The Story of Peter Soedojo (1933-2006)

Tony Nichols remembers the remarkable life of an Indonesian man he met as a student in Sydney, and who, having become a Christian under John Stott’s mission preaching, lived a life of fruitful witness and ministry in Indonesia.

Soedojo came to Australia from Indonesia in the mid-fifties as a Colombo Plan student. The Colombo Plan was a centrepiece of Australian foreign policy which aimed to strengthen relations with Asia. Thousands of Asian students studied in Australian universities, hastening the dismantling of the “White Australia” policy. I personally formed many lasting friendships. Considering the prevailing attitudes at that time, my parents were remarkable in their hospitality to the Chinese and Indonesian students that I brought home from Sydney University to Bulli on the South Coast of NSW.

Indonesian students, compared with those from Singapore, Malaya or Hong Kong, were disadvantaged in their studies. Not being from the British Commonwealth, they had little language or cultural preparation for survival in Australia. The friendship of Australian students who helped get accurate lecture notes and shared their lives was mutually beneficial. Soedojo, although a very traditional Javanese and a Muslim, learnt to play tennis and began to read the Bible.

Then in mid-1958, the S.U. Evangelical Union organised a Mission to the University led by the Rev’d John Stott, the young Rector of All Souls Langham Place, London. For a week, we attended lunchtime expositions of the Sermon on the Mount, the like of which I personally had never experienced – clear, systematic, unemotional explanations of Jesus’ teaching. The final Sunday night meeting, in the Great Hall, attracted hundreds of students and lecturers. The weary missioner’s usually distinct tones were reduced to a croak. Nevertheless, about seventy students stayed behind for counselling. Soedojo was one who that night confessed Jesus Christ as Lord.

In his baptism at St. Barnabas, Broadway (where I was his sponsor), Soedojo took the name Peter. Subsequently, while completing his Master’s degree in Physics, he regularly attended Chapel services on Sunday nights at Moore Theological College. We parted company at the end of 1959. I was sent to teach Latin at Temora High School in country NSW. Peter returned to Java.

Communications with Indonesia in the sixties were difficult. It was even harder from British North Borneo where I was posted by the Church Missionary Society in 1962. President Sukarno had declared Konfrontasi against Britain and its proposed Malaysian Federation.

I was teaching at St. Patrick’s School, Tawau, on the border with Indonesia. Until the British brought in the Gurkhas, we were under constant threat from Indonesian guerrillas and gunboats. There was no contact with Soedojo for twelve years. Some friends believed that he had been sent to the Soviet Union for further studies and that he may not have returned because of the failed Communist coup in 1966.

Then in God’s strange providence, after study and teaching at Moore College, and my marriage to Judith, CMS sent the Nichols family to Muslim Java in 1972, to teach at Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga. We shared with some of our prayer partners the desire to find Soedojo and began to make enquiries of Javanese colleagues. The quest was daunting. Indonesia’s population was almost 200 million, most of whom lived on the island of Java.

There followed one of those spectacular answers to prayer with which the Lord occasionally encourages His people. Suffice it to say that within two months of our arrival in Salatiga, Soedojo turned up on our doorstep. He was a visiting lecturer at Satya Wacana! In his pici (the national black cap) and sarong, he was hardly distinguishable from the millions of other Javanese among whom we lived. But it was him all right - older and thinner; the same smile, the same manner - self-effacing, yet quietly dignified. Over the following nine years, we were also able to get to know his wife, Tien, their three irrepressible boys and daughter. Gradually, we were able to piece together a remarkable story.

Soedojo lived about 100 kilometres from Salatiga, in Bantul, near Yogyakarta, the cultural heartland of Java. On returning from Australia, he had been appointed tutor in the Science Faculty of the prestigious Gadjah Mada University. Like most public servants in the Sukarno era, he was driven by soaring inflation to supplement his income from other sources. His parents relied on him to finance the education of his seven younger brothers and one sister. The standard practice would have been to solicit bribes from students seeking to guarantee their progress. Soedojo chose to work as a part time teacher in high schools.

For three years he had no contact with a Christian congregation. There was none in his area. He did, however, begin to invite some students and neighbours to join him in the study of the Scriptures. The Javanese were almost totally Islamic, though often, under the surface, older monistic beliefs persisted.

