my children, your children

To reach Debora Orphanage in North Sumatra, we travel ten hours along the bumpy road from Medan. When we’re almost there, there’s a deep ravine. Down we go, and labour up the other side, perhaps with the help of a winch if the day is wet. Then we turn down a little track, bump through rice fields, and lurch up the stony street to the top – and there is Debora.

Children rush to the doors, laughing and calling – “Ompung, Ompung!” (that’s me: ‘Grandma’). They take my bag, my coat, and grasp hold of me. Each one wants to care for me. A few with troubles urgently whisper that they need to talk to me…then the housemother appears and they assemble in rows to greet me formally. Greetings over, I sit with the adults and drink very sweet tea or coffee, exchanging news. The children return to their chores, but find reasons to creep past and smile at me. They have to wait, but they know I want to be with them.

When the formal welcome is over, the children take me on a tour of inspection. “See my clove tree – it’s so big!” “Look at your tree, Ompung! We look after it.” With donations from friends, and in consultation with people there, I have arranged several planting days. In 2006 and 2007 we planted clove trees – future income for Debora. In 2008, with four visitors from Bordertown, we planted twenty lime trees. Last year we planted fruit trees. Each time we have a little service asking God’s blessings.

When the tour is over, the new dogs, chooks and goats duly admired, I discuss where and when I can teach with the houseparents and the Head of Buro 3 (Diakonal Department). I generally teach from 8:30 in the morning until noon, and sometimes from 2pm until 4pm, with an informal session after the evening meal, although things can get in the way. Last year the boys departed to work on a plantation the day after I came, but rushed home on the second day- there were tiger prints all around their little shack- so they could join in lessons after all! For the rest of the day I join the children in gardening, cleaning, and cooking, and so have lots of informal teaching time. First aid lessons fit into English classes; sewing lessons are negotiable.

As you read this I am on my seventh visit to Debora Orphanage in North Sumatra. I agonise each time – why am I going? Are my motives good? In preparation for each trip I read, consult with other volunteers, attend useful courses, and pray a lot!

A first visit to a very different culture can be wonderful, but subsequent visits often show how little we understood. At first I see things I want to ‘fix’. But I can’t see all the influences behind what upsets me, and I can’t hope to understand without at least months of observation. I return again to learn and understand more, and so hopefully be more useful. It’s a slow process of observation, respect, and learning. God has had me enter their lives, and that is a privilege and a responsibility I am committed to continue if I can.

And what have I achieved? I teach the children English, which is very useful (and sometimes required) for anyone trying to get work or to do further study. The children of Debora are from poor families, and are either orphans or have one parent. The ability to speak English is a great advantage for them, whatever direction their lives take. I have also taught groups of pastors, students, teachers, nurses and doctors.

Many of the other things I do are harder to pin down. The children tell me about their worries and hopes. We discuss forgiveness, jealousy, sexuality, etc. The moment I arrive there are questions and heartaches waiting to be shared. I offer a listening ear and give guidance where I can. And you might ask, “what language do you use in all this?” I hardly notice: some English, some Indonesian and some Batak. I am learning Indonesian, and the children learn some English at high school. I try to get them talking in English. In their culture success is so important that mistakes are frowned on – I teach them mistakes are part of learning.

I see significant changes in the children through all of this. I believe God is using me to guide them into being more compassionate and thankful Christians. There are many similar little ways in which God has used me. This trip I plan to visit children in prison in Medan, and to ask the Debora children to make little presents for them. I learn lots from the children and the Batak people in return, like getting back to simple pleasures such as spontaneous singing and dancing and celebrations.

In the late afternoon at Debora I hear the thuds and crashes from the kitchen that mean food is being prepared. I spend a lot of time there. As the team cooks, others chat, play guitar and sing. All bathe evening and morning. For over a year, they have had to walk two kilometres to a river to wash, as the pump on the Debora bore is broken.

Around 6:30pm the dinner bell rings. Meals are mostly rice. We practice English, and children brave enough to pray in English get loud applause. After dishes and homework it’s ‘Kebaktian’ (‘worship’ in Batak language). I love to sing with them. If homework is finished, there’s music and perhaps dancing until bedtime, when quiet quickly descends. As I walk along the passage, children in the top bunks whisper from the high windows: “Night, Ompung.” “I love you Ompung.” “Have a sweet dream.” One of the big boys quietly plays a bit of one of my favourite songs as I pass his window…can you see why I love them?

If you would like to consider the opportunity to serve as a volunteer in mission, serving in practical ways, teaching English, teaching in the seminaries and institutions of our partner churches, or in local churches, you are invited to phone Nevin on (08) 8267 7300 or email For more information, go to

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