Thursday, October 19, 2006

"I don't drink tea, I'm a Mormon"

[UPDATE: Be sure to see the comments following this story for important corrections and corroborations to this telling.]

The following story is based on my recollection of a telling from sometime between 1999 and 2000. Hopefully I won't mangle the details too badly. Those with corrections or additional information are welcome to pipe up in the comments.

Hal[1] worked for a company that sold phone cards. They were looking to try a scratch-and-win type phone card for sale in Indonesia. In this country of 200 million, 86% of whom are Muslim[2], cultural sensitivity was important. The company didn't want to offer the cards if they would be offensive to the religious sensibilities of the Muslim majority which forbids gambling. Hal was sent in to get a read on the situation.

He was told he needed to talk to Gus Dur, the leader or chief cleric of a group of 40 million Muslims, the largest such group in the country.

To speak to Gus Dur, one had to wait his turn in line to see the cleric. Hal found himself in a line of people stretching out the door of a small building. After a wait, he made his way into the house where he saw an old man in shorts sitting on a simple bed. The man was nearly blind. This was Gus Dur, more formally known as Abdurrahman Wahid.

As Hal started to speak to Gus Dur, someone appeared to offer both of them tea. Hal responded without hesitation, "I don't drink tea. I'm a Mormon."

There were any number of ways to demur from sharing in a cup of tea without bringing up the subject of religion. Hal was here on business and it certainly wouldn't do to offend the religious sensitivities of his host. Nevertheless, he was straightforward and unashamed.

"Mormon?" Gus Dur leaned forward. "I know this church. This is a good church."

I don't know what happened relating to the business portion of the meeting, but at least some part of the conversation centered on the Church and on Utah. Hal mentioned the Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah Hospital.

As one thing led to another, Gus Dur eventually found himself on a private plane (owned by a prominent Mormon businessman) bound for Utah. The well-regarded Muslim leader was greeted in Utah by several leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the First Presidency.

As Gus Dur prepared for eye surgery, President Hinckley offered to give him a priesthood blessing. Gus Dur agreed, with his characteristic ecumenicism.

In the blessing, a prophet of God blessed him, among other things, that he would return to his country and do a very great work.

Abdurrahman Wahid returned to Indonesia and within a relatively short period of time, was recruited to run for president in the first genuine election in a generation. In a strange electoral twist, he became the president of Indonesia with a political rival serving as his vice president.[3]

Thus it was that the man who become the president of Indonesia, the country with more Muslims than all of the Arabian peninsula together, was one who had received a blessing at the hands of a Mormon prophet.

Gus Dur was a force for religious toleration in Indonesia. Latter-day Saint missionaries do not currently serve in Indonesia, but perhaps the work of Gus Dur during his term in the presidency will prove to have been a key element in the future opening of that work. And to think it all started over a refused cup of tea.

[1] I don't know Hal's full name, or even if this is his real name. The teller of the story never mentioned it. I'm reluctant to associate the name of the teller of the story with my re-telling of it, in case I turn out to have misheard or misremebered any facts. The original teller was serving as an area-authority seventy and recounted the story in a stake priesthood meeting in a BYU stake.

[2] According to the Wikipedia entry on Indonesia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indonesia

[3] From another Wikipedia entry: "Under the constitution, the new President was elected by members of both houses of Parliament in a joint sitting, with the result that although the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle won the election with 35% of the popular vote, the new President was not that party's nominee, Megawati Sukarnoputri, but was Abdurrahman Wahid, from the National Awakening Party, with Megawati as Vice-President."


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  • This is a great story. Thanks for sharing it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/20/2006 5:44 AM  

  • It IS a good story, but I wish you could substantiate it better. Otherwise, it remains "a story," as likely to be considered Mormon Urban Legend as anything. I'd love to read this again with more specifics on Hal and his own confirmation of events!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/20/2006 3:47 PM  

  • My reason for posting the story this week is because we had an Indonesian official come speak at the BYU Forum last week. Elder Boyd Packer introduced this Muslim leader, called him a brother, and embraced him after the introduction. Apparently there is something to the connection between LDS church leaders and leaders from Indonesia.

