Sientje Mewengkang: Dialogue with an Adventist congresswoman in Indonesia

Sure, her name is long, but that has nothing to do with her rich personality and many achievements. Awards followed her in high school, university, and public service. Whatever she does seems to carry a commitment to excellence—as a wife of a successful businessman, a mother of two teenagers, a Sabbath school teacher, or a congresswoman for the North Sulawesi Province in Indonesia.

For all her accomplishments, Sientje Catharina Nangoy-Mewengkang is a simple person, with a devotion to duty and a love to serve the people of her country and her church. The first Adventist woman to rise to the position of a congresswoman in the largest Muslim nation in the world, Mrs. Nangoy-Mewengkang was born in a Protestant home. While studying at the government university, she met Jobi Mewengkang, an Adventist student. The two fell in love, married, and began their career—she as a university teacher and he as a businessman. They have two children, Inria Grace and Ivan Nathanael.

From teaching, Mrs. Nangoy-Mewengkang shifted to politics and eventually became the provincial treasurer of GOLKAR, the government party in Indonesia, and a congresswoman. Even though her public duties keep her busy, she takes times to be with her family—both biological and spiritual. Her leadership reveals what a committed Christian can do in the church and in the community.

There are many routes to Adventism. Romance seemed to have been yours. Would you say so?

Perhaps, yes. But my commitment to Jesus Christ was made earlier. I grew up in a Protestant home, and I knew the demands of Christianity even as a child. When I began my university studies, I met this bright and handsome young man, and we fell in love with each other. I knew he was a Seventh-day Adventist, and I noted that his lifestyle was quite different. It made an impression on me, and I wanted to find out what made Adventists so special. My love for him spurred my curiosity about Adventists even more. I started to study what Adventists believe, and the Bible became more and more beautiful, even as great truths leaped from its pages. I was baptized October 1978. One month later we got married.

How would you describe your first interaction with Adventists?

Not good to begin with. Studying the great truths was one thing, but living among Adventists was something else. I found many restrictions in the church. Legalism seemed predominant, with so many do’s and don’ts. But as I matured in my faith, I discovered real joy in Jesus. Once Jesus became central in my life and faith, the restrictions were no longer a burden. They were just part of the life of obedience which follows faith in Jesus. Without Jesus, life becomes burdensome. With Him, life is a journey of joy.

Have you ever been challenged for keeping your faith in the Lord?

Many times. As I began my career as a university teacher, I found that most of my professional appointments were scheduled on Saturday. Similar Sabbath problems came up from 1980 to 1986 when I was the dean of student affairs at the School of Economics at Sam Ratu Langi University. But I chose not to compromise the demands of my faith with those of my profession. By being consistent in such choices and by maintaining a lifestyle in which faith plays a major role, one can actually influence one’s peers and supervisors. Even a single compromise can affect one’s credibility. Eventually, however, I did not have to face those Sabbath appointments again. The Lord who commands also enables, and I found this true in my life. And in the process I have gained the respect and friendship of my colleagues.

Being a member of the congress is a highly public office, demanding your services and availability at all times. How do you manage your commitment to the Sabbath?

I was elected to the congress in 1987. The inauguration fell on the Sabbath, and I declined to participate. Many friends, some in high government office, tried to persuade me. At one time there was even the possibility of not allowing me to become a congresswoman. I took the stand that I should stay by my faith and still serve my country. I prayed about it. Well, my swearing in was postponed by two weeks to a weekday.

I was re-elected to the congress in 1992 for a period of five years, but again the inauguration was scheduled for Sabbath. This time, though, there was no persuasion or threat. Everyone knew then that I took my faith and my country quite seriously. So again I was sworn in later on a weekday.

From time to time, I faced other difficulties with regard to Sabbath observance. But praise God! Every challenge becomes an instrument of witnessing. Government officials of both the North Sulawesi Province and the central government in Jakarta know and respect my faith commitments.

How can you witness to the central government in Jakarta, while you are serving as a congresswoman in North Sulawesi?

