Written By Charles Christian, Indonesia
Eighteen years ago, my carefree life turned into a living hell overnight.
It was May 1998, and riots broke out in my city, Jakarta in Indonesia. They were triggered by economic problems including food shortages and mass unemployment. Native Indonesians were provoked to commit barbaric acts against Chinese Indonesians, which included looting and burning their properties.
As a Chinese Christian, I am part of an ethnic as well as religious minority in my country. Ethnic Chinese make up only 1.2 percent of the population in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world.
It was estimated that more than 1,200 people died in the riots, and thousands of shops and houses were burned to the ground. At least 168 rape cases were reported, and material damage was valued at more than Rp 3.1 trillion (approximately US$236 million).
I was in primary school at the time. It was near our final-year examinations, but the situation forced schools to close. We stayed indoors, but after hearing that the chaos was escalating and buildings and residential compounds were being set on fire, my family decided to get out of town. We felt it would be safer than staying at home.
We were so wrong.
That day, seven of us were packed into my father’s car—my parents, my brother and I, two maids and our chauffeur. Just before we set off, however, we suddenly remembered that our neighbor’s maid was alone at home. Although she was a native Indonesian and a Muslim, we were also worried for her safety. As my neighbor was rarely at home, her maid was often home alone. We asked if she wanted to join us, and she readily accepted. She hopped into the car and sat in the last row of seats next to my father, who was very afraid that his looks would give away his ethnicity. And off we went.
We decided to use the highway, hoping that it would provide the fastest way out of town. But it turned out to be a big mistake. Things started to look suspicious when we realized that there was no one at the toll gate to collect the fee. Around us, people were walking all over the highway. We had never seen this happen before. My mother decided to throw some cash onto the road, hoping that they would go after the money and leave us alone. For some time, our car was able to inch forward—but not for long. Soon, people started to gather around our car and block us from moving forward. We were trapped!
Horrified, we watched as they stopped our car and started to pull out the wiper blades and wing mirrors. They also started small fires around our car. Having heard many cases in which cars were burned down and passengers killed or raped, we were gripped with fear. My father tried to hide himself from view, but to no avail.
The crowds opened the car’s back door and saw my father and my neighbor’s maid, who started crying hysterically. They told my father to get out. I believed that they were going to torture my father or kill him; I didn’t know what to do other than pray. My father was immobilized with fear, so they started dragging him out of the car.
Just then, my neighbor’s maid stopped them and started pleading with them. “Son, remember Allah . . . What you’re doing is not right. Remember Allah, Son . . .” Her pleas proved effective, as the crowds started to move away. Eventually, they let our car through. We had thought we were saving our neighbor’s maid, but it was she who saved us!
As I think back on this episode, I’m reminded of Lot’s story in Genesis 19:1-29. While he thought that he had needed to save the two angels from the wicked people in Sodom, it was those angels who eventually saved him.
After barely escaping the scene, we faced another problem. The sky had become darker, and we knew that it was too risky to return home. We were also afraid to continue the journey, as we didn’t know whom else we would encounter along the way.
Driving on, we reached a residential area of native Indonesians. By God’s grace, we found a Muslim family who not only warmly welcomed us to stay in their home, but also prepared food and blankets for us. The next morning, they sent us to my grandma’s home at a safer location.
The following morning, I was the first to wake up. A song was playing in another room. Curious, I walked into the room and found that the TV was on, but nobody was watching it. To my surprise, the song playing was the hymn, “Along the Road”. These were the lyrics:
Along the road of life I have a friend divine
who walks with me and gently leads the way
He gives me joy and makes the darkest night to shine
It is my Lord who won my heart one day
I do not mind the rough and winding pathway,
O’er mountain steep, thru valleys dark and cold,
It is enough to know He travels by my side
Along the road that leads to streets of gold
I was deeply touched by the lyrics. While I didn’t know what made me wake up early that day, or why the TV was switched on, or why that song was broadcasted at the time, I knew one thing: God was telling me that He was my friend divine. He had been with me and protected me from every harm and danger every step of the way.
A few days later, we returned home. Thankfully, our home was intact. And by God’s grace (and to my surprise), I didn’t feel any fear at all. The riots subsequently died down and life in Jakarta returned to a semblance of normalcy.
Since then, I’ve become more respectful towards others who are different, having experienced the kindness of strangers (and neighbors) in my life. But the biggest lesson I’ve learned from that difficult moment is about how God had, and is always protecting and providing for me.
Truly, it is enough to know that He travels by our side!