Jessica Tanoesoedibjo: Why I Donate My Birthdays Away

Written by Goh Chin Lian, Singapore

Photos courtesy of Jessica Tanoesoedibjo

As the daughter of an Indonesian billionaire, Jessica Tanoesoedibjo, 25, could have spent her time and money on throwing lavish parties or jet-setting around the world to enjoy herself.

Instead, she uses her birthday to raise funds for social causes such as anti-slavery, clean water, and disaster relief.

Particularly significant was her 24th birthday, when she raised Rp 156 million (S$15,100) from family and friends to build a community library in East Nusa Tenggara, the poorest of Indonesia’s 34 provinces.

She flew over for the library’s official opening and was struck by the province’s limited access to clean water, technology, education, and infrastructure.

Before she left, she prayed: “Lord, I want to come back.”

For her 25th birthday, she raised funds to rebuild a church on Sumba island in the province and flew over for its official opening last October (2019).

Donating her birthdays away, as she calls it, has been a yearly tradition since she was 19.

Why does she invest her time and energy to raise funds for charitable causes?

The reason, she says, goes back to a “spiritual awakening” at the age of 18.


From Legalism to Grace

Jessica grew up in a Christian home, the third of five children. She describes her childhood faith as “very legalistic”.

“Being a Christian meant being a good girl, getting good grades, obeying my parents and avoiding alcohol because I had a fear of hell.”

Scenes of the rapture in a tract stoked her fears. For many nights, she laid on her bed with her sister, thinking “the next morning she wouldn’t be there anymore and I would be left behind”.

When she left for Sydney at 16 for college, she still went to church, fearing that if she did not, “something bad would happen to me”.

But one day, “the Lord opened my eyes to understand that even His law is grace”.

Romans 10:9 assured her: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that he is risen, you will be saved.”

“It sunk in my heart that it wasn’t by anything that I achieve that I am saved, but by confessing that Jesus is Lord over my life.”

After that day, the “stable” things in her life started to crumble.

The straight-As student failed her classes. She broke up with her boyfriend because he found her newfound faith too “extreme”.

For a year, she distanced herself from her parents, fearing they would persuade her not to quit school for seminary and full-time church work.

“I thank God for this season because it made me see that my worth wasn’t in what I achieved, nor in whom I dated, and not even in my family.

“That year, I understood that Jesus is enough and being a Christian meant laying down whatever security I had in my achievements and alliances.

“I learned to love and serve others, simply because of the truth that my Lord had already first loved me and not because of what they can give me.”

Gratitude for God’s grace moved her to start donating her birthdays away for social causes.

“My life had been freely given to me, both my very breath and my salvation. I resolved to use that gift to point back to my Lord’s kind work.”


Jessica interacting with the villagers she met in East Nusa Tenggara.


Doing Good for Indonesia Through Business

God then expanded her vision of doing good not only through her birthday donations, but also through her participation in the family business.

Providentially, she obeyed God’s leading and did not give up on her business studies in Australia.

After graduation, God answered her prayers to study biblical and theological studies in the USA, with full support from her parents.

There, He changed her view about helping with the family business.

“I had compartmentalized serving God and work, without understanding that when God created Adam and Eve, he assigned them work. God never demonized work. He called it good.

“At seminary, I learned that all of life should belong to God. If we do all things unto Him, then our work is holy and glorifying to Him.”

The Lord also used her uncle’s advice, which she initially resisted, to rebuke her:

“Jess, the church has a lot of theologians, but the marketplace doesn’t. You can go to seminary and that’s good. But come back and work, and that will be really good.”

Today, she sees her faith shaping her work at Media Nusantara Citra (MNC) group, which owns four national TV stations, radio stations and print media, and has businesses in finance, property, and lifestyle.

“My biggest conviction is that wherever I’m placed, I’m called to do all things for the glory of God.

Jessica at a painting workshop for kids organized by MNC’s charity arm, MNC Peduli.

“I do ask my employees and the people I work with how we can leverage what we have for the good of others because God calls us to love Him and love our neighbors as ourselves, and that, Jesus says, sums up the whole Law.”

So, one day, she has a word with her team at MNC’s financial services company about using financial technology to include people who are not considered for credit or other banking services because their income is low or unstable.

Another day, as corporate social responsibility champion for the entire media group, she rallies business units to serve the underprivileged within the community, such as people with disabilities.

The group also taps on its media network in different parts of Indonesia to provide first responders to victims of natural disasters.

As an adviser to the Christian channel of her family’s Pay TV business, she is asking her team, who helped with the project to rebuild the church in Sumba, to oversee future efforts, including identifying a second church to restore.

Recalling her initial resistance to join the family business, she said: “I don’t think I could do a lot of the things I had done, like rebuilding this church, if I weren’t in the marketplace.

“I saw God’s hand even when I was reluctant to obey Him. He is sovereign. Wherever He leads me, even though there are silent ‘buts’ in my prayers, I know that ultimately I must obey.”


More Than Rebuilding A Church

Loving her neighbor also means thinking through how best to help the community.

In the church rebuilding project on Sumba island, she arranged for nearby churches to receive youth ministry training, and gave the women weaving tools for tenun—a kind of fabric with traditional motifs—and the men, pigs for breeding.

My prayer was ‘Lord, I don’t want this to simply be a physical church without equipping the saints’.

She also wanted to address poverty through vocational support, taking a leaf from church history:

“Wherever the church of Jesus Christ flourished, communities flourished as well because when Christians understand the generosity of God, they reflect His generosity. The church in Acts brought before the apostles’ feet what they had. No one lacked anything.”

She hopes this holistic model will guide future efforts.


Jessica and her mother, Liliana, visiting an old folks’ home.


Pausing to Remember God

To keep the project financially sustainable so as to support more churches, she published a collection of her poems for sale. She titled her book Selah, a word in the Psalms signaling a pause. Sales and donations have amounted to Rp 69 million (S$6,800) so far.

The cover image for Jessica’s collection of poetry, Selah, which she wrote to raise funds for a church building project.

The poems reflect her spiritual journey. For example, “King” reflects how she saw God as “holy, so high, almost unreachable”; “The King’s Child” describes the truth of God’s grace sinking in.

“I know I’m his child, but I struggle with it. For example, I desire to get married, but oftentimes I dismiss that and say to God that I know that He knows best.

“He kindly reminds me that no matter how insignificant my prayers are, He always listens to me.”

Selah also signifies this life as “a little pause” where one sees in a mirror dimly, she said, quoting 1 Corinthians 13:12.

“To live our lives heavenwards is to long for that day when we see our Lord face to face.”


Future Plans

As she keeps eternity before her, the Lord has also put on her heart other causes, from equipping the churches through apologetics seminars to translating the Bible into the many languages spoken in Indonesia.

“It was a huge realization for me that I am privileged to have the ESV, King James and NIV, but a lot of Indonesians don’t even have access to the word of God.”

Also close to her heart is promoting education because “all truth leads to God’s truth”.

She is pursuing an online Master of Arts in Education, majoring in curriculum design as well as special education, so she can create an art therapy curriculum for kids with autism. She hopes to implement it through her work with corporate social responsibility.

Summing up her journey of giving to and serving different causes so far, she said: “I believe that this is the only way to live as Christians.

“We are all called to missions. Not everyone is called to building rural churches and engaging with Bible translation, or even serving in the marketplace. But all Christians are called to do the same thing—in the words of Elisabeth Elliot: ‘Everybody who wants to follow Him has to give up self, take up the cross, follow.’

“And I pray that I may only give heed to wherever my Lord leads me next.”



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