However, in the late sixties, Christian movements occurred after the traumatic events following the attempted Communist coup in which over half a million were killed. Thousands of suspected Communist sympathisers were placed in detention camps. The notorious Buru Prison Island had twelve thousand exiles.

Perhaps in reaction to both communists and vengeful Islamists, the membership of our local Javanese church and its outposts in Salatiga had grown to 28,000 by 1972.

In the same period, Soedojo’s home group in Bantul had become a congregation of the Gereja Kristen Jawa with 300 members and five outcentres. A Christian school had also been established. At Christmas and Easter, Soedojo took teams out to evangelize surrounding villages, using the indigenous Wayang puppets. The pastor was one of two young men whom Soedojo had nurtured and encouraged. This information, like so much else, came to light incidentally. I had noted that his meagre library did not include the New Bible Dictionary that I had given him. He explained that the Christian books brought back from Australia had been divided equally between his two proteges when they had begun their studies at the seminary in Jakarta.

Within his own family circle, it seems that Soedojo did not face any great opposition, perhaps because he was an exemplary son. His father had passed away and he was the main breadwinner of the family. He did not marry until he was 35. He took his position as head of the family very seriously and after his siblings scattered, he visited them at least once a year. Some were already better off financially. Two were officers in the military and one a doctor. Four had become Christians.

We were able to meet the minister and members of his church, including the police chief, a recent convert from Islam. All testified to the influence on their neighbourhood of one godly Christian home.

At the State University, Christians, whether staff or students, had to tread very circumspectly. Discrimination was real, especially against those who had converted to Christianity (as distinct from those who came from Christian families). Former students who became lecturers at Satya Wacana told us of their respect for Soedojo. He was said to have a rather dull delivery and to be too encyclopaedic in his treatment. However, he was set apart from his colleagues by his attendance record, his honesty, and his kindly interest in his students.

Our contact with Soedojo was diminished in the 1980 s, after CMS asked the Nichols to leave Indonesia for a new ministry at Nungalinya College, Darwin, training Aboriginal leaders. We heard that Soedojo had been appointed Associate Professor at Gadjah Mada University, having been awarded a doctorate in nuclear physics by the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam. Apparently, he had been keeping records of radiation in water for decades. Visiting Dutch professors were impressed and persuaded him to write up his findings.

Our subsequent ministries at St. Andrews Hall, Melbourne (1989-91) and in the Diocese of North West (1992-2003) meant that visits to Indonesia were rare. But after retirement, Judith and I were able to fulfil requests from the Bishop of Singapore to spend time at the Anglican Institute in Bandung, training pastors for new church plants. Visits back to Central Java were possible.

Then on the 27th May, 2006, we heard that a massive earthquake had struck the heavily populated Yogyakarta region. The epicentre was Bantul. A million people were homeless and over 6,000 dead. The Vicar of All Saints Jakarta, Dale Appleby, helped me contact the Synod office of the Gereja Kristen Jawa. From there I was able to contact the Pastor of the GKJ church in Bantul. Soedojo’s family were believed safe, though the district was completely devastated. I flew down to Semarang and was met by Daniel Nuhamara, a former student (now Professor), who organised accommodation in Salatiga and a taxi to take me across Java to Bantul.

My Muslim taxi driver was pessimistic about the prospect of finding Soedojo. All buildings had been flattened, he said. Only the Christian church was still standing!

The driver’s report was not quite true. Among the acres of ruins, a few scattered houses were still standing, including Soedojo’s. He and his wife were sitting in front of their home awaiting my arrival. Their son, Stefanus had relayed the news of my coming.

There followed a joyful reunion. Soedojo, however, was in poor health and awaiting serious surgery. But I learned how God had continued to use him, not least in supporting a new Christian university in Yogyakarta. I saw some of the textbooks that he had written and the manuscript of a book to help Muslims to come to Jesus.

Most memorable was his clear recollection of his baptism and confirmation in Sydney almost fifty years before. He recited in English the verses preached on at both services. At his baptism, Howard Guinness had spoken on Philippians 1:21 – “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain”. At his confirmation a few months later, Bishop Marcus LoanTo him who overcomes I will give to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God”.

Peter Soedojo now enjoys the reality of those promises. He was called home a few months after that reunion, aged 73 years.