Spirituality behind the bar: Indonesian peasant struggle for agrarian justice

NCCI received this email letter (as reproduced below) from Rev. Josef Purnama Widyatmadja with an article on “Spirituality behind Bar” which is an interview of Rev. Sugianto, a local Pastor in Indonesia who is engaged in the defence of people whose lands have been grabbed by a big corporation.

Messages of Solidarity have been sent from around the world. Rev. Dr. Roger Gaikwad, General Secretary of NCCI has also written a message of solidarity which is appended to the other messages listed below the interview.

Email from Rev. Josef Purnama Widyatmadja


Dear friends

Hope you are fine

By the way ,  enclosed I send you an article on ” Spirituality behind Bar “. This is an interview between Rev Sugianto and Ms. Henriette Johana Niuewenhuis , wife of Rev Karel Barus  a local pastor in Tulang Bawang Lampung South Sumatera Indonesia. I spent one week from 8 t0 13 Febuary 2017 in Lampung to visit detainees peasants and Rev. Sugianto, a local pastor who defended the  people whose their lands have been grabbed by BNIL a big corporation. I went to Lampung to be a witness and  to give my testimony in tribunal trial. I gave my testimony on  The scope of Church mission and the vocation of ordained pastor. In my testimony I confess that the mission of Christian mission is not limited within the wall of church building. Christian mission and vocation of pastors must respond to also the cry of poor . Proclaim the good news to the poor and oppressed are the obligation of christian mission throughout history. I cited also ths story of Toyohiko kagawa, Martin Luther King Jr,  Desmond Tutu, Van Lith and local pastors from Indonesia such as in Mangkid North Sulawesi, Asahan in North Sumtera and Kedungombo in Boyolali..

On Monday 20 February 2017 the persecutor demanded 3 years prison for four peasants and Rev Sugianto. On 23 February 2017 the defenders will response to the persecutor. On that day all pastors of GKSBS ( Christian Church in South Sumatera ) in the region will wear black clergy dress and go to the court where tribunal  is held.  The struggle of peasants for agrarian justice recalls me to the peasant’s  struggle during reformation 500 hundres years ago. The different is, during the reformation, the church took side with the princes and  the rich, whereas the church in South Sumatera (GKSSB) defended the peasants and the poor at all cost. GKSB is a small and young church in South Sumatera, Many of local pastors in GKSBS  were trained already in urban rural mission skill and transformative diaconia. They inspired by the Bible to struggle with peasant movement for agrarian justice.     .

If you intend to send solidarity email to GKSBS and  peasants in Tulang Bawang , you can send your email to :

  1. karel.barus@gmail.com or W.A. /hp 62 813 2861 0106

Your solidarity letter to GKSBS and Rev. Sugianto is very meaningful and highly appreciated

Sincerely yours

Rev. Josef Purnama Widyatmadja


SPIRITUALITY BEHIND BARS: A conversation between Rev. Henriette and Rev. Sugianto



Can you introduce yourself? Who is Rev. Sugianto? What can you tell about yourself?

Because I did this as a Reverend didn’t I? I am a Reverend with a special task in GKSBS Sumber Hadi, East Lampung. I live in Bandar Lampung together with my family.

I already do this kind of work for a very long time. I served as a Reverend in Padang Ratu. I was in jail before because I defended people whose land was taken by an agricultural company.

In Padang Ratu I established a Credit Union together with congregation members. Now this Credit Union is very big, one of the biggest in Lampung.

In 1997 I moved to Jambi. There I accompanied people whose land was deprived by a company in Taman Raja.

I also help victims of trafficking in Jambi and I accompanied the people of a local tribe (Suku Anak Dalam) who fought for their rights.

Yes and I went to Aceh to become a volunteer for victims of the tsunami and conflicts. That was in 2006 until 2010.

Back in Lampung I helped people from several areas whose land was unrightfully taken by big companies. Among them Bangun Nusa Indah Lampung (BNIL).

In a nutshell: you helped a lot of people. What an incredible list.