    I believe the story as I've told it is accurate, but it is only as good as my memory, which is a bit shakier.

    By Blogger Bradley Ross, at 10/20/2006 6:52 PM  

  • Why do some mormons have to make a big deal about how super special they are because they don't drink coffee, tea or booze? Instead of a haughty "Harrumph, *I* don't drink tea, *I'm* a mormon!!!" how about the much more polite "No, thank you"? Nobody cares what church you belong to, even if you wear it on your sleeve and rub it in people's faces

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/20/2006 10:01 PM  

  • The reason is actually rather simple. If you say no thank you, people will ask why not? Then you will have to explain you are Mormon anyway. Saying you don't drink/eat something because you are Mormon gets everything out of the way. This is especially the case in a cultral situtation like this where saying "no thank you" can be seen as an insult.

    Even if you don't look at it like that, the Scriptures command us to be witnesses in all places, all times, to all people. Thus, technically, a situation like this is a perfect time to witness for the faith. It allows the person the opportunity to ask more questions or blow it off. So, you are fulfilling two religious requirements in one sentence ;)

    By Blogger Jettboy, at 10/21/2006 8:46 AM  

  • Sorry dude, I am not a role model. What other people think of me is none of my business. And what somebody else thinks of my religion is none of my business.

    I know conference has just ended, so everybody is whipped up in a maelstrom of missionary madness, but I'm sorry, it is RUDE to push your religion on somebody else.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/21/2006 9:37 AM  

  • Anon--Your insistance that stating one's religion when refusing food or drink is necessarily haughty or impolite is just unsupportable. And your addition of the "Harrumph" and the emphasis on "I" and "I'm" is out of place in this story--and in nearly every circumstance like this that I have witnessed.

    "...but I'm sorry, it is RUDE to push your religion on somebody else."

    Nevermind your use of "I'm sorry" when you really aren't, but who is being pushy in this story?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/21/2006 11:20 AM  

  • Great story, and quite a fine blog. I've listed you on my blogroll over ar Mormanity. Thanks!

    By Blogger Jeff Lindsay, at 10/22/2006 2:21 PM  

  • Great story...

    It would be great if it were true! I wish you had more evidence to substantiate it.

    I have explained my membership in the LDS Church as reasons for not participating in drinking tea, coffee and alcohol and have never had someone give me a weird look or act as if I was being arrogant or wrong by bringing my religion into it. It seems like the ones that get offended the most are ex-mormons that lurk around LDS blogs looking to make stabs.

    By Blogger Drew, at 10/23/2006 6:15 AM  

  • A couple in our ward returned a couple of years ago from the Indonesia, Jakarta mission where they could not actively proselyte but could teach English and answer questions. The city of Jakarta has a population equal to the membership of the entire church worldwide. They said the church was one of the few trusted entities let in to parts of the country to help after the tsunami.

    By Blogger ShelleyG, at 10/23/2006 6:58 AM  

  • Bradley says "Apparently there is something to the connection between LDS church leaders and leaders from Indonesia."

    Absolutely. But I imagine this has a lot to do with the recent cooperation between LDS Humanitarian Services and Islamic Relief agencies, in muslim countries in general, but especially in Indonesia, which has been hit incredibly hard by earthquakes, tsunamis, and the like the past few years. For example see http://lds.org/newsroom/showrelease/0,15503,4028-1-23460,00.html and http://www.desnews.com/cn/view/1,1721,445006121,00.html"> .

    Don't get me wrong - I want this story to be true! Just wish I had more details.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/23/2006 10:02 AM  

  • Also thought it's worth pointing out that the whole tea thing was not even the main point - the cool thing is the subsequent events - the priesthood blessing and hopefully improved relations between cultures and faiths. Let's not get hung up on exactly what the right way is to turn down Tea. In this case, it was apparently the right way!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/23/2006 10:05 AM  

  • I found some news articles on the relationship between President Hinckley and former president Wahid.

