Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Gaining recognition for the Church

In October of 1969, Elder Ezra Taft Benson (with his wife Flora) and Elder Bruce R. McConkie (with his wife Amelia) set out on a tour of Asia. Indonesia was on the itinerary with a directive from President David O. McKay that if they felt so inspired they were to dedicate the land for the preaching of the gospel. The first stop was a seminar in Manila for all of the Asian mission presidents and their wives. The newest mission president at the meeting was G. Carlos Smith (with his wife LaVon) who was in route to Singapore where he would begin overseeing the newly organized Southeast Asia mission (that would include Indonesia). Brent Hardy would continue to oversee the new Hong Kong-Taiwan Mission which was being created out of the other half of the former Southern Far East Mission. Traveling with President Hardy was his wife Elaine. They had left their four young children in Hong Kong (including a 14 month old son) under the care of their house help and a hired 17 year old girl.
At the end of the mission conference the Bensons, McConkies, Smiths, and Hardys along with Wilford W. Kirton Jr., General Counsel for the LDS Church, Marvin Harding of the church building department, and Pete Grimm (Maxine was home in Tooele dealing with the aftermath of the fire) proceeded to the Manila airport for their flight to Jakarta. At the Airport Hardy suggested that they all do a group check in so that he could include a half dozen boxes of copies of the Book of Mormon in with the rest of the luggage. He then gathered all of the boarding passes and passports to check the group in. In the process a Garuda Airlines agent discovered that Brother and Sister Benson did not have a visa to enter Indonesia, a clerical oversight of Murdock Travel. A week earlier, Garuda had been fined a thousand dollars for boarding someone on a flight to Jakarta without a visa and so it looked like the Bensons would not be permitted to board the plane. Brent Hardy and Pete Grimm, who seemed to be in charge of the entourage, hustled around trying to figure out what to do. Luckily, Elder Benson as the former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture still had some political clout and so a call was made to the U.S. ambassador in Manila (who knew Pete through various endeavors) who then phoned the U.S. ambassador in Jakarta who then made some calls and arranged to have Elder Benson enter without a visa.[1]
Of that incident, President Hardy recounts how “Brother Benson, of course, was very distressed and a bit embarrassed.” While Hardy was doing his “political maneuvering,” he noticed a thoughtful and somber Benson off by himself in the airport. Later, after a resolution to the crisis, Benson told Hardy “that he was prayerfully considering the whole matter of the dedication of Indonesia” and that “he told the Lord that if this travel document problem was the means whereby the Lord was ‘hedging up the way’ that he would accept that and abort the trip to Indonesia.”
In thinking about this incident, Hardy reflected: “It gave me a very human insight into the life of this Apostle. It is natural to think that all the actions taken by and (sic) Apostle are clear cut and written in stone by the finger of the Lord. It was rather comforting, in a discomforting way, to see that he wrestled with the same process of obtaining spiritual confirmation as the rest of us.”[2]
With the way not hedged up the party proceeded to Jakarta. Once everyone, including Elder Benson, was on board a laughing Elder McConkie exclaimed; “Are we all on? Nothing short of a latter-day miracle!”[3]
At Jakarta’s Kemayoran airport, the welcoming party included the director of immigration, Jan Walandouw and his cousin Ernest Tungka, a representative from the U.S. embassy as well as many others. The travelers were whisked into the VIP waiting room while their luggage was collected and then they sailed through customs and off to the hotel “before [they] could blink.” Walandouw then took the men in the group to a male-only gathering for high ranking government officials and diplomats as part of a royal wedding for Suharto’s number two man. The plan was for them to meet President Suharto there, but the visa problem in Manila had delayed the flight and so the Mormon hierarchy missed meeting the president, who even waited a while for them.
The next morning Elders Benson and McConkie met with U.S. Ambassador, Francis J. Galbraith who was “most kind and very willingly offered his assistance” to their efforts. He said he was encouraged with the prospects for Indonesia and “expressed confidence in the leadership, motives, and integrity of President Suharto.” Benson then visited with the Minister of Agriculture, who was also serving as a university president, and then with the number two man who they were told would be the next president of Indonesia. [4]
During the day they also went to meet with Dennis Butler at the Canadian Embassy. In his office, they told Butler that that they had authority from President McKay, if they felt it was right, to dedicate the land of Indonesia for the preaching of the Gospel. To that end they wanted to meet with as many members and friends of the Church as possible; to find a place that would be suitable for a dedication; and if it was possible to meet with the Minister of Religion. There were only three Foreign Service officers assigned to the Canadian Embassy and Butler was the highest ranking of them. He thus had a breadth of interactions with Indonesian officials that diplomats in large embassies like that of the United States did not have, given their more compartmentalized portfolios and interactions. He had met the minister and so he picked up the phone, called the receptionist and asked to speak with him. After introducing himself and exchanging the normal pleasantries, Butler said, “I have a request. This is not a Canadian government request, and I want you to know that, but you know that I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons.” He said “yes”, then Butler questioned, “What do you know about us?” He said, “Well I know you're Christian.” Butler then explained that the church had basically the same organization that existed at the time of Jesus with apostles and prophets. After once again reminding the minister that this was not a Canadian government request, he explained that one of the apostles of the Church was visiting Jakarta and he would like to meet with him. Butler went on to explain that this visiting leader once served in the cabinet of President Eisenhower and that “his name is Ezra Taft,” upon which the Minister filled in “Benson?” Butler replied, “Yes, Benson.” The minister then said: “He's here?! I would love to meet him.” Butler said, “When?” He said, “Anytime.” Butler said, “How about fifteen minutes?” He said, “That would be great.” Butler said, “By the way, there are two of them here, and the other man is just as qualified.”[5]
Benson and McConkie then went to meet the minister with the promise to call Butler when they were finished and needed to be picked up. Back in his office, Butler started to get worried at the long absence of the church leaders. Then finally the two men showed up again at the Canadian embassy, having been given a ride back in the minister’s car. He went out and escorted them back into his office. One of them said: “You're probably wondering what happened.” Butler said, “I sure am, 'cause it's been a long time!” One of them replied: “We got permission for recognition of the Church. And we'll have official recognition in three or four months.” When pressed by Butler for more information they told how the minister had explained that Indonesia’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion and thus there would be no problem in getting the Church recognized. The minister then asked: “Now I believe that your church teaches polygamy, does it not?” And they said, “Well, why do you ask?” He says, “Well the constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but it also forbids polygamy unless it is a tenet of your faith. Do you want to practice polygamy?” They replied “no” and explained that polygamy was no longer practiced by members of the Mormon faith. They then thanked him for asking.[6]
 Mural in the entry of the Ministry of Religion depicting the five official religions of Indonesia (2007).
During the Jakarta visit, Wilford Kriton from the Church Legal Department was able to meet with an officer in the U.S. consulate office who was able to offer help. Then he and Carlos Smith spent one whole Saturday waiting unsuccessfully in the hotel lobby to meet with a Jakarta attorney (Walandouw’s contact) to discuss setting up the Church as a legal entity.[7] Kriton then turned to plan B and contacted another attorney who indicated that their needs could be met. In describing these visits, Hardy noted that “the government administration is inefficient and frustrating to deal with. However consideration must be given to the fact that the government is just beginning to function again.” 