It’s actually just ordinary. What I want to say: this has already become a part of my life. Accompany, help people who experience injustice, who are being marginalized. That’s a part of my life. It doesn’t matter if I do it as a Reverend or not. If I’m getting paid or not. This is what I do.

I do these risky activities not because somebody tells me so or because I get paid for it. I do this on my own. And now I’m in jail in Menggala. Haha…

In your ‘new house’, haha. What motivates you to do this? Helping people in difficulties, people who experience injustice, who are being marginalized?

What drives me? I don’t know. I honestly don’t have an explanation. If I see something I automatically  do something.

That’s why even though  I am in prison I can’t stay quiet if I see something unfair happening! I still do something what according to me makes the situation here more fair, more peaceful. For example helping friends who also fight for the rights of their land.

Do you mean that there are people in prison who are also fighting for their land?

Yes. There are a lot who have a same case like us. From Mesuji.

And the reason why they are in prison is also because of land?

Only what happened with them is different from us. For example the ones from Mesuji, they were angry that’s why. Because their ‘plasma right’ was taken from them, they got angry and started to ruin. We didn’t do that. Our fight is a conscious one. So we also help them.

You just said that helping is something you automatically do. If you see something, you do something. So there isn’t any other motivation than that, no special motivation?

No there isn’t. Sometimes if I hear people explaining about something they do, let’s say a good deed, that’s for Jesus or for whatever. I don’t have such an explanation. It’s up to you if it’s for Jesus or for whatever. I don’t know. This is what happening to me. But it’s not without any struggle. Because from since I’m a small boy I was already taught: we have to live for Jesus, for Christ. So that’s way we have to do good things. The reason has to be clear.

Also when I’m thinking about Muslims or Buddhists who do something good. People say they do something because it’s an obligation. I have another explanation. An obligation for my understanding comes from the outside, not from the inside.  Well, if it comes from the outside it will get a burden for me. I will certainly do wrong. The motivation will be wrong, because it doesn’t set me free. Doing something good should liberate me more, make me a greater person. It should be like that.

In the course of my life I found a verse from John. It sounds like this: ‘if you drink this water, this water will change into a fountain which will spring up in your life until eternity’ (HJN: John 4:14). So if people don’t do something right, that’s my conclusion, maybe they have never drunk from that water.

I try hard how I can receive grace for that water. And I’m sure that that water is the Lord himself. Salvation itself.

If I let myself receive and drink from that water I will automatically do something that will spring up, that will reflect the existence of that water.

So doing good deeds is something automatically. I can’t control it. I can’t control it, I can’t stop it. I can only close the tap that runs in me. But as long as I don’t close the tap that runs in me, the tap which comes out of myself will keep on running.

That’s how I understand it if somebody tells me about the obligation to do the right thing. Actually doing the right thing is something that happens automatically. Nobody is able to do the right thing if it doesn’t come from the Lord. If he does something that doesn’t come from the Lord he is doing something hypocrite or false. That will get out in the open very soon. Because it will make him suffer and he will not endure afflictions.

So yes I pray, I meditate. In order that my life will be in harmony with His existence who has become the Source and Spring of life. That’s what I pray every morning. That my life the whole day will be in harmony with the will of Your power and love. I don’t ask if everything will go well, but only that I will be in harmony with his will and power and love who is the Source of life, the Source of peace, the Source of well being and righteousness.

That’s my prayer every morning, every night.

 For the time being you now live in a ‘new house’ in Menggala. How did you end up in prison?

Yes, because I helped/accompanied people who are in conflict with the company BNIL who confiscated their land. That land used to be from the people. Because they didn’t have any official papers they got chased away. In 1993 they got the official rights from the government for ‘plasma land’. But their rights were stolen again by the company. In a mendacious way the people were demanded to put their autograph on an empty piece of paper. Later it became clear that the paper was about ‘plasma land’ and a compensation of Rp. 100.000.

I help them in clarifying their goals, in developing their strategies in their struggle. So they will be more brave and their struggle is more organized and systematical.

Yes and I knew there would be risks. That it would be possible to get caught. That’s why I don’t regret it. I’m not sad or angry. This all is very ordinary. I see this as a proces, as the course of my ministry. I’m here now and that’s the same as when I’m on the pulpit and preach, or when I do a pastoral visit, or when I’m having a discussion or meeting about some problems in church. That’s why I don’t feel locked here.

