By Paul Jeffrey*
Along the banks of the Gajah Wong River where it slowly meanders through Yogyakarta, a city in the center of Indonesia’s Java Island, people of different faith traditions are uniting to confront the worsening climate crisis.
“People here may be from different religions, but we face the same challenges and so we work well together,” said Budi Wasono, chairperson of the Gadjah Wong River Care Group, a community organization formed by people living along the river.
Wasono’s group collaborates extensively with the local congregation of the Javanese Christian Church, a member denomination of the World Council of Churches. It’s a partnership that is increasingly common in Indonesia as faith communities seek new ways to contribute to climate justice.
“The church is part of society, we are immersed in the society, so we have a responsibility to help our society both care better for the environment as well as help mitigate the problems caused by the changing climate,” said Inovieka Rizka, a member of the Javanese Christian Church congregation in Ambarrukma who works as a volunteer in the riverside project.
Seventy-five-year-old Harjo moved to the riverside almost six decades ago. She recalls a once idyllic environment where she swam in a river filled with fish. As the number of riverside dwellings increased over the years, however, flooding became an occasional problem, though residents could usually predict such events given the regularity of the rainy season.
“That has all changed in the last few years as the climate has changed. Now we can get heavy rain at any time, even in the middle of the dry season. We haven’t been well prepared for that, though we’re now getting organized to cope better with the changes,” said Harjo, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.
The church’s collaboration has accelerated in the wake of severe flooding last year. With assistance from YEU, the emergency unit of the Christian Foundation for Public Health (widely known as YAKKUM), the congregation and the community group have embarked on an ambitious program to clean up the river and lessen the vulnerability of families whose homes at times perch precariously over it. YEU provided support to the disaster management committee of the Ambarrukma church so they could install sensors and alarms that warn residents of rising river levels. Rizka and other volunteers marked homes with easily understood color-coded signs indicating the presence of children, the elderly, pregnant women, or people with disabilities. And they worked to organize the community to rapidly evacuate the most vulnerable when flooding, earthquakes, or some other phenomenon threatens normal life.
“We can’t stop the climate crisis at a local level, but we can at least insure that people survive,” said Lorenzo Fellycyano, a communications specialist with YEU.
For Rizka, the climate crisis has meant learning to adapt to a changing environment, but she recognizes that not everyone can do that easily. “It’s getting hotter day by day. I can change my clothes three times a day if I need to, but people living in places of risk can’t easily change where they live,” she said.
Yonathan Denny Subrata Tarigan, the coordinator of the Javanese Christian Church’s climate crisis response in the city, says Indonesia’s churches have a good track record of responding to dramatic emergencies like the occasional eruptions of nearby Mount Merapi.
“Yet the climate crisis has developed so slowly that many people can’t see it. So most of the church isn’t thinking about climate. We have to encourage our leaders to be more involved. They worry a lot about sin and heaven and not enough about earth. It may not be in the Ten Commandments, but destroying the planet is a big sin. We need to worry about how we’re going to pass the planet to our children. Fortunately, more and more people are starting to think about this and speak up, particularly younger people. They realize this is important,” he said.
According to Amie, the director of YEU, understanding climate change has become an essential component in her organization’s work of fostering economic development. “In Indonesia, more than 90 percent of our disasters are related to climate. We work with community groups like women and farmers and facilitate a discussion between them and other stakeholders, like academia and the government, so they can map the risks they face and define the capacity they have to respond, particularly in support of the most vulnerable—people who are affected disproportionately by environmental changes,” said Amie.
YEU has carried out projects in West Papua and West Sumatra to increase the resilience of coastal communities affected by rising seas and other climate-linked changes, encouraging climate adaptive farming techniques, especially in areas where water has become scarce.
Amie says the topic of climate is being discussed more frequently in interfaith gatherings. “Our awareness as faith communities is increasing, particularly about how climate relates to disasters like landslides and floods. We’re looking at how assets of the faith community can be used in response, such as the loudspeakers at mosques as part of an early warning system, and churches as shelters for people evacuated from high-risk zones,” she said.
Cultural differences tend to fade to the background when people find common cause.
“When people face the same problems, we tend to work together instead of fighting with each other. This happened in the floods last year along the Gajah Wong. People had limited time to save their belongings from the rising water, and so people worked well together, cooperating to save lives and property despite their religious or ethnic backgrounds,” Amie said.
Faith-based schools respond to the climate crisis
Across the city from the banks of the Gajah Wong, an Islamic school is working to lessen its impact on the climate.
“We want our students to be aware of the climate in which we live, and to act responsibly. Yet a few years ago the company that collects our trash told us that we were one of their biggest customers. That’s not the image we wanted to project. So we decided to change,” said Gus Irwan, the director of education at the Assalafiyyah Mlangi School.
