of the total population of the island. The majority (62.7 percent) are Christians, with Catholics (32.5 percent) and Protestants (30.2 percent). About 10 percent still adhere to their traditional religion, the Kaharingan.

Banjarmasin Diocese, through the Meratus Mission Movement, has dedicated itself to the mission for the Dayak Meratus people since 2008.

“It is not primarily about Christianizing them but rather empowering them,” Father Moruk said.

Palm oil workers from East Nusa Tenggara, Sulawesi and Java who work on plantations in Kalimantan attend Mass. (Photo supplied)

Embracing Catholicism

The Dayak Meratus found it easier to embrace Catholicism because, unlike Protestantism, it really valued their culture and traditions.

“The Dayak Meratus generally live in hilly areas. They are uneducated. There is a strong impression that they were deliberately abandoned, including by the government, so that their area which is rich in natural resources can be easily controlled,” Father Moruk said.

The tribal people say many of their native land parcels were simply annexed by outsiders and are now controlled by palm oil companies. They can’t do much because of their lack of knowledge. None of their older generations went to school. Even now there are only a few who graduate from high school.

Veronika Waliya, 46, a native Dayak and mother of two, is worried about their future in Kalimantan, though it is an area rich in natural resources.

“We are grateful to be able to plant oil palm and make money. However, what is disappointing is that over time our land is running out because the land once planted with oil palm can no longer be used for cultivation,” she said.

Her other concerns are the decreasing flow of water in the river and big floods when it rains heavily. “We are also worried about the practice of selling land to migrants. Kalimantan is now controlled by migrants. We hope that the Church will respond to these problems,” she added.

Amid all the gloom and doom, Veronika, a member of the Mandam Mission Station in Banjarmasin Diocese, one of the pioneering stations set up by Catholic missionaries, is grateful for the continuing presence of the missionaries.

“They care deeply about us and are selfless. When someone is sick or having economic difficulties, they are quick to help,” said the mother of two.

Education as mission

Father Moruk said one of the main focuses in their current mission is education.

“We encourage them to enroll their children. The parish with the help of donors offers scholarships. There are two girls that we helped send to school and got admitted to a Franciscan-run orphanage in West Java. One of them now studies theology at Jakarta-based Atma Jaya University and the other studies health in Banjarmasin,” Father Moruk said.

The other challenge is marriages. Dayaks generally practice polygamy and divorce easily but this is changing as those who had Catholic marriages rarely divorce.

“We try and instill a good understanding of Catholic religion through catechesis. We also train lay catechists, who are generally teachers. Also, we are preparing pastoral workers from the Dayak themselves,” Father Moruk said.

There is not a single priest among the Dayak of Banjarmasin Diocese, which has been in existence for eight decades. It currently has eight diocesan priests, six of whom are Javanese and two from other ethnic groups.

Father Ruben Basenti Moruk and his colleague chat with young Dayak Meratus Catholics. (Photo supplied)

Loyal palm oil workers

Father Moruk is keen on getting the younger Dayak people to join the minor seminary. Two wanted to study this year in Banjarmasin Diocese’s minor seminary but canceled their plans. “We are preparing two for the next year,” he said.

As for the palm oil workers in the diocese, their loyalty to Catholicism is very strong, but they lack when it comes to practicing the faith. Father Moruk and his team are working overtime to ensure more and more people come to church.

The workers are in poor financial health due to their habit of gambling and drinking alcohol. Many have been employed on plantations for decades but have no savings. “We have made a policy to check their savings before marriage, whether they have a bank account or not,” he said.

Father Moruk’s only regret is all these responsibilities leave him with little time for the JPIC Commission. “I feel a bit overwhelmed. The responsibilities of a parish priest are quite heavy. I do feel the need for another person to handle this commission,” he said rather candidly.

So far the commission has been focused on efforts to protect the land rights of the tribes besides voicing environmental concerns.

“The impact of environmental degradation is serious. The damage is becoming increasingly real. Every time it rains, there is heavy flooding because the forests continue to thin out.”

The Kalimantan Mission

The Catholic mission in Kalimantan began in 1847 after the Vatican signed a concordat with the Dutch agreeing that Catholic missioners would not work in areas where Protestants were already active.

Catholic missioners built churches in Singkawang in 1876 and a church among the Dayak in 1890 but both missions were closed down for want of missionaries by 1898. However, the mission was re-established with Dutch Capuchin friars at the start of the 20th century.

With the Capuchin arrival, the Catholic Church began its institutional presence in the region on Feb. 11, 1905 — 40 years before Indonesia’s independence — with the establishment of the Apostolic Prefecture of Dutch Borneo(Borneo Olandese).

The establishment of this authority directly under the Vatican led to the expansion of the Apostolic Vicariate of Batavia based in Java, established in 1807, as well as the starting point for the Catholic Church to pay serious attention to the mission in Kalimantan.

In February 1905, the Vatican established the Apostolic Prefecture of Dutch Borneo covering the entire island. As Indonesia was a Dutch colony then, the Vatican appointed Dutch Capuchin Father Pacificius Boss as the head of the apostolic prefecture. He arrived in Kalimantan in November 1905 and is now regarded as the father of the Kalimantan Catholic Church.

Father Pacificius came with three priests and two brothers to Singkawang, West Kalimantan. In 1918, the prefecture was elevated to an apostolic vicariate and Father Pacificius was ordained a bishop. He served the mission until his resignation in 1933. He died at 75 in 1937.

