Indonesia: Passion for gender justice and eco-theology

Voice of the Communion: Desri Maria Sumbayak, LWF Vice President for the Asia Region

(LWI) – Desri Maria Sumbayak of the Christian Church Indonesia (HKI) is the vice president of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) for the Asia region. Passionate about gender justice and environmental awareness in Indonesian churches, she is enthusiastic about implementing LWF policies on these issues in her national and regional context.

But this work also brought its challenges, even before the COVID-19 pandemic claimed the lives of many Asian leaders, closed churches and led to loss of livelihoods for many people in the region.

As a mother of two young children, she speaks of her own family background and her belief in the “priesthood of all believers” that drives her own ministry.

What was your religious life like as a child?

I was raised in a Lutheran religious family from the Simalungun Christian Protestant Church in Indonesia, where my parents were active elders. I was very familiar with church activities and festivals. From a very young age, we have always had a family prayer once a week, with my parents and my brothers and sisters. As a child and teenager, I sometimes thought it was boring to have family prayer on weekends when my friends were out and having fun. Now I realize the truth of what my father often told us: “We need discipline to maintain our faith in Jesus Christ.

Tell us about your work with the Indonesian Christian Church Eco-Theology Team.

For almost three years, from 2019 to 2021, I was actively involved in the Indonesian Christian Church Eco-Theology Team. At that time, the team consisted of the project coordinator, two project consultants and me, a volunteer. The project was supported by the LWF, which gave me the opportunity to learn more about the values ​​of the LWF. For example, the involvement of women and young people, interfaith collaboration and ecumenism all had to be taken into account when making decisions about the Eco team. Most importantly, the Eco-Theology Team projects shared LWF policy, agreements, advocacy, and actions around climate justice.

How was it to serve on the LWF Council as a lay person?

For me, it can be quite difficult to sit on the LWF Council as a lay person and also as a woman, so a double minority, so to speak. It is not easy to be vice president for the Asia region, where church leaders are predominantly male and lay leadership in Asian churches is not commonly recognized. I feel like I may not understand some of the issues discussed at the table. But as a Lutheran, I strongly believe in the “priesthood of all believers” which promotes equal opportunity to serve God as believers, with or without ordination. So when God offered me the opportunity to serve on the LWF Council, I gladly accepted.

I believe the lay perspective is very valuable to the ministry and work of the LWF. I often think my point of view may be simple, but I am sincere in my thoughts and my heart. The lay perspective complements the perspective of the ordained members of the Council. I appreciate the LWF very much because it always appreciates and listens to the voice of the laity. However, I am so thankful that my friends especially at LUCAS and other church leaders in Asia support my ministry.

What are your previous positions at the church?

I have been actively involved in representing women in the church. I was the president of the women’s organization in our congregation. After that, for several years, I was involved in ecumenical organizations as a representative of the Indonesian Communion of Churches at the provincial level, and also of the Asia Regional Council of United Evangelical Mission. For the past five years, I have served as an advisor to national women’s organizations where I have worked with others to make recommendations for the implementation of their programs.

What have you learned in your role as LWF Vice President for Asia?

I learned a lot, especially serving the Lord as a woman and as a lay person in the LWF leadership ministry. In the Batak community in Indonesia to which I belong, many still consider women as second-class citizens in society. Serving as LWF Vice President has enhanced my communication skills to communicate LWF global policies to the regional level, and vice versa, to make the voice of the region heard in the global communion. I learned to prepare and lead a meeting, to negotiate and, above all, to listen to others.

How is the global communion of the LWF important for the ministry of the Indonesian Christian Church and for the Eco Theology team?

The global communion of the LWF is crucial to the ministry of the Indonesian Christian Church in many ways. The LWF plays an important role in shaping our Lutheran identity, supporting scholarships, and has also supported our programs during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was also a great opportunity for HKI to be a pioneer in bringing the issue of climate justice to Indonesian churches and society. It is a great joy and we are very grateful that the LWF has entrusted HKI with an important eco-theology project, because climate justice is one of the important issues in the LWF’s current strategy.

LWF/A. Grey

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Elna M. Lemons