What’s it like to be a Mormon in the largest Muslim nation? For starters, you’re outnumbered 35,000 to 1 and you still get questions about polygamy

(Mike Stack | for The Salt Lake Tribune) Muslim students practicing their English at the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, in October 2017

Jakarta, Indonesia • Mormonism is barely a speck of paint on the tableau of faith in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation on the planet.

The LDS Church has about 7,300 members in a population that tops 260 million and includes small minorities of Hindus, Buddhists and Christians.

But for second-generation Mormon Jemmy Mongan, an LDS public affairs official in Jakarta, that minuscule presence is his whole world — one that fits comfortably within an overwhelmingly Islamic nation that he sees as a model of religious tolerance.

In fact, Jakarta’s biggest mosque was designed by a Christian and sits across the street from a Catholic cathedral, where the two share parking spaces. Headscarves on Muslim women are optional so many, but not all, wear them. Few don full-body burqas.

(Mike Stack | for The Salt Lake Tribune) Vast interior of Southeast Asia's largest mosque -- Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, in October 2017

More than 100 ethnic groups coexist, mostly in peace, in a diverse land of rainforests, volcanoes, rice paddies and unceasing traffic jams. Conversion from one faith to another is allowed.

Indonesian Muslims, Mongan insists, are not Arab Muslims.

The Utah-based LDS Church has partnered with some of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organizations to provide humanitarian relief — from renovating public restrooms and showers in Islamic schools to repainting mosques.

The gregarious Mormon spokesman relishes his lifelong LDS faith (his parents joined the church in 1978 when Mongan was a teenager). He served a two-year mission for it and eventually baptized his Muslim wife.

He is proud of his little church.

“A lot of pioneers here feel the same way I do,” he says. “I believe someday Indonesia will be strong for the church.”

Until then, members such as Mongan, spread over a couple of dozen LDS congregations, spend their days explaining how Mormonism operates and how it differs theologically from other brands of Christianity. That includes pointing out that their church no longer practices polygamy and hasn’t in more than a century.

That’s confusing to some Muslims in Indonesia, which allows a man up to four wives. After all, even on the other side of the world, they watched HBO’s “Big Love.”

Recognizing pluralism

Indonesia declared its independence from the Dutch in 1945, and, with a Muslim supermajority, easily could have established Islam as the state religion.

It didn’t.

Instead, the country of islands officially recognized at the time five faiths — Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism — reflecting the richness and diversity of its citizens.

It provided these groups “constitutional protections and guarantees,” according to the New World Encyclopedia, “thereby offering a progressive model of religious harmony in the Muslim world.”

Mormonism didn’t arrive in Indonesia until the 1960s and, as with other Christian groups, came first in the form of merchants.

Pete and Maxine Grimm (originally from Tooele) had a profitable shipping business, says Brigham Young University professor Chad Emmett, who is writing a book about the LDS Church in Indonesia. The couple traveled throughout the region, distributing copies of the Book of Mormon, the faith’s foundational scripture.

During one stop in Jakarta, they met Jan Walandouw, a Christian from Northern Sulawesi and a close friend of Indonesian Presidents Sukarno and Suharto. Through the years, the Grimms channeled most of their business through Walandouw, Emmett says. “Ultimately, he helped get permission from the government to allow Mormon missionaries into the country.”

On Jan. 5, 1970, the first six Mormon missionaries from the newly established Southeast Asia Mission, headquartered in Singapore, entered the populous country. They had no language training and no published church materials.

In a few years, eight branches were formed on the island of Java. Missionaries proselytized from home to home until 1974, Emmett says, “when a countrywide ban on door-to-door contacting was enforced.”

In July 1975, the church established the Indonesia Jakarta Mission, with Dutchman Hendrik Gout, born and reared in colonial Indonesia, as president. Emmett was among its missionaries. The next year, the church launched an elementary school in Jakarta and sent the first female, or sister, missionaries (who provided welfare services).

But visa problems often arose, particularly for foreign missionaries who had to leave the country every six months for renewals.

David M. Kennedy, a respected Mormon and former U.S. secretary of the Treasury, visited on several occasions to meet with high-ranking Indonesian officials to discuss the visa hindrance.

It was “all for naught,” Emmett says.

Foreign Mormon missionaries left Indonesia in August 1981. For the next two decades, the missionary force there was “entirely indigenous.“

In the 1980s and ’90s, mission governance “pingponged from Singapore to Jakarta (1985-1989) to Singapore (1989-1995), the historian writes in an essay about Mormonism in Indonesia, “and then finally back to Jakarta.”

It wasn’t until 2001, he says, that foreign missionaries were welcomed back into the country.

Since then, young LDS proselytizers have had to rely on member referrals, English classes, service activities and talking to people on buses, at shopping malls or at neighborhood parks — using any and all creative ways to start a conversation.

(Mike Stack | for The Salt Lake Tribune) Police officer holds back traffic in Jakarta, Indonesia, in October 2017

A timely encounter

In the mid-1990s, President Abdurrahman Wahid, who later became Indonesia’s fourth president, met Mormon Hal Jensen, who wanted to ask the Islamic leader about a project the LDS businessman was pursuing.

Wahid offered Jensen some tea, Emmett recounts, to which Jensen replied: “No, thank you, I don’t drink tea. I’m a Mormon.”

Wahid, who knew something about the American-born faith, spent the next hours discussing religion with Jensen. The two developed a friendship.