After the visits the apostles returned to the hotel where they, along with the two mission presidents and their wives, several of the expatriate LDS couples, Pete Grimm and Jan Walandouw, met in an “upper room” of the hotel to discuss whether or not Indonesia should be dedicated for the beginning of missionary work. Elder McConkie gave “a beautiful prayer and told the Lord that we felt, after consideration, that it was the thing to do and asked Him to make it known to us by a calm, peaceful feeling if this decision was right.” As they sat in a circle, Brother Benson asked most of the men present “to express their feelings regarding the people, the government, government leaders, potential, and advisability of sending the missionaries to Indonesia.” They also offered their feelings about whether or not the land should be dedicated.  All spoke affirmatively. President Hardy told of his two previous visits to Indonesia and summarized the reports he had submitted. Then as the final voice, Elder Benson explained: “I have been praying to the Lord that if it were not proper for the land of Indonesia to be dedicated to the preaching of the gospel. That he would hedge up the way and prevent it from being done.” By this point it must have seemed as if the answer was obvious, the Bensons had been allowed last minute entry without the required visa (something McConkie joked about later as not being a preventative hedge), government officials and diplomats had offered support, the minister of religion had offered recognition, and everyone in the circle had expressed their support for moving forward (including Pete Grimm with his decades of experience trading in Indonesia and Jan Walandouw with his many political connections). [8]
The next step was to find a place that Saturday afternoon for a Sunday morning dedication. Several local members had spent the morning looking in Jakarta for an appropriate place but with no luck. That afternoon, at the recommendations of Pete Grimm and Dennis Butler, President and Sister Hardy drove with Jakarta resident Sister Cornelius (whose sister lived near the Hardy’s in Salt Lake City) two hours south of Jakarta to the Puncak area “where they found a beautiful secluded hill that overlooked the countryside.” The selected knoll was a three mile drive and a 300 yard walk up into the hills above the Canadian Embassy bungalow—where Sutrisno had been baptized a few months earlier. On the way back from the finding expedition Sister Hardy remembers how they stopped at a road side fruit stand and bought some mangos and mangosteens to eat along the way. She also noted in a letter home how it rained and rained to the point that in certain places the water was up to the door of the car.
Later that evening the Wendel’s hosted a large dinner party for the visiting and local Mormons as well as Indonesian friends and contacts. Jan Walandouw furnished the food. Sister Hardy, on her first visit to Indonesia, likened the delicious food to Chinese food only “a little bit spicier and hotter.” A “little bit” may be an understatement for Carlos Smith and Amelia Benson who unknowingly “got hold of a little piece of green pepper that about took their heads off.” Elaine Hardy noted that Smith “was bright red and sputtering, the tears just rolling down his face’ and that everyone “got a good laugh out of it at his expense.”