You don’t feel locked here?

I never feel locked. I never feel limited. I never feel suffering because of the bars or the rules in here. I don’t feel sad. I only feel sad if my wife calls and the milk for our child has run out and she doesn’t have money. Only then I’m sad. Because there really isn’t something I can do.

But this doesn’t mean I can’t do anything at all. I pray.

Praise the Lord until this day despite all the worries, He still offers enough. I don’t know how the Lord fulfills, but there is always a way.

For example when my phone credit is empty. Suddenly the next day somebody sends credit. I don’t know who sent it.

Yes from the day I got arrested until now. I see how the Lord is with me from time to time. The Lord shows signs of his presence. I feel it.

And that strengthens me. Even though I’m not the type of person who likes to give a  witness about it and show off, but I feel it. I feel the presence of the Lord in what is happening now.


(this is a part of an interview by phone held on 3 February 2017)


Theologische Fakultät
Arbeitsstelle für kirchliche

Prof. Axel Noack
Solidarity letter to GKSBS and Rev. Sugianto
c/o Rev Karel Barus
Heidelberg, 22.2.2016

Dear brothers and sisters,

Rev. Josef Purnama Widyatmadja has informed us about your struggle against the land-grabbing of the BNIL corporation. He also sent us the moving interview with Rev. Sugianto and the pictures of the prison. We say grace to God and Jesus our brother for your faithfulness and witness. May the Holy Spirit strengthen you in your struggle and may she also guide the judges in their deliberations to vote for justice and not for money power.May we share with you the part of the “Wittenberg Declaration 2017”, where more than 80 people from the Abrahamic faith communities met together to draw the consequences of 500 years of Reformation for faithful discipleship in Today’s Crises. Here is the text dealing with peasant struggles:


Radicalizing Reformation Provoked by Today’s Systemic Crises

“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24)

II: Justice through ecologically-sensitive agriculture and land distribution

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now” (Romans 8:22)

We believe that God´s mission for life in its fullness obliges all Christians and churches to commit themselves to the ecumenical process of “Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation.” Hearing the radical voices of the Reformation we seek to get out of a world economic system that results in land-grabbing and destruction of nature. Within a biblical approach to land, relationships and values of subsistence are upheld, and people empowered for healthier relationships between land and people.

We confess that we stand in the tradition of Luther who legitimated the feudal order against the peasants in away not consistent with the Bible. We confess that later Lutheran traditions drew the wrong conclusion that economics and politics follow autonomous laws, although Luther himself rejected the early capitalist system.

We confess that churches adapted themselves to the modernization, industrialization and financialization of agriculture and that the “Protestant work ethic” and the spiritual interest in material success even provided ideological underpinnings for capitalism. Churches and theologians often have advocated an ideology and theology of development that supported this.

We reject the imperial hegemonic system of neoliberal policies, financial capitalism and it’s agribusiness models, which provokes deep inequalities in the relations of production and exchange. The ongoing land alienation, land confiscation and undercutting of subsistence economies, as well as the growing practice of mono-cultures, are economic abuses. Genetically modified seeds and the intensive application of pesticides are extractive production models that risk serious consequences for the people and the environment.

We call upon churches to address the challenges of socio-economic and environmental justice as key to their mission. Reflection, debate and alternative proposals from of a liberation perspective are necessary.

We commit ourselves to struggle side by side with the movements seeking more healthy land-people relationships, to help develop land policy of our churches and societies, to integrate these issues in educational curricula considering the efforts to approve and implement the UN-Declaration on the Rights of Peasants.”

In Solidarity we send our best wishes

Prof. Dr. Axel Noack                                                     Prof. Ulrich Duchrow

Dear Josef,
thank you very much for sharing this information and the moving interview with us. It is a phantastic witness for radical Reformation spirituality.
We wish you all success in the struggle.

