By: Willow Welter   |   Posted: January 31, 2017

On an island with limited opportunity, a rock-solid church frees up sponsored children’s unlimited potential.

A Rock on an Island

On an island with limited opportunity, a rock-solid church frees up sponsored children’s unlimited potential.

Written by Willow Welter
Photography by Chuck Bigger
A Sumbanese village with stone tables outside
An elder of the village
A rice field of the Sumbanese
The ancient traditions of the Sumbanese, who are mostly subsistence farmers, include burying relatives in above-ground monoliths. Relatives go into debt they cannot repay in their lifetimes to provide these tombs they believe will appease their ancestors’ spirits. These beliefs remain intact even as the Sumbanese embrace the importance of education and the Church spreads the gospel.
A Sumbanese village church
Children walking to school while covering their heads

The remote Indonesian island of Sumba feels like a lost world. A few flights a week carry passengers from the tourist magnet of Bali to this rugged enclave. Australian surfers deplane at the tiny airport and drive for hours to conquer waves legendary for their unique break.

The distinctiveness of Sumba, however, extends far beyond a wave break. Christianity is the dominant religion on this island in a country where 87 percent of people practice Islam. Many Sumbanese blend Christianity with Marapu — an animistic religion practiced virtually nowhere else in the world. Relatives live in family compounds comprising several homes. Scattered among the compounds are monoliths containing ancestors’ remains. Striving to please these ancestors’ spirits keeps many Sumbanese in spiritual and economic bondage.

But this bondage is easy to miss when driving past shimmering rice terraces and misty hills to Waitabula village. Compassion’s presence here ensures that Sumbanese children will have more opportunities than their parents had. Kornelis Yelu Dama, coordinator of the church-run center, grew up here. He knows the families in his community and sees the children’s needs. Crucial among these needs, Kornelis says, is education.

A male member of the Sumba tribe
A male Sumba member wearing a purple head covering
A female member of the Suma tribe
An older male of the Sumba tribe wearing an orange head covering

Faces of Sumba: members of an indigenous tribe on the island. Most of their tribe members chew areca nut, an addictive seed also known as betel nut, which stains their mouths red.

Many sponsored children’s parents are illiterate. Experts in subsistence farming, the Sumbanese used to place most educational emphasis on how to grow crops. Although most Sumbanese kids now complete primary school, most don’t receive the quality of education they deserve. It is common for children to show up at public school in neatly pressed uniforms, eager to learn, only to wait for a teacher who doesn’t come.

Secondary school poses a bigger problem for parents who struggle to grow enough food to sell for income. Unlike primary school, which is free, secondary school requires a tuition payment of 1.8 million rupiah, about $137, each semester. Without secondary school, children lack the skills required for higher education or careers in agriculture and Indonesia’s tourism industry. Sponsorship through Compassion helps Sumbanese families afford these otherwise out-of-reach school fees. More important, however, the program provides additional education in a community with a substandard school system. Dedicated tutors meet with kids at Compassion centers up to four times a week after school to make sure they are progressing in their studies.

One Sumbanese child thriving with the help of sponsorship is 10-year-old Halena Asti Bora.

Halena holds a photo of her sponsor, Renee Sharp. Before Renee chose her, Halena was on Compassion’s list of children waiting longest for a sponsor. Halena was just 8 at the time and recalls how the wait felt. “When other friends who had sponsors wrote the letters to their sponsors, that made my heart sad.” For 18 months, she longed to receive and write letters.

PRAYER: Pray that church mentors will encourage children waiting for sponsors.

Halena sitting at desk doing school work

Halena keeps Renee’s photo in her bedroom in the house where she lives with her parents, five siblings, baby nephew and aunt. Halena’s homework desk, among the few pieces of furniture in the home, represents a new future for her family. Her mom finished only second grade, and her dad never went to school. Halena attends school and is excelling.

PRAYER: Thank God for moving sponsors to help meet children’s needs.

Halena's parents carrying food

Halena’s father, Fransiskus Umbu Fege, and mother, Marta Para Bili, farm to provide food. The land around their home produces chayote (a gourd), cassava, sweet potatoes, bananas and other produce. After keeping enough for her family, Marta usually has some left to sell at a market in a nearby town. “Life is hard,” Marta says, “but we know that we have to work hard every day.” In a typical month, Halena’s parents earn a combined income of 590,000 rupiah — about $45.

PRAYER: Pray that harvests will be bountiful for farmers on Sumba.

Halena cooking with her mom

Halena helps her mother cook sweet potatoes in the bamboo kitchen outside their home. Sweet potatoes are part of many meals. The family also boils, dries and mashes them into flour to make a thick stew. Marta and Fransiskus get up at 4:30 a.m. daily to make porridge for the kids and fetch rainwater from the concrete cistern outside their home. Sumbanese families usually reserve meat for special occasions such as weddings and funerals.

PRAYER: Ask God to work through Sumbanese churches to reach families with the greatest needs.

Halena learning in school

At Halena’s public school, she earns above-average grades in math, science and language. Marta and Fransiskus dream of their daughter graduating from high school and going to college. “Seeing my children able to write and read,” Marta says, “that has made our hearts feel joy.” But Compassion’s church partners on Sumba know that the public school system doesn’t meet all of a child’s needs.

PRAYER: Pray that Halena will continue to excel in school so she has career choices as an adult.

Halena taking notes

Halena expands her education at a Compassion child development center run by a local church. Here, caring mentors teach core subjects and vocational skills such as cooking and mechanics. Halena also attends the church on Sundays and has even joined a Bible study to learn more about Jesus. This education opens countless opportunities for Halena that her parents never had.

PRAYER: Thank God that the Church in Indonesia is enriching sponsored children’s schooling.

The Wait is Over: Watch the emotional moment when Halena, 8 years old at the time, and her parents learned that she'd been sponsored.