Sister Hardy’s description of being red faced and sputtering is conveniently expressed by a single Indonesian word: kepedasan. The root pedas is an adjective that means spicy hot, add the ke and an affixes and you get a noun that means “the state of being overcome by something spicy hot.” President Smith and Sister McConkie were not the first nor were they the last foreign Mormons to experience kepedasan in Indonesia. It is something that most every first time visitor to the country experiences.
At my first dinner invitation/birthday party as a very green missionary in Semarang in November 1975, I excitedly loaded up my plate from the large table top spread of rice, curries, stir fries and condiments (called a rijsttafel—rice table by the Dutch). Included in my selection were two tiny green peppers (cabe) that a na├»ve me (from an America yet to be invaded with Mexican cuisine and its hot green chilies) thought would taste like the large sweet green bell peppers of my youth and not the hot red peppers associated with Tabasco Sauce (the only hot sauce or salsa I had been exposed to at the time). I was wrong. Like Carlos Smith, I popped one of the peppers into my mouth and started to chew.  Soon my mouth was on fire, my lips were burning, my eyes were watering and my face was turning red. Water (always served room temperature or hotter and never with ice) was the only antidote I could think of. It didn’t help. A young girl at the party noticed my face and while pointing (with her thumb, not her pointer finger) exclaimed “dia kepedasan!” (he is burning up from the chilies!). Everyone looked and laughed. The host and my companion Elder Gary Stephens came to my relief with encouragement to eat some plain white rice to help absorb the burn of the cabe’s capsaicin. Most Indonesian meals end with a serving a fruit which is also a nice antidote for all the heat of the rijsttafel dishes for it literally “washes the mouth” (cuci mulut ).

[1] Brent Hardy Journal of the Southern Far East Mission History 1968-1971 and McConkie, Joseph Fielding. The Bruce R. McConkie Story. Salt lake City: Deseret Book, 2003,  p. 339
[2] Brent Hardy Journal of the Southern Far East Mission History 1968-1971.
[3] Brent Hardy Journal of the Southern Far East Mission History 1968-1971.
[4] Brent Hardy Journal of the Southern Far East Mission History 1968-1971
[5] Dennis and Vernene Butler interview, March 10, 2011. While not certain, Maxine Grimm (October 20, 2001 interview) suggests that it is very likely that the Minister of Religion had already been approached by Jan Walandouw about granting approval for the LDS Church, which may explain why the Minister could fill in the name of Benson so easily.
[6] Dennis and Vernene Butler interview, March 10, 2011. It is not exactly certain which of all the many government contacts and connections should be credited with getting the LDS Church recognized. It could very well be that different contacts helped at differ levels and with different government entities. One other possible influence in the process came from LDS businessman Hall Jensen (25 June 2003 Interview) who first began working in Indonesia in 1968. One of his first projects was helping to arrange for the Indonesian government to repay US loans with petroleum. This brought him into contact with Sigit, the son of President Suharto. Jensen recalls that his contact with Sigit helped establish contacts between the Church and the Department of Religion which helped in gaining permission for the entry of the first elders in 1970.

[7] G. Carlos Smith, Jr. Oral History Program, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Interviewed by William G. Hartley September 8, 14, 21, 28, 1972. p. 2.
[8] Brent Hardy Journal of the Southern Far East Mission History 1968-1971 and McConkie, Joseph Fielding. The Bruce R. McConkie Story. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2003,  p. 340.

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