For me witness involves doing the right thing and fulfilling the responsibility assigned to us, without in any way contradicting or compromising our conscience. I remember one occasion. As chairperson of the Commission on Development, I was to make a presentation to the officials in Jakarta. The President of the Republic was also to be present. However, the meeting was scheduled on Sabbath. My friends tried to persuade me to attend, as I would have an opportunity to meet the president. At such occasions, professional advancement is always a temptation. But I couldn’t do it. I prepared the report, did all the work, and requested my associate to make the presentation. And I went to church.

From the dual perspective of an Adventist and a government official, how do you perceive your role in serving the community?

I don’t see any conflict at all. As Christians, we have the opportunity of practicing the teachings of Jesus in our life and our work. By His grace, we need to cultivate a spirit of humility and service to those around us. We cannot and must not live in isolation. God has placed us where we are for a purpose, and we need to transmit His love to our fellow human beings. Serving as a government official provides means and opportunities to show people that we care and that our responsibility is for the community. Being in office is not for the sake of power or position, but for service to people in need. Here’s where my faith commitment and my public duty come together.

Can your influence benefit members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church?

As a congresswoman, I must serve all the people without preference or bias. Although I don’t make Adventists as my primary responsibility, I help them when I can. For example, when I was in Congress, a colleague informed me that three Adventists were about to be released from their county jobs because they were unwilling to work on Sabbath. I spoke to the county official concerned about Seventh-day Adventists and what they believe. I showed him from the Bible God’s commandment on the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11). After listening for a while, the officer responded positively! The release was withdrawn. They were given alternative jobs, and they are still working.

At the university, I was able to help many students keep the Sabbath during student orientation, study time, and test time. Thus they were able to avoid taking the tests on Sabbath. However, we must let students stand for their faith. They need to affirm their individual faithfulness and trust in God. The spiritual journey is always personal and never easy. If faith has no struggle, then that faith loses its meaning.

Would you encourage more Adventist young people to seek a career in politics?

No! I wouldn’t suggest that unless a person feels God’s clear guidance in that direction and that person’s faith is solidly and unshakably rooted in Jesus. The world of politics is too complex in function and too competing in values. One is constantly faced with temptations of either taking a detour from God’s firm path or compromising with moral and spiritual principles. My counsel to young people is, Root yourself firmly in God’s Word, establish a personal relation with Christ, discover His will for your life, and let Him guide you in choosing a career in which you can serve Him and humanity. Popularity, power, and position should not play a role in choosing life careers.

I made that choice early: to put God first in all things. He led me to be a university professor and later I felt His guidance to become a public servant. In neither did I forget the first principle of my existence: to glorify God and to witness for Him.

How do you keep this spiritual commitment so firm?

Our spiritual strength comes from God. We need to keep in touch with Him. Speak to Him. Listen to Him. Meditate upon His Word. Without that close touch, we cannot find strength to live for Him. In our family, God’s Word plays an important role. We have daily family worship, both morning and evening. As a family we have set apart first and third Sabbaths of each month as days of fasting and prayer. The last day of the month is a day of solitary prayer.

Aside from family worship, we visit and share our faith through Bible studies. As a result, we have experienced the joy of bringing many acquaintances to Jesus. They, in turn, have brought several others to Jesus. That’s the kind of experience that makes one’s spiritual journey worth every effort.

Do you consider your life successful?

The answer depends upon how you define success. Was the life of Jesus successful? Not if you were standing at the foot of the cross as a mere spectator. But that cross became eternity’s symbol of victory. To me success is knowing God and happily doing His will. In the process we may encounter instances that may be discouraging. But “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, KJV). I believe in this promise and I try to live by it.

Interview by Jonathan Kuntaraf. Born in Indonesia, Jonathan Kuntaraf (D.Min., Andrews University) is the associate director of the Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department of the General Conference. Address of Mrs. Sientje Mewengkang: DPRD Prop. Dati I Sulut; Jln. Ahmad Yani Sario; Manado, Indonesia.