Talking about history in the Javanese Mennonite Church (Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa) is always difficult and challenging due to several factors. First, as the oldest Mennonite community outside of Europe and North America, dating back to 1854, the Javanese Mennonite Church has such a long history and has existed through many dynamic events, including Dutch colonization, Japanese occupation, the Indonesian revolution and struggle for independence, and the anti-Communist massacres of 1965-66. All of these events, and others, have had significant impacts on the survival of the archives and historical documents as well as the kinds of memories that have been handed down. Second, most Javanese Mennonite congregations live in rural and coastal areas in Northern Java and some parts of Sumatra. In the past, many rural people were uneducated and told their stories with an oral rather than written tradition. Third, many local churches show a lack of concern for history and administrative issues, including documenting and writing their experiences.
Making History, Constructing Identity: Hegemony of written tradition in an oral culture?
It is commonly understood that the most important resources for constructing and writing history are archival and documentary records. This inevitably means that history will be written from the perspective of the elites and educated people who had access and the ability to write. To know about early Javanese Mennonites, the written primary documents records are found in the writings of Pieter Janzs, the Dutch Mennonite Mission reports, and the colonial government documents, all of which are in Dutch. The most complete source is the Dutch-language diary of Pieter Janzs which has been edited by Alle Hoekema and published 1997 with title “Tot Heil van Java’s Arme Bevolking. Een Keuze uit het Dagboek (1851-1860) van Pieter Jansz, Doopsgezind Zendeling in Jepara, Midden-Java”. The mission report is preserved in Amsterdam. Additionally, there is a book by T. H. E. Jensma, Doopsgezinde Zending in Indonesie, written in 1968, about history of Mennonite mission in Indonesia based on Mennonite mission archives in Amsterdam. Therefore, our historical construction of Mennonites in Java starts from the Dutch Mission perspective. The lives, theology, and teaching of Javanese evangelists and believers are hidden because they did not leave written materials. Even though Kyai Ibrahim Tunggul Wulung had far more followers than Jansz, information about him is very limited. In mission documents, Jansz’s diary and reports, Wulung was pictured negatively, as not “really Christian” because of his many Javanese ways and ideas.
Writing history is also constructing identity and those who have power will make their story the dominant identity. In oral cultures, it’s very important to give attention to the oral story as well as written records. Both written and oral resources contain the same probability of truth and\or bias. Written documents were written in paper and preserved in archives. But oral tradition was also written in the hearts of the people and passed down between generations. For oral societies, validity does not become the main concern, but the question instead is how the story touch experiential meaning and values that they live.
Local Churches and their Unrevealed Histories
Of the 110 local churches which are members of the Javanese Mennonite Conference/Synod, only few churches have written histories. Many more churches haven’t written their history yet, even though they have existed more than forty years. These churches face similar problems when they start to write their local church histories:
- The absence of documents and archives. Many churches are located in rural and coastal area and they lack concern to write church administrative records and documentation, even membership and baptismal records. So oral history approach will be useful for writing their history.
- Many of those who know most about their church history have already passed away. Later generations often don’t understand their history because the history was not passed down to them.
- There is a tendency in writing history in Indonesia to focus on leaders and church buildings. Many churches are mad about history which regards of whom, how, what, and where was the first of something. Sometimes the church history becomes the list of buildings.
- Difficulty to decide on the start or the beginning of a new church in history. Is the beginning of the church counted from the first worship? Or is it the first baptism of local? Or is it the first church building? Or is it the first local church organization?
This short reflection shows our struggles with archiving and maintaining history in the Javanese Mennonite Church. Talked about writing history is related to cultural tradition of society. It is important to think about archiving oral tradition by collecting story, legend, and myth which is connected to church and consider it as resource for writing history. Finally, I would encourage Anabaptist/Mennonite churches to more aware about their history, which is very important. Local churches should be more aware about documents, archives, local stories before all documents are lost, memories fade, and all witnesses die.