In the Molucca Islands of Indonesia, Christian and Muslim villagers are slaughtering each other in the name of ethnic and religious differences. It is a war that has made people thousands of miles away wring their hands and wonder what they might do.
One of them is Chris Cole, a 32-year-old pastor at Turning Point Christian Fellowship, a nontraditional Southern Baptist church in Fountain Valley. Cole grew up in Indonesia as the child of missionary parents. His father, Charles Cole, still lives in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.
Last October, Chris Cole's small congregation began to pray for the mounting number of Molucca refugees left homeless by the violence. But prayer soon became a desire to do more: to put into practice the church's commitment to "love people as they are" and to "go wherever God calls." Members had already done this in their ministries for prostitutes, drug addicts and the homeless.
So they set out for the Moluccan island of Ceram, a dense tangle of jungle, jagged mountains and agricultural and fishing villages about a thousand miles northeast of Jakarta. It is one of the larger thousand islands of Molucca, also known as the Spice Islands--once ruled by the Dutch East India Co. and the original destination of Christopher Columbus on his 1492 journey.
Many islanders converted to Christianity under the influence of Dutch missionaries. Molucca has the only Christian-majority population in Indonesia, which is the largest Muslim country in the world. Since the resignation of former dictator Suharto in 1998, old rivalries between Muslims and Christians have flared into vicious conflict.
In Ceram, Muslims have driven Christians from the eastern half of the islands and Christians have burned Muslim villages. One Christian, a young man named Carl, escaped the piercing swords and exploding mortar shells and took flight in the jungle, hiding until the food ran out. His mother died there. Eventually, the remnant of Carl's village ended up on the other side of the island, taking refuge with Christian residents in what was felt to be a safer village.
That's where Carl met Chris Cole and five men from Turning Point in January.
The Americans had come to build shelters for the people now crowded into villagers' homes and living in makeshift lean-tos.
"We went to serve, to show both the Christians and the Muslims that God loves, but what surprised us most was that we were served in return," said church member Pete Spiker, 43, of Garden Grove, a hardware store manager now back at work after the three-week visit.
The visitors were unable to build as many shelters as they had planned. But they returned home inspired by the relationships they built with the refugees.
"Seeing how truly grateful the people were for what they had made me realize that even in the midst of such hardship, God is faithful to provide," Spiker said.
Randy Stuart, 35, of Huntington Beach, sales manager for his family-owned business, remembers his friendship with a young man nicknamed "Chainsaw" for his skill at using that tool in island construction.
"We worked together and sort of clicked despite the language barrier," Stuart said. "What touched me most was on the last day of our stay. We had taught the guys to play American football, and after our last game we were all walking back home."
Stuart's voice grew quiet. "Chainsaw came up to me, grabbed my hand and we walked hand in hand down the street. . . . It was amazing to see how our friendship had grown."
Robert Medina, 23, of Rancho Santa Margarita, a construction worker, loved his relationship with the children. So did Duane Clark, 47, of Santa Ana, an operations manager for an industrial supply company.
Observed Stuart, "Seeing how the children giggled with Duane gave me tears every day."
For Larry Blair, 46, of Fullerton, a former vice president of an aerospace company now considering a career in the ministry, "Going gave us the opportunity to show our faith instead of just talk about it."
The State Department warned against travel to the islands. "Our primary fear was for our physical safety," Cole said. Evacuation plans, including escape and survival in the jungle, were set up. "We felt that God was in complete control of our situation," Blair said. "And we also believed that if God wanted us on this trip, then he would take care of us, and our wives and families back home."
The journey required nearly 20 hours of flying time, overnight stays in Jakarta, a five-hour flight to Molucca, and a three-hour trip across open ocean to Ceram in 30-foot speedboats not designed for dodging snipers and navigating storms.
A local Indonesian army commander did not allow the team into the Muslim villages. But it was allowed to set up a small clinic on the army base at the only mixed Muslim-Christian refugee camp in Ceram. There, Audrey Edwards, a nurse living in Jakarta who accompanied the team, saw hundreds of patients a day; they had ailments ranging from colds to cancerous tumors.