He said the school has tried to minimize paper by using tablets and laptops. It tried recycling all its plastic waste into eco-bricks that could be used in construction, but school officials were still disappointed in the amount of waste produced, so late in 2022 they did away with single use plastic. Students were issued reusable water bottles, for example, which they refill at water stations. The school launched an organic farm and started feeding food waste to cattle and goats. A plastic-wrapped pallet of Coca-Cola in plastic bottles has sat unopened in the school store for weeks, waiting for the distributer to come pick it up. The garbage truck which used to come more frequently now only visits once a week.
The school joined a growing movement of Islamic eco-pesantren (eco-boarding schools) around the country, inspired by the work of Fachruddin Mangunjaya and other Islamic scholars who have found in the Quran and Hadith a deep motivation to reduce waste, stop deforestation, and protect biodiversity.
Endah Kunti, a teacher at the school, says it has taken the students some time to adapt to the changes.
“Before they just threw everything away, but now, for example, they have to use their own bottle for water and then wash it out themselves. We give them toothpaste and shampoo in refillable containers to minimize plastic packaging. When they bathe they have to use the soap the school provides rather than that individually wrapped bar of Lifebuoy soap they brought from home. Of course they complain, often quite dramatically. But as they become more aware of climate change, they begin to understand,” she said.
Sixteen-year old Fika, who has studied in the school for five years, says the changes haven’t been easy, but the focus on cleanliness in Islamic theology has helped her understand the reasons behind the changes.
“My friends and I were accustomed to using certain brands of shampoo from plastic bottles, and, to be honest, the new soap and shampoo just don’t clean as well as what we used before. Sometimes we still smell after bathing, and we don’t like that. But we’re glad to do it if it can help the environment,” said Fika.
Many Christian schools around Indonesia are implementing similar measures.
Sister Margaretha, a member of the Sisters of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, says the Catholic schools that her congregation runs have banned single-use plastic bags and bottles. They also work to convince shoppers to bring their own reusable bags to the market, and they have worked with coastal villages to expand mangrove forests as a way to increase fish stocks and limit damage from tsunamis.
“All of us are finding the world a less friendly place because of climate change,” Sister Margaretha said. “And we are all looking for ways to respond.”
The nun, who lives in North Sulawesi, says Laudato Si—Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the climate crisis—has energized her community’s response.
“Laudato Si is at the center of a special curriculum on the theology of creation that we developed for our schools and parishes,” she said. “People of all religions, including Muslims, are reading Laudato Si. It’s read in the universities and discussed in the media. It has helped all of us take climate crisis seriously.”
“This never happened before”
While urban residents often don’t notice climate change until something catastrophic occurs, farmers in Indonesia’s countryside are much more attuned to even the subtle changes that can ruin their carefully planted crops.
In Kemadang, a rural village 30 kilometers southeast of Yogyakarta, the changes have been more than subtle. Drought has reduced the number of harvests and increasingly left farmers helplessly surveying fields of withered crops. Irregular rains, increasingly heavy and falling during what was traditionally the dry season, can wash away seeds and even the roads that farmers use to access their fields.
According to Rev. Christiano Riyadi, pastor of the Javanese Christian Church congregation in Kemadang, recent weather events are without parallel in the region’s history.
“Our weather has changed. Since 2017, we’ve experienced extreme rain and floods, and people here often use the phrase “this never happened before” when talking about the weather,” Riyadi said.
“Last November, the heavy rain surpassed the ability of the ground to absorb it, and we had two weeks of flooding. The river overflowed, farmers lost their seeds, houses and schools and the market were damaged. Access to many areas was cut off. We had to evacuate many families. Some went to live with relatives, but others we had to place in shelters.”
Riyadi says the congregation—which includes many farmers—felt obligated to respond.
“Our faith teaches us that we cannot just use the resources around us without also being responsible for conserving our environment and attempting to live in harmony with nature,” he said.
With assistance from YEU, church members established a “food barn” where local farmers could store their grains, allowing them to sell when prices were more favorable. Riyadi says farmers can also borrow rice or other crops back from the food barn, at no interest, when they need food for a celebration or a death in the family.
They have experimented with climate adaptive farming—planting different crops that better fit the changing environment. And they have tried to focus especially on young and women farmers.
“We want young people to stay here, and not feel like they have to migrate to the city to succeed, and we want women to have greater access to and control over food,” Riyadi said.
In the future, Riyadi says the food barn plans to expand into milling rice, peanuts, and beans into consumer products that will add value to local harvests. Some of those could be sold by community members who spend their weekend earning money by selling food to tourists who flock to a nearby beach.
One thing that won’t change is the interfaith nature of the project, says Sularti, a Muslim woman active in the food barn.
“We see each other as neighbors, as fellow humans, not as members of a particular religious group. In this village, we have lived together for a long time, and our relationships have been characterized by tolerance and mutual solidarity. When we Muslims have a reason to celebrate, the Catholics and the Protestants join with us,” said Sularti.
“In the mosque we talk about the climate crisis. Our leaders keep us informed about what is happening, but they also tell us not to be afraid, that by working together we can overcome the crisis.”
* Paul Jeffrey is a U.S.-based photojournalist.