GIVE NOW to support Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and World Mission responses to urgent humanitarian crises in West Africa and the Middle East. Give now

Beautiful bureaucracies

A PC(USA) mission letter from Indonesia

July 10, 2013

YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia

People who live in “developing countries” often complain about corrupt and inefficient bureaucracies. Indonesia has recently sent many corrupt politicians to jail, but is still scores high on the corruption scale. My Indonesian colleagues and I do our share of complaining and compromising. In a “gift exchange culture” the line between tips, gifts and corruption is murky. The problems are institutionalized from the bottom to the top.  

For example, the National Examination, which is required to pass high school, achieved a 99 percent pass rate this year, even from remote provinces with very low quality education. Schools are under great pressure to pass their students. Some teachers provide students with exam questions before hand and coach them on the correct answers. Students who can barely add, end up with high scores in mathematics. Government, teachers and parents, all conspire to corrupt their own children, just so they can get good grades.

It can be hard or easy to get a driver’s license in Indonesia. One of my students, an excellent driver, could not get a new license when he moved to our province. He took the driving test six times and failed every time. But everyone knows you don’t have to be able to drive to get a license. You just pay an agent $30-40 and the agent will get you the license even without taking the test. All you have to do is come in, sign the test and have your photo taken. The agent pays the customary “gifts” to all the bureaucrats in the police department. The biggest danger of living in Indonesia is not terrorists or volcanoes, but rather drivers who don’t know how to drive. 

If Indonesian bureaucracy is corrupted by money and poverty, US bureaucracy is corrupted by fear of the “other”. Some years ago Farsijana and I waited in line as we applied for her visa in the bunker-like US Embassy in Jakarta. Ten wealthy, well educated, English-speaking Indonesians ahead of us, were all rejected (after paying hefty application fees). The poor would not even get in the door. As my own anxiety simmered, the words on the Statue of Liberty kept running through my mind like a bad joke:

           Give me your tired, your poor,
           Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
           The wretched refuse of your teeming shores. 
           Send these, the homeless,
           Tempest-tossed to me.
           I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

That was just a dream some of us had, a long time ago.

American bureaucracies can be mind boggling. An American friend once asked me: “Bernie, do you think you are reasonably intelligent?” Surprised, I answered, “I guess so.” She then said, “Don’t you find it terribly difficult just to live in the USA? If an intelligent, well educated person finds it difficult, how do poor and less gifted people even survive?” Good question. 

Sometimes Muslim activists for tolerance and peace cannot get visas to the USA. The President of Indonesia’s largest national university told me he was rejecting all invitations to the USA as long as there was such dehumanizing treatment of Muslims at U.S. airports. Not only Muslims have problems. Tirza and Hanna, our nieces, will be traveling with us to study for a year in the USA. They were rejected on their first applications for visas and had to go through the process three times. Getting their visas cost us over $1,000.  

Farsijana needs an Immigrant Visa (Green Card) so that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) can legally pay her when she is in the States. After submitting countless documents with certified translations and paying hundreds of dollars, she was finally approved by the Department of Homeland Security last January. Her files were then sent to the National Visa Center (NVC). After more money and documents, she had to resubmit her application because she had not listed every place she had stayed since she was 16. She also needed security clearance from the Netherlands (where she did her Ph.D.) and health clearance from an Embassy approved doctor. Six months later and only one day before our departure, she still does not have her visa.  

You might think it would be easy: married to an American for 15 years, PC(USA) mission co-worker for 10 years, Ph.D. from a top Western university and a Fulbright Visiting Professor at Barnard College. But a maze of regulations based on worst case scenarios, “rationalized,” uniform procedures and indifference, result in a Kafka-ish nightmare of soulless bureaucracy with no human conscience. It is insanely difficult to get through the maze.

There are good people who work in bad bureaucracies. And miracles still happen. After more absurd delays than you can imagine, we were informed it was impossible for Farsijana to get her visa before our departure date of June 24. But sympathetic staff in the US Embassy worked hard to push along the process. Thanks to them, Farsijana's visa was issued on June 24, just hours before our plane took off.

We plan to spend one year in the States on “interpretation assignment” with the PC(USA) and also as visiting fellows at the Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs at Boston University. We will travel a lot during the first six months, speaking in churches and universities. Some of you might consider meeting us at the Presbyterian Big Tent conference, Aug. 1-3 in Louisville. Please write to us if you would like us to visit you. From January to July, 2014 we will concentrate on research and writing in Boston. 

We are very grateful for all of you, both churches and individuals, who participate in our work through prayer, financial donations and letters. We need your support so that our dreams of good news do not fade away like the words on the Statue of Liberty, but rather spread throughout the world. 

Bernie Adeney-Risakotta came under appointment as a mission co-worker for the PC(USA) in 1991 and has served continuously since then. His wife, Farsijana, came under appointment in 2003. Bernie is director of the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta. Farsijana is director of the Center for Research and Community Development at Duta Wacana Christian University in Yogyakarta. Both Bernie and Farsijana spend a lot of time working together with Christians and Muslims to build a just society.

Leave a comment