What Obama Means to Me
In My Encounter with Freedom, Democracy and Humanity
Dr. Anugerah Pekerti
(former member of World Vision International Board of Directors)
It is indeed a special privilege for me to share the over flowing jubilation of the people who celebrated the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the USA from California. It is special to me because I used to know Barry when Ann Soetoro, his mother, taught English in a graduate school of management in Jakarta in 1967 -1971. I was a faculty member in the school and retired as its president.
Barack’s inauguration also touched me personally because 45 years ago I was involved in the civil rights movement through the Witherspoon church, the black Presbyterian congregation in Princeton, NJ.
Those two events are highlights in my personal journey encountering freedom, democracy and humanity.
My journey started in Wonosobo, a small town at the foot of the Dieng Mountains in Central Java. I was ten years old and mesmerized by a rousing oration of Bung Tomo, a young charismatic freedom fighter. He spoke to rally people to fight against the reoccupation of Indonesia by the Dutch.
When Indonesia proclaimed its independence in 1945, I was seven and had no idea what it meant. The significance of a free Indonesia began to dawn on me when I move to Jakarta in 1951. To me, Indonesia’s freedom was epitomized in the celebration of Independence Day on August 17, and Bung Karno’s (Indonesia’s freedom proclaimor and first president) inspiring orations. In middle and high school I went to Merdeka Square (Freedom Square) on every Independence Day to listen to Bung Karno with thousands of other people. His speeches inspired and encouraged me to aim high, to set my ideal as high as the stars in the sky. His inspiration made me a perpetual learner.To me, the opportunity to have an education is the prime fruit of independence. My mother, who was very smart, never had any formal schooling because of colonial oppression.
Independence also provided me an opportunity to participate in a democracy. In 1955, just five years after the end of the War of Independence, Indonesia successfully conducted a peaceful general election. As a first-time voter, I actively campaigned for one of the political parties in a fair competition.
In 1957, I cried when a rival republic was proclaimed from one of the provinces, undermining the unity of free Indonesia. I was enraged when it was subsequently revealed that the USA, the beacon of freedom and democracy, was involved in undermining the new democratic republic. Consequently, Indonesia’s journey to democracy was derailed for 40 years until 1998.
In the early sixties, within a growing authoritarian environment, I found liberation in Christ and the meaning of life in the Word. This spiritual transformation prepared me to accept the opportunity to participate in the International Study Fellowship of the World Student Christian Federation. This program gathered 22 leaders of Student Christian Movement from 18 different countries to spend a semester of study in Princeton, NJ, USA and a semester of internship in different countries.
I took courses in theology and social ethics at the seminary and university. One of the first things I did when I arrived in Princeton was to find a congregation where I could worship and be part of a community of faith. I looked for a Presbyterian church with similar teachings to my church in Indonesia.
I found out that there were three Presbyterian churches in Princeton. The First Presbyterian Church was an upper class white congregation, the Second Presbyterian Church, a middle class white congregation, and Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church was mostly black, with a sprinkle of white civil rights activists. I chose the Witherspoon church.
This choice got me involved in the civil rights movement. One of the things we did was organize peaceful marches into towns and cities. I still vividly remember the march on Trenton, NJ with Mahalia Jackson, a famous gospel singer, singing up front. I sang along “We Shall Overcome” with the depth of my heart.
In southern states, such marches were still confronted with police and National Guard violence. They were attacked with police dogs and water canons. Many participants were beaten with batons and rifle buts, arrested and jailed. Some of the leaders were tortured and killed. Churches regarded as bases of the civil rights movement were bombed and set on fire.
This reality totally contradicted the theology and ethics that I learned in my courses. The complete incongruence between the Word proclaiming love and the reality of hate and violence did not shake my newly found faith. On the contrary, it convinced me that practicing love demands strong commitment and faithfulness to Christ. I thought I needed to challenge the incongruence between what was taught on campus and the reality outside. The assassination of President Kennedy provided the opportunity.
When Kennedy was assassinated, the U.S. was hysterical, as was the Princeton seminary campus. We cried together in public and walked with bulging red eyes, not knowing where we were going. The entire campus was grief ridden.
A few weeks before Ngo Din Diem, the president of South Vietnam, was also assassinated. There was no stir on campus. There was clearly a “who cares” attitude. He was regarded as an unavoidable victim of pursuing American interest in the fight against the communists’ enemies in South East Asia. I sense a similar attitude towards civilian victims in Iraq and Gaza who are regarded as collateral victims for the sake of American interest. I contrasted the response to the death of these two human beings in a poem, challenging the a-symmetrical appreciation of human life in a seminary. I closed my poem with the question: Is this a seminary or cemetery?
A few days after the poem was published in Viewpoint, the campus bulletin, a group of students confronted me. They found my poem offensive. We argued and parted as friends. If it had happened in Indonesia, I could have been physically beaten.
