A sometimes forgotten element of the St Vincent de Paul Society’s work is the time and effort we devote to twinning with our sisters and brothers in foreign lands. With the busyness of dealing with our companions in Australia, it is easy to forget the opportunities and benefits in maintaining the twinning relationships we have.
I had the opportunity to travel to Indonesia in August 2017 with the Canberra-Goulburn Territory Council President Warwick Fulton and Wanniassa (ACT) Conference President Jack Matsay. We had extensive access to St Vincent de Paul conference activities in the East Java region, including in Surabaya, Malang and rural areas around them.
The Society is very much alive and well in Indonesia. In many respects, they put us to shame with the joy and enthusiasm with which they undertake their activities. All it takes is a look at their Facebook sites to see this; however, a visit on the ground makes it all the more obvious.
Much like Australian conferences, there is not a one-size-fits-all model for Indonesian conferences. The Surabaya city conferences are predominantly young, often have twenty or so members and are used to dealing with large groups of companions. The Malang city and regional conferences are smaller in number, generally older in age and focussed on dealing with a few companions. Throw into the mix several school conferences where the students do much of the support work that our conferences would do.
The assistance provided is similar to what we offer—food aid, support for those suffering from medical complaints, transportation and household essentials. Not unexpectedly for a developing country, the money amounts provided are quite small; as little as $1 a month for a student. The small amounts are made up for by the very hands-on approach to assistance from the local conferences.
Their companions’ needs are very compelling. Surabaya’s Santa Maria Tak Bercela Conference helps the city’s pedi-cab drivers. These men provide a cheap form of public transport; their work is occasional, strenuous and predominantly done in the heat of the day. Those being helped were almost all elderly, in some cases former rural workers driven to seek work in the city to make ends meet. A meal on Sunday in the shade of the local church’s portico, access to an informal savings system and the ability to choose some clothes from a pile of castoffs, all the while supported by an enthusiastic bunch of Vincentians, gives them a break from the grind of their lives.
In the rolling streetscape of outer Malang we found Susanna, an elderly lady of indeterminate age, blind, living alone and eking out an existence stringing badminton rackets for $2 a week. Susanna’s husband and one of her children have passed away; her remaining children have health issues and meagre means. Members of Malang’s St Agnes Conference visit Susanna once every two months (or more regularly if needed) to provide her companionship and a lift to Mass, some money and food.
The rural conferences do their work in remote areas serviced by poor roads and inadequate or absent banking and telecommunication arrangements. The trips out to these communities often take two hours along bumpy roads. The conferences have very few resources but embrace their Mission with a social entrepreneurship that sees them independently raising money to support the poor; for example, by rearing goats for sale. The different conferences also cooperate among themselves to share funds. These small groups work with their parishes and local schools to support a limited number of companions, mostly school students. They were very grateful for our visit.
The money Australian conferences send helps all of this work. In a country as dispersed as Indonesia, with all of its attendant communication and movement issues, it is not unreasonable to expect that some of our donations are used just to make the Society function, such as funding members’ travel. The Indonesian National Council is taking steps to improve the way that money gets to its conferences and also to increase its knowledge of the work conferences do on the ground. All this bodes well for Australian conferences gaining a better understanding of how their donations are used. Our Vincentian brothers and sisters wear their association with the Society with pride in a kaleidoscope of coloured polo shirts worn at meetings and in their work with companions.
They capture the stories of their work in photographs, videos and social media posts. They support their companions spiritually in a land where Catholics are a tiny minority. There is much that we could learn from them in how to communicate and also a lot more that we could do to tell them about our work.
Sometimes we question the value of twinning. From my brief visit to Indonesia, I can see that building and maintaining the links with our twins is certainly worthwhile.
Andrew Rice is President of the South Woden Conference and Twinning Officer for the St Vincent de Paul Society Territory Council of Canberra-Goulburn.