    In January 2000, President Hinckley met with President Wahid in Jakarta at Wahid's invitation.

    According to an AP story: "Wahid, who is almost blind and has suffered a series of strokes, met Hinckley last year after he underwent treatment on two occasions at the University of Utah's Moran Eye Center in Salt Lake City.

    He said this had been financed by a longtime Mormon friend who introduced him to senior church officials" (Geoff Spencer, "Mormon leader visits strife-torn Indonesia," Associated Press, Jan. 27, 2000).

    A wire story published in the Deseret News on January 27 reported: "LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley presented copies of the Scriptures to Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid during a dinner in Jakarta on Thursday evening.

    At the dinner held in the presidential palace, President Hinckley and his wife, Marjorie, and President Boyd K. Packer of the Council of the Twelve and his wife, Donna, met with the Indonesian leader as part of their trip through Asia and the Pacific region.

    Those traveling with President Hinckley described the meeting as cordial, saying the men discussed Wahid's health and healing eyes. President Hinckley first met the Indonesian president last year when he visited Salt Lake City for medical treatment on his eyes" ("Indonesian, LDS leaders dine together," Deseret News, Jan. 27, 2000, A4).

    A January 26, 2000, story from the AP contained more details:

    "Mormon church president Gordon B. Hinckley will meet with Indonesia's president in Jakarta on Friday, the first visit of a Mormon leader to the world's most populous Muslim nation.

    Officials with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Tuesday that Hinckley plans 'a brief courtesy visit' with President Abdurrahman Wahid as part of a longer trip through Asia.

    But any visit is significant in Indonesia, where more than 2,000 people have been killed in a year of fighting between Christians and Muslims; the government has banned most foreign missionaries, particularly those outside mainstream Christianity.

    'It's a very big deal,' said Chad Emmett, a geography professor at Brigham Young University who served a church mission to Indonesia in the 1970s and has helped coordinate Indonesian members for the visit.

    Emmett and others have raised $2,000 for Indonesian members to travel to Jakarta for Friday.

    As of Tuesday, 16 busloads were expected from across the main island of Java, where most of the church's 5,200 members live.

    The move is important both for the church, which has been reaching for more members in Asia and the Islamic world, and for Wahid, who has emphasized religious tolerance since his election in October.

    In fact, church officials began cultivating a relationship with Wahid well before he took office.

    The connection came by chance. A church member living in California befriended Wahid during a stay in Indonesia and recommended a Mormon doctor in Salt Lake City when he learned Wahid was going blind.

    The link soon came to the attention of church leaders, who invited Wahid to Salt Lake City, where he underwent surgery at the University of Utah's Moran Eye Center.

    'Elder (Jeffrey) Holland, who oversees church operations in the Islamic world, was very aware we needed to build bridges and Indonesia, we needed to make friends there,' Emmett said.

    At a follow-up visit in August, Wahid was invited to meet with Hinckley, and Wahid invited the prophet to his country in return.

    Mormons hope Hinckley's trip to Indonesia will ease the way for their missionaries, who were expelled along with all foreign missionaries in 1981, 11 years after the first Mormons arrived there. The mission reopened in 1995.

    Even before that, the government placed increasingly heavy restrictions on mission work.

    'We had to teach English and wait to be invited into homes, we met people on the bus,' said Emmett, who started his mission there in 1977, a year before the government issued restrictions on proselytizing. 'We maybe performed two to three baptisms a year. It was slow work,' Emmett said.

    Now all mission work there is done by local members, with occasional visits from missionaries based in Singapore or American couples who have taught dentistry at a local university.

    Emmett said the state invitation from a president who heads the country's largest Muslim organization is a good sign Wahid may be willing to live up to his promise of a return to historical tolerance, even after a year of vicious fighting on the island of Ambon.