After Princeton, I did my internship in Germany, assisting two student pastors who serve foreign students in Karlsruhe. As an Indonesian student I could freely go back and fort to Eastern European countries. I could experientially compare democratic and communist societies, particularly West and East Germany. I was convinced that democracy, with all its blemishes that I experienced in the U.S., was better than communism. When I visited Moscow, I was told that racist treatment against African students were as bad as in the U.S.
In July 1964, I returned to Indonesia to a tense and explosive situation. Unity in diversity, one of the bedrocks of Indonesia, had turned into hateful animosity among conflicting parties. The power holders were becoming more authoritarian and manipulated the conflicting parties to maintain their hold on power. Consequently, all parties tried to build up mass-based strengths–even training militias for an eventual confrontation. The explosion happened in September 1965. It ended Bung Karno’s rule and caused the largest blood bath in Indonesia’s history as a free nation.
Initially, I took part in the student demonstrations that tried to end Soekarno’s authoritarian rule. However, when the fight turned into a revenge rage of violence destroying human lives, I decided to withdraw. Morally, I also could not join fellow student leaders who shared the benefits of the victors who won by allowing the destruction of hundred of thousands of human lives. And who ruled by violating the human rights of many more.
Guided by my theological and ethical learning in Princeton, I reconfirmed my choice to become a teacher. I also decided to quit my job as a government officer at the University of Indonesia and went to work for a new private graduate school of management, founded in 1967.
This choice led me to meet Barry (Barack) Obama. His mother, Ann Soetoro taught English language classes in the school. Through this choice, I was personally associated with a person who brought a historical change to the United States.
I gained profound experience and understanding of freedom, democracy and humanity when I studied and lived in the U.S. for seven years on a Ford Foundation scholarship. I witnessed how people are empowered and enabled to perform and create in a context of freedom and mutual respect. But it is beyond my dream to experience what Barack Obama was able to achieve. I thought 45 years was too short a time span to over come prejudice and animosity imbedded by violent denial of human rights. In the Balkans, for example, people are still killing each other as a revenge of what happened 600 hundred years ago
I closely followed Barack’s meteoric political emergence since his keynote speech at the Democratic Party convention in 2004. His performances during the primary and presidential elections were impressive indeed. He never lost his poise. Attacks and pressure never rattled him. He is focused and treated his opponents gracefully with respect.
He is also strong in facing personal tragedies. His family is clearly a priority to him. During a critical moment in the presidential campaign, he gave priority to expressing his love to his grandmother who raised him. He decided to go to Hawaii to visit his critically sick grandmother. She died one day before he was elected the 44th president of the U.S.
His personal life is full of tragedy but guided by an independent and courageous mother. His father and mother split and both died young. He hardly knew his father. His mother Ann, whom I knew personally, was an exceptionally strong person. She married a Kenyan student when she was 18 and gave birth to Barack in 1961. In the U.S., in the early 60s her acts defied social norms. Subsequently she married an Indonesian student and moved to Jakarta. They too were separated. Ann moved Back to Hawaii and earned her Ph.D. returning to Indonesia as a micro finance consultant.
Broken homes are often cited as the cause of wayward children and adults. But in the case of Barack, his complex and tragic family background seemed to shape him to become a strong and high achieving person who cares for the common people. He undoubtedly is on the side of the common people who work hard every day to sustain their family. His choice to work as a community organizer in Chicago after graduating from Columbia University demonstrated his commitment to the disadvantaged. Likewise, were his statements during his presidential campaign.
Barack’s intellectual and social-political intelligence shined at Harvard Law School. He was the first African American elected as president of the Harvard Law Review, the number one law journal in the U.S. According to one of his classmates, he could easily get a job at the most prestigious institution, law firm and corporation in the U.S. Instead he chose to go back to the community that he had served in Chicago and got involved in local politics.
Michelle Robinson, his fiancée, was probably the main reason why he went back to Chicago. He met her when he did his internship in the law firm where she worked. She was his mentor. Michelle too is an exceptional person. She is a graduate of two Ivy League universities–Princeton and Harvard. Barack called her “the rock of our family and the love of my life.”
Barack and Michelle are a stunning charismatic couple. They are smart, highly educated, and knowledgeable. They are articulate and able to effectively communicate their ideas across generations. They are able to take on and compete with the political and intellectual elites. But they are close and able to empathize with the common people because they care.
Barack’s family, with their two daughters, Melia and Sasha is a refreshing inspiration for the young and across generations in the U.S. and perhaps in the world.
Two million people from all over the U.S. and world converged in Washington D.C. They waited for hours in the freezing cold to witness the historic inauguration of the first African American president of the U.S. Thirty seven million viewers watched the event on U.S. television and probably hundreds of millions around the world did too. I hope all are inspired by his message and invitation to partner with the U.S. to build together a peaceful, free, democratic and humane world. Yes We Can!
California , January 20, 2009