Dear Josef:
Thank you for sharing this prophetic witness. Seldom we find such commitment in today’s world informed by values of individualism. Stories of Sugianto helps us to be reminded of a different spirituality.
I have requested Duta Wacna University (Rev. Yusak) to invite you to speak at a meeting on Migrant Labour crisis that our university is organizing with Duta Wacana. Hope that they have contacted you. Please do come. We may arrive Jogjakarta on Sunday evening and will stay there until Wednesday. Hope to meet you at Duta Wacna
with regards

  1. P. Joseph

Tai Nan Taiwan

Ytk.Pak Josef,
Terima kasih banyak atas surel ini dengan lampirannya.
Juga sebab jemaat kami di Oegstgeest mempunyai hubungan khas dengan Ibu Nieuwenhuis, saya akan menghubungi pendeta setempat, supaya hal-ikhwal proses Pdt. Sugianto akan diperhatikan, entah dalam doa syafaat atau melalui publikasi dalam terbitan jemaat.
Memang dalam doa pribadi, saya tidak akan kelupaan Pdt. Sugianto dan semua rekan yang terlibat dalam pergumulan ini. Semoga perjuangan Pak Josef diberkati Tuhan.
Teriring salam dan doa,
Pdt(em.) B.F.Drewes

Rev Widyatmadja thank you for sharing this. I support in my personal prayer may God strengthen Rev Sugianto and others and true justice be manifested to them.
Zakaria Ngelow

“Spirituality behind the bar” – a very touching and moving testimony of the pastor. I am sharing the testimony with my friends.
Wati Longchar

Dear Josef,
thank you very much for the information. It shows that URM is alive! I shall  write to Rev, Barus and ask what else we can do.
Hans Lutz Hong Kong

Menjaga spiritualitas dan Stamina sama penting nya. Godaan terbesar adalah rasa takut dan mau menang dengan cepat. Tidak setiap perjuangan pasti bisa kita nikmati kemenangannya saat ini. Keberhasilan Perjuangan kita ditentukan apakah kita memberi kontribusi perubahan dari yang kita perjuangkan. Itulah harapan yang menuntun kita setia dalam perjuangan.

Keeping stamina and spirituality both are  important. Greatest temptation in our struggle is fear and demanding immediate achievment . Not every struggle could end succesfully. Succedd does not determine what we achieve today. The question is, does our struggle give  contribution and impact to the transformation process we carry on today. That is hope that lead us to be faithful in the struggle. ( Reflection on the spirituality behind Bars )


to Pdt, Trijoko, me, Arliyanus, Paulus, Marlene

Salam sejahtera dalam kasih Kristus.
Saya menerima informasi dari Pdt Josef Purnama Widyatmadja mengenai perkembangan proses pengadilan Pdt Sugianto dan para pendamping petani lainnya. Saya telah meneruskan informasi itu ke MPH PGI, dan juga kepada para pimpinan gereja-gereja Indonesia anggota World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC-Indonesia), dan juga kepada General Secretary WCRC di Hannover.
Melalui email ini secara pribadi dan atas nama Pengurus WCRC-Indonesia, menyatakan dukungan dan doa semoga Allah berkenan memberi keadilan kepada mereka dan para petani yang mereka bela. Terima kasih, saya dan tentu banyak orang akan belajar dan beroleh penguatan dari “Spiritualitas dari Balik Jeruji”, hasil wawancara Ibu Henriette Johana Nieuwenhuis yang dilampirkan Pdt Josef.
Saya juga mendoakan kiranya aksi solidaritas kawan-kawan pendeta GKSBS menjadi kekuatan dan inspirasi bagi gereja-gereja dan semua fihak untuk memperjuangkan keadilan bagi rakyat kecil.

Tuhan berkati.
Hormat dan salam,
Pdt. Zakaria Ngelow / Moderator WCRC-Indonesia

Dear Rev. Sugianto and all people struggling for your rights in Tulang Bawang,
The National Council of Churches is committed to working towards just and inclusive communities. Your story is a stirring challenge to us not to just “talk” justice and inclusivity, but to be actively engaged in it. Our spirit is with you all in your struggle for justice, inclusivity and peace.

Roger Gaikwad,
General Secretary,


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