    'To me, Indonesia was always very proud of the fact that Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists were able to live together peacefully," Emmett said' (Hannah Wolfson, "Mormon president to visit Jakarta," Associated Press, Jan. 26, 2000).

    By Blogger Justin B., at 10/23/2006 10:31 AM  

  • Nice follow up Justin! Thanks for the additional info. It at least puts President Hinckley in the picture and substantiates the eye surgery. Cool.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10/23/2006 12:54 PM  

  • Thanks for the comments, and especially to Justin for the great newspaper tidbits. After further consideration, I've decided there is nothing wrong with listing the name of the person from whom I heard the story. I've adequately claimed responsibility for any errors that may have crept into my retelling.

    I heard this story from Glen Overton who was serving as an area authority 70 at the time. He was speaking in a BYU stake presided over by Blake Roney, the businessman that paid for the plane trips for Gus Dur. In short, I don't have any doubt about the verity of the story. I'm just not sure if I nailed every small detail. (Was it on his first or second trip to the US where he met Pres. Hinckley? Did Pres. Hinckley offer to give a blessing or did someone offer on his behalf? etc...) I still don't know who Hal is.

    By Blogger Bradley Ross, at 10/23/2006 9:54 PM  

  • In general the facts of this account are correct. I am a BYU professor and am currently writing a book on the history of the LDS Church in Indonesia. A few summers ago I interviewed Hal Jensen (a California based businessman who has worked with Glen Overton on several projects) and he related to me the same general story. He did refuse tea at his first meting with Gus Dur (mid 1990s). (My expereince with Muslims is that they are much more accepting of a rejection of hospitality (tea and coffee) if you cite religious prohibition--perhaps Brother Jensen found the same to be true) That refusal led to a continuing friendship. When Gus Dur came to SLC (summer 1999) for the eye operation, Brother Jensen arranged for him to meet President Packer who then arranged for Gus Dur to meet President Hinckley. Gus Dur was given a blessing by President Hinckley. A few months later he was elected President of Indonesia. A few months later he was back in SLC for a follow up operation. He met Pres. Hinckley again. This time he invited Pres. Hinckley to visit Indonesia as his official guest. In January 2000 Pres Hinckley traveled to Jakarta to met Gus Dur and to meet with 1,800 Latter-day Saints. A year later the Indonesian government approved the issuance of visas for foreign missionaries to once again enter the country. From 1970-1981 foreign missionaries were permitted to serve in Indonesia (I was one of the fortuante few). Then from 1981-2001 no foreign missionaries were allowed in the country. That all changed when Gus Dur met Pres Hinckley. Since the summer of 2001 there have been a limited number of foreign elders and sisters serving in Indonesia.

    Chad Emmett chad_emmett@byu.edu

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1/03/2007 2:32 PM  

  • This story is VERY true. Hal Jensen, the man who is refered to as "Hal" in the story, was my Home Teacher when I lived in Valley Center, Ca. He told me this story first hand. Hal's family has visited Indonesia and I have seen pictures of them with the Gus Dur. It is a great and TRUE story, not a "mormon myth".

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5/16/2008 7:46 AM  

  • The story is true. I am a close friend of Hal's and I have spent many hours in discussion with him about this and other things that are ongoing in Indonesia.

    Recently the Indonesian government has also urged for families to set aside one night each week to have family time. It is interesting to see how many "apples" can come from one seed.

    Hal is a great man and has represented his faith very well. TRUE STORY.

    By Blogger Kyle, at 5/28/2009 12:05 PM  

  • I will add to the confirmations of the truth of this story. I have heard the story before. I spent yesterday afternoon with friends of Hal Jensen who are serving a mission. Although this particular story was not discussed, several matters surrounding it and verifying were. Got to see the pictures too. Very interesting.

    I've posted as anonymous rather than open a Google account. Michael Clifton. Waterloo, Ontario.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7/20/2009 10:20 AM  

  • Gus Dur has passed away. You can read the newspaper account in the Deseret News.

    By Blogger Bradley Ross, at 12/30/2009 9:05 PM  

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