His tomb in Pontianak, the capital of West Kalimantan, was restored by the Archbishop Agustinus Agus of Pontianak in 2018 and is now a place of prayer for Catholics.

After the Capuchins, missionaries from other religious congregations such as Holy Family Monfortan, Oblates Maria and the Vincentians worked in the area.

Father Jacques Bernard Gros (third from right) and youths push a car that was stuck in mud on the way to visit mission stations. (Photo supplied)

Vietnam's loss is Kalimantan's gain

Unlike the other missionaries at that time who had been deliberately sent by the congregation, Father Gros and his two French colleagues were present in the area because of problems with their mission in Vietnam.

After the communists' victory in Vietnam in 1975, their policy of expelling all foreigners forced those who had been there since 1969 to leave the country.

Father Gros chose to serve the Dayak tribe whose language, culture and traditions are not much different from those in the mountainous region of Vietnam.

When he arrived in Kalimantan, he lived with Monforton priests from the Netherlands. Two months later, colleagues Father Gabriel Dethune and Father Victor Berset arrived.

Father Gros said he found Kalimantan had a lot of primary forest. River transport was common as roads came into existence only around 1990.

“With a car we would know when to leave but never know when we would arrive at our destination,” he said, explaining how the journey often involved pulling the car out of mud.

The Dayaks practiced traditional shift cultivation, moving from one piece of land to another to allow rejuvenation and preservation of the ancestral forests.

The tribe lived communally in longhouses that extended up to 100 meters. They were called Rumah betang and occupied by dozens of families of up to 200 people.

The changing face of Kalimantan

Father Gros worked among the Dayak tribe in the mountainous Meratus region of about 600 square kilometers for close to four decades. Over time, he witnessed increased government intervention in Kalimantan.

Father Gros said he began to see this change in 1980. President Suharto’s policies led to the destruction of the Rumah betang and to the import of labor from Java.

“The land of the Dayaks was overtaken and rubber plantations, industrial forests and so on were developed. I witnessed the marginalization of the Dayak people in their own land,” he recalled.

Catholic missionaries tried to defend the tribe, but it was a difficult task. Soon after, oil palm entered the scene and the destruction of Kalimantan gained pace.

Father Jacques Bernard Gros, a French missionary, celebrates Mass with the Dayak Meratus tribe and palm oil workers in a wooden chapel in Kalimantan. (Photo supplied)

Floods strike Kalimantan

Earlier this year, several parts of Kalimantan were hit by flash floods triggered by environmental degradation wrought by coal mining, palm oil plantations and other extractive industries, according to the Mining Advocacy Network.

In the worst-affected south Kalimantan province, out of 3.7 million hectares of the total area, around 1.2 million or 33 percent is controlled by coal mining and around 620,000 hectares or 17 percent is controlled by oil palm plantations.

In East Kalimantan, there were 1,190 mining permits covering 5.2 million hectares, equal to 45 percent of its total area.

President Joko Widodo’s decision in 2019 to relocate the capital city to East Kalimantan, for which the construction process will begin in 2024, may lead to further destruction of the forests.

The Catholic Church knows increasing environmental problems will lead to further marginalization of local people, so it focuses on advocacy through the JPIC Commission and Banjarmasin Diocese.

There is greater awareness among the Dayak people, who are now collaborating with indigenous advocacy organizations such as the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago.

Switch to local priests

Of the six dioceses in the Kalimantan region, five are led by Indonesian bishops, two of whom are diocesan bishops. In the past, all bishops were foreign missionaries.

Father Agustinus Purnama Sastrawijaya, superior general of the Congregation for the Missionaries of the Holy Family (MSF), said his congregation, which started working in Kalimantan in 1926, now has only one foreign missionary in the region.

The 88-year-old Father Hermann Stahlhacke from Germany served as provincial in Kalimantan from 1990-99. The others, he said, have returned to their home countries of Germany, the Netherlands and Poland.

Foreign missionaries, said Father Purnama, have been replaced by local priests. The MSF Kalimantan Province, which was formed in 1971, currently has one bishop, 42 priests, 28 brothers and six brothers.

In fact, since 1993 they have been sending missionaries to other countries such as Papua New Guinea, Madagascar, the United States, Germany, France, Chile, the Philippines and Italy.

“Indonesia is one of the countries whose calling is still fertile,” Father Purnama said.

Father Jacques Bernard Gros and a nun with Dayak people at their home. (Photo supplied)

Seeds of faith

The Franciscans (OFM) have opened three parishes in two dioceses in Kalimantan during the last five years. Father Mikhael Peruhe, OFM Indonesia’s provincial minister, said they had also sent missionaries to countries in Asia like Thailand and Myanmar, plus to the Holy Land.

“In the past, missionaries planted the seeds of faith in our land. Now is the time for us to continue their work, not only in Indonesia but also in other places,” he said.

Father Gros said he had great confidence in Indonesian priests to continue what they had started. “But don’t make priests foreigners in their own country,” he warned, emphasizing the need for Indonesians to retain their cultural roots.

“Likewise, seminarians from Kalimantan training in Java should not turn Javanese,” he emphasized, adding that “every ethnicity or culture needs to rediscover its characteristics, including its language.”

“The struggle is not over,” Father Gros said. It has now been taken over by indigenous priests.

Veronika Waliya knows that she can speak to Catholic priests who understand her language and culture as her own brothers. “They are addressing our concerns. We work together for a better life here,” she said.

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