As a Christian, Monalisa Hutabarat is in the minority in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. A difference in religion has caused rifts within her family and made Monalisa stand out from her friends, but the bright young woman remains committed to her faith.
“I want to invest my life into reaching out to people,” she said.
Signs of Change
Named after the famous Leonardo da Vinci painting, Monalisa was born into a Christian family in Palembang, South Sumatra. But her mother was born a Muslim.
Monalisa explained that her mother did not convert because of marriage, but because of a dream she had when she was still a teenager.
“She had a dream that there was a man with his clothes glowing, standing at the top of a hill,” Monalisa said.
“My mom at the time didn’t know about Christ,” Monalisa said. “She just wondered, who’s that guy?”
When she saw a picture of Jesus Christ at a Catholic friend’s house, Monalisa’s mother decided that he was the man from her dream, and she started attending church on the sly to learn more about the Christian faith. That was how she met and married Monalisa’s father, who was a Christian.
“She was cast from the family,” Monalisa recalled. “All her siblings hated her, and she was persecuted by her siblings, my uncle and my grandparents.”
But her mother refused to change her mind, even when Monalisa’s grandfather asked her, on his deathbed, to convert back. “My mom was like, ‘No way, Dad, this is my choice, this is the truth I’ve been looking for so long.’ ”
Finding Unconditional Love
Though time has brought reconciliation to their family, Monalisa still regrets that she and her cousins are not as close as she would like them to be. But she has a way of seeing it in a positive light.
“I think it’s interesting to have Muslim relatives, because I think this is the way God shows the difference between Christianity and Islam,” Monalisa said.
For Monalisa, the essential message of the Christian faith is unconditional love.
“It’s about love. It’s not romantic love, it’s not family love, it’s not self-serving love, but sacrificial love. Love without limits,” she said.
“[Islam teaches] that God is so far away, you cannot reach him, he’s busy and he’s holy,” she continued. “But Jesus said it’s not by your good deeds [that you are saved], but by God’s grace.”
It’s this message of love that Monalisa wants to live by and share with those around her, and she believes she has found her calling at the Jakarta International Christian Fellowship Church.
Monalisa works as an administrator for JICF’s children’s ministry, called The Rock, which involves about 200 children. The program works to help the children strengthen their faith, as well as to study the Bible and learn about service.
The church is also involved in education and welfare projects that reach out to all Indonesians, regardless of religion or race.
“We give one-third of our money to the poor and to education,” she said proudly, recalling her own work with a trash-picking community in Bekasi.
Making Good on a Promise
Monalisa decided to dedicate her life to the church because of a promise she made while still in high school. Praying that she would get into her dream college, the University of Medan in North Sumatra, Monalisa made a promise to God that if she was accepted, she would dedicate her life to serving in Christian ministry.
“I had to compete with thousands of children who were so clever,” she said, adding that she could hardly believe it when she was accepted.
“Then, I forgot the vow for two years,” she said with a laugh, before adding that these days, she is committed to serving God, “no matter what, no matter where I go.”
Monalisa says that some Christians in Jakarta are afraid to talk about their faith, because they do not want to attract attention to their differences, but Monalisa is always willing to tell the truth about what she believes.
“I feel comfortable here, especially in Jakarta, you know, a multicultural city, with so many ethnic groups and different backgrounds and ages,” she said, adding that she does not feel comfortable eating during Ramadan when others are fasting, as she respects the traditions of her Muslim friends and neighbors.
Monalisa said that she sometimes even approaches strangers in public to talk about her faith.
“I can share [with people] — this is the truth. God loves you [even if] people say you are not beautiful. God does not see that, God sees your heart, it doesn’t matter [what you look like]. Actually, the character and the heart matter most,” she said.
Monalisa says people tell her, “Wow. You’re so different, I’ve never met a woman like you.”
But she doesn’t attribute this difference to her personality, rather to her faith.
“This is sacrificial love. The secret is love, God loved you first, and I need to share God’s love with you,” she said.