JAKARTA, Indonesia (BP)--Venture into Jakarta's Grapes* neighborhood after dark and you might not live to see daylight.
When the sun goes down on this rowdy slum, the families there take cover while criminals take to the streets. Gang-run nightclubs open for business. Prostitutes perch on barstools and stand in doorways. Liquor flows and drugs change hands. On especially lively nights, knives flash.
Mornings, however, belong to the kids.
From the open windows of a formerly abandoned building, you can hear their voices: 30 or so children laugh, sing with their volunteer teachers and work on learning activities. Their hand-drawn pictures adorn the walls of the little school. After finishing one last song, they give thanks to God and dig into plates of fruit before heading home.
All the families of Grapes are Muslim. Most are poor. Parents who have jobs tend to work for the clubs. Some send their children out to beg during the day. Odds are none of these kids would attend school if this one didn't exist. Their parents can't afford school uniforms, much less books.
Here they pay what they can -- but they pay something. The little school belongs to the community. In fact, government officials have recognized it as a model of community-based education. The children of Grapes now have at least a chance of advancing to more schooling.
"We started the school," says Lucinda Arroyo*, a Southern Baptist worker in Indonesia's capital city. "But they're the ones who fixed up the building, plugged the leaks and built the tables."
Indonesian sisters Shirley* and Ann*, both college students, love coming to teach at Grapes. "This activity has opened my eyes that there is another side of living in Jakarta," Shirley says. "Jesus blessed me so much. Why should I waste my time going to the mall? Why not help them? We want to show them that we, as Christians, care."
Christians caring about the families of Grapes began with basketball. Even that is typically beyond poor Jakarta youths, since organized leagues charge fees and such. Enter Lucinda, her husband Rick and their ministry team. They offered to teach Grapes young people basketball basics, rent a court and challenge local school squads to play games.
It took some doing. One basketball court owner raised rental fees twice; he didn't want slum kids practicing on his property. Grapes parents also were suspicious. "They thought we were going to steal their kids," Rick says.
That all changed when the Grapes kids actually beat one of the top school teams in the area.
"It was like a movie," Rick recalls. "The kids were intimidated at first, but they ended up winning. The parents went crazy. That's how we started the school. They wanted something more, and by then we had made inroads in the community."
After classes, school workers visit families in their tiny homes along the alleyways. Rick stops to pay his respects at the home of the community leader, a tough character who did prison time for shooting a man. He welcomes Rick warmly. Despite his past, he looks after the interests of his people.
"The school is a big benefit here," the leader says. It represents a future and a hope for the children.
LABORATORY OF HOPE
A future and a hope. Those are keys to understanding why the Arroyos and their team care so much about a place no one else seems too concerned about. Grapes has become a laboratory of sorts for community ministry in Jakarta. The Arroyos believe the model can be adapted for lots of places in the sprawling urban area.
Communities need schools for their children. Adults want to learn English -- often a ticket out of poverty. Other neighborhoods need relief from the chronic flooding that torments many parts of the city. A band of trash collectors wants to learn how to read. Families need counseling to deal with life challenges. Countless Jakartans need job skills.
"Community centers get us into neighborhoods," Rick explains. "They are bridges. People ask, 'Who are you? Why are you here? What can you do for me?' This gives you the right to share . Through community centers, our national team can visit people in their homes, meet needs and share the Gospel."
That's only one part of their overall vision for the city. It begins with round-the-clock prayer and massive distribution of God's Word throughout Jakarta. It culminates with the starting of cell churches -- up to 24,000 of them, if the team's ambitious dream is realized (see accompanying story). That would put a cell group within reach of every group of 500 people in Jakarta -- home to an estimated 12 million people. The greater metro region contains up to 20 million, according to some estimates.
For inspiration, they look to Nehemiah, the humble cupbearer of Old Testament renown. If Nehemiah -- a "regular guy" in Rick's words, not an engineer or great general -- could organize the rebuilding of the pulverized wall around ancient Jerusalem in 52 days, they believe modern-day followers of Christ can evangelize the city of Jakarta over a period of years.
Their vision: "Jakarta becomes a city of God, because there will be a true movement of God so that communities are changed and thousands of new believing fellowships started."
YET TO BE REACHED
Jakarta, like all of Indonesia, is overwhelmingly Muslim. Yet Roman Catholicism has had a major presence since Dutch colonial rule began in the early 1600s. Protestants count more than 500 churches in the city. Evangelical missionaries and ministries have been at work in Jakarta for at least half a century.
So why hasn't the city been reached with the Gospel?
When Rick arrived in Jakarta a decade ago to teach urban evangelism, he put that question to his Indonesian seminary students. "We went through a whole list of reasons," he recounts. "But they basically said, 'There's no vision'" -- no single, unifying purpose and strategy to push the church to get it done.
"I just felt in my heart that's what God was leading me to do."
Now he shares the Nehemiah vision with believers across the city. He's under no illusions about the magnitude of the job.
"It's a huge task; I'm often overwhelmed," he admits. "As far as a challenge for the Gospel and the need for God's love, Jakarta is it. This is the biggest city in a nation of 240 million people. That's a lot of people you can influence."
CITY OF EXTREMES
The task goes beyond sheer numerical size. There's ethnic and cultural diversity: Han Chinese, Javanese, Sundanese, indigenous Betawi and members of nearly all of the 300 distinct people groups of Indonesia. Ancient Hindu tradition still influences society, mingling with the Islam that has dominated the region since the 13th century. More than 2,600 mosques and 5,800 Muslim prayer centers saturate the city, along with numerous Buddhist and Hindu temples.
The latest fashions compete with body-covering Muslim burqas. Posh condos and 10-story malls sprout downtown, while monsoon floods ravage slums within sight of the international airport. Indonesia's money, power and political influence flow through Jakarta, along with much of its human misery.
"Jakarta is a city of extremes," Rick says. "You've got the extremely rich and the extremely poor, the top leaders and the illiterate, the most fanatical Islam and the most nominal. It's the most modern city and the most poverty-stricken."
-- Gridlock -- Getting across Jakarta is a maddening exercise. The population has grown so quickly in recent years that vehicles completely overwhelm the roads. One forecast warns of total gridlock by 2011. Traffic dictates ministry; you can disciple only the communities you can physically reach.
-- Fear -- Ethnic Chinese fear periodic attacks by indigenous Indonesians. Christians fear persecution from Muslims. Churches fear sharing the Gospel in Muslim areas. Muslim believers in Christ fear backlash from their families and communities. "Fear has a very powerful grip in this city," Rick says.
-- Church tradition -- Most church growth, even in evangelical congregations, is biological or by transfer. Churches shy away from stepping out of their cultural-religious comfort zone. Pastors resist giving younger leaders and laypeople the freedom and responsibility to minister and evangelize.
-- Spiritual oppression -- On top of the pollution, crime and stress of urban life, mission workers and their families battle panic attacks and other health problems they believe aren't of physical origin. "It's like a heavy, wet blanket on you," Lucinda says. "Sometimes you don't realize you're under it until you leave."
Too much to overcome? If hope can bloom amid the hopelessness of Grapes, the Arroyos and their co-workers think it can bloom anywhere -- and everywhere -- in Jakarta.
One day, they believe, Jakarta will be a city of God.
*Names changed. Erich Bridges is global correspondent for the International Mission Board.
Copyright (c) 2009 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net