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Two Philly Indonesian faith leaders talk about voting, engagement and big issues

November 2, 2020 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose

[Editor’s note: This story is one of a multi-part collaboration with the Indonesian Lantern, Philadelphia’s Indonesian news organization.]

“Our fear is, if Trump leads again for another four years, it’s going to be very bad,” said Pastor Aldo Siahaan.

“I remember four years ago, when many of our church members, they were crying, they were shocked because they were DACA holders, their parents, undocumented,” he said. “So to see that again, to see how his leadership is not bringing peace, instead [it’s] bringing division —we’re not ready.”

Siahaan is the pastor at the Philadelphia Praise Center. The church is about 15 years old and the congregation, according to Pastor Siahaan, is predominantly Indonesian. The church is in the West Passayunk neighborhood of South Philadelphia, sitting on the corner of its street, nestled among row houses.

Driving by, it is hard to miss. There’s a huge mural, over a story tall, that shows a dove rising up over a beautiful mountainscape, a feast spread beneath it, and the sun shining overhead.

According to a 2018 Vice report, the Indonesian community in Philadelphia numbers between 6,000 and 8,000 people — some immigrants, but also second-generation Indonesian Americans. Pastor Siahaan estimates that about a third of his congregation will be voting.

Pastor Siahaan said he doesn’t talk about politics from the pulpit. “But off the pulpit, we talk about it,” he said. “I’ve tried to educate people about voting, about mail-in ballots — but as a community leader, I do not show my endorsement.”

He is an ardent believer in voting, and has been making little videos for his congregation. “I try to educate our people through videos about what Trump stands for, and what Biden stands for,” he explained.

Pastor Emmanuel Tandean is equally ardent about voting, and about informing his community’s voters.

Tandean is the pastor of the New Life Praise Center in the Pennsport neighborhood of South Philadelphia. The church is housed in a jaunty red brick building, and inside, backlighting Pastor Tandean’s sermons, is an amazing stained glass window of a cross and a dove in gold and rich blue.

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“We do not do political activities in the church, but of course, I help people to be aware of the political situation,” he said.

Pastor Tandean said he, not as a church leader but personally, supports the President’s stance on abortion, considers him an advocate for traditional American values, and cites his work on immigration and the economy.

“I think for us, it is very important that as a church, I need to underline the moral values, the ethical values,” he said.

Pastor Tandean came to Philadelphia in 1999 and started his church in 2000. “I keep reminding people not only to think about the short term but also for the long term as they may plan to stay in America,” he said. He has been encouraging his congregation to explore the issues before they vote.

Americans have voted in record numbers, even before Election Day. People feel moved to vote for all sorts of reasons: civic duty, hope for the future, sometimes even fear of what might be coming. For many, faith is a motivator. Although both pastors try to keep their personal views from spilling into their ministry, their faith shapes the way they vote.

“This year has been tough, and whether we like it or not, right now, whatever we are facing related to politics, we cannot run from it,” Pastor Siahaan said.

Even though he isn’t talking politics directly, his congregants have questions. “They are worried. They are very uncertain,” he explained. “The current leadership is just ignoring the reality of COVID-19. [The congregants] are very concerned about the immigration policy that the current leadership has. And about the future of healthcare. That’s the kind of thing that worries them,” he added.

As for President Donald Trump as a candidate, Pastor Siahaan has concerns about some of the President’s rhetoric, “[It seems] he cannot condemn white supremacy,” he said.

Pastor Siahaan is one of the six founding members of the Pejuang Indonesian Coalition for Social Justice. According to their Facebook page, “Pejuang translates to “Warrior” in Bahasa Indonesia and the coalition is “a group of warriors engaged in the struggle for social justice and lending a voice to our community in Philadelphia.” The Coalition has videos explaining issues like DACA, the Affordable Care Act, and immigration reform on its page.

Pastor Tandean isn’t alone in his support of Trump, either. The network Voice of America published a story exploring the views of the Indonesian American community during the 2020 election. In addition to featuring the Pejuang Indonesian Coalition, it also featured Indonesian Americans for Trump, a group that is motivated in part by the President’s stance on abortion.

As if to illustrate that no community is a monolith, despite being members of Philadelphia’s Indonesian community and men of faith, the pastors do not agree on some of the big issues that tend to sway voters.

Pastor Tandean sees the issue of immigration very differently than Pastor Siahaan. “I will be disappointed if Trump doesn’t care about immigrants,” he said, “because I’m an immigrant. But this is the thing — I see that Trump speaks very strongly against immigrants but it’s targeted for criminals. I haven’t seen that he bluntly without any heart, any care, has detained and captured immigrants.” He explained that he believes enforcement has been directed at people with criminal records who are in the country illegally.

“I don’t personally like his personal character. Honestly, I don’t like his persona,” Pastor Tandean said “But this is the thing, what I can see is this: he has done a lot of what he has promised. There are people who speak carelessly. He doesn’t think thoroughly about what he said, [but] I think it applies to so many people.”

The pastor feels that beneath the President’s rhetoric there is core integrity and a deep love for America and,“traditional American values.” And foremost of those traditional American values is the right to life. “I think for Christians, moral values, ethical values, like life, are very important, like abortion,” he said.

While Pastor Tandean praises President’s Trump for being pro-life, Pastor Siahaan is not impressed. “Let’s talk about people who have been killed in the streets in Philadelphia or everywhere in the United States because of guns,” he said, “let’s talk about that if we talk about pro-life. Don’t talk about pro-life only just because of abortion. How about the life of our African-American brothers, how about the life of the military?”

Regardless of what side of the political line members of the Indonesian community find themselves on, both pastors agree that the most important thing for this election year is to vote and to try and be as informed as possible.

Pastor Tandean said that his advice to people is, “if they do read or hear from both sides, it’s actually a good thing. They can try to find a middle ground, they can find something to bridge the difference.”

Indonesian Lantern journalist Didi Prambadi contributed to this report. 


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