In a later exchange, Wahid, who was nearly blind, told Jensen he was planning to run for office, and Jensen offered the services of physicians back home in Utah.

Wahid accepted the offer and journeyed to the Beehive State, where he consulted about his eyesight at the Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah.

“When Wahid arrived in Salt Lake City, he received a blessing from [the late LDS apostle] Neal A. Maxwell, had the operation — which offered only little improvement in one eye,” Emmett writes, “and then met with the First Presidency — at which time [then-LDS Church] President [Gordon B.] Hinckley also gave him a blessing.”

Barely two months later, Wahid was elected as Indonesia’s president. On his inaugural trip abroad, he returned to Utah, meeting again with Hinckley and the late apostle Boyd K. Packer. He promptly invited them to visit his country, and the two Mormon leaders graciously agreed.

Despite growing unrest and security concerns, Hinckley traveled to Jakarta in January 2000, becoming the first LDS Church president to step on Indonesian soil.

He and Packer spoke at a gathering of 1,800 Mormons, Emmett says. They also met with Wahid.

That friendship smoothed the way for continuing LDS missionary work and church headquarters kept sending relief Indonesia’s way in the aftermath of natural disasters.

In February 2005, after a devastating tsunami, Packer and apostle David A. Bednar visited to monitor Mormon aid to the country.

“They were able to tour Jakarta’s largest mosque,” Emmett writes, “and with the approval of the head cleric, President Packer offered a prayer in which he ‘blessed the mosque… and all who attend to pray and worship.’”

(photo courtesy Agus Setijawan) LDS apostle Boyd K. Packer was in Indonesia, meeting -- and praying -- with Muslim leaders in Jakarta's largest mosque in 2005

Christian competition

Though the LDS Church’s relationship with Muslims in the nation seems solid, such is not the case with other Christians, some of whom are known to spread misinformation and often dub Mormonism a “false sect.”

These believers sometimes oppose LDS efforts to erect chapels, which require the signature of 60 neighbors before gaining approval. Their opposition has made it difficult, Emmett says, for the church to meet the needs of its expanding membership.

When the faith wanted to build a chapel for its small branch, or congregation, in Manado, in the Christian majority province of North Sulawesi, it needed the approval of at least three pastors as well as neighbors. That took “some doing in this Protestant province,” Emmett says, “with a tradition of not being welcoming to new denominations.”

It took many months (with local Mormon officials bringing two dozen pastors to Jakarta to see how the church worked there and a visit with a minister of religious affairs) to gain permission to build — but only in a shopping mall.

In addition, Christians largely are the ones who spread the untruths that Latter-day Saints continue to practice plural marriage.

“We need more efforts to inform the public in Indonesia, especially Christians that we no longer practice polygamy,” Mongan says. “Also, we need to share the information that Mormonism has been separated into many churches and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not part of the Mormons who still practice polygamy [like the ones in ‘Big Love’].”

Explaining that his church excommunicates polygamists, Mongan says, “is my big challenge, as a church media specialist, in Indonesia.”

Another challenge: the faith’s lay clergy.

While many Mormons are relieved to be “released” from a leadership position, some Indonesians, worried about saving face, become offended and feel “like they are no longer needed,” Emmett says. Inactivity sometimes results.

Then there’s the issue of marriage, especially since Indonesia effectively bars interfaith unions.

“It has always been hard to find a Mormon to marry,” Emmett says. “Many do marry other Mormons, but there are also more than a few, returned missionaries included, who end up converting to Islam when they fall in love with a Muslim and switch religions to marry.”

Some get around the legalities by “changing” their religion on paper while remaining loyal to their chosen faith.

The church’s health code, called the Word of Wisdom, has been a stumbling block for some, Mongan says, in a region where smoking is common and coffee and tea are part of the social fabric.

“It can be tough for some members who feel that we are judging or rejecting them,” the spokesman says, but there has been “some healing.”

Poverty, too, remains a constant problem, which Mormon leaders are addressing with its teachings on self-reliance.

“It is a good and appropriate program,” Emmett says.

Keeping the faith

One of Mormonism’s strengths in Indonesia is its ability to create and maintain ties across ethnic lines.

While many Protestant churches are ethnic based — creating congregations of mostly Batak, Javanese, Minahasan or Chinese members, Emmett says, LDS groups “are very mixed … and provide a good sense of community.”

Converts initially were attracted to the white foreign missionaries. Nowadays, most mission companionships are one foreign missionary and one local. Many Indonesian members are regularly called to serve abroad in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.

Today, the Indonesia Jakarta Mission has 42 young missionaries from Australia and the U.S. and 28 from Indonesia.

Still, one of the church’s appeals remains its “international component,” Emmett says, “with opportunities to study, primarily at BYU-Hawaii.”

Cultural differences between church higher-ups in the U.S. and local customs in Indonesia sometimes spur conflicts.

One such leader asked permission to hold Mormon services on Christmas Day — even when it falls outside of a Sunday — since Christians in Indonesia view the holiday as a “time to gather with your religious family,” the historian says. “He was told that Mormons don’t do that.”

That may work in places where Latter-day Saints have lots of extended family nearby, he says, “but when your family is the local branch or ward, then you want to get together with them on Christmas Day at church.”

Moreover, LDS authorities “deplore any type of bribery and yet local Indonesian and some foreign leaders see a little grease money here and there to speed up the visa process or to get a missionary out of jail,” Emmett says, “as an acceptable part of living in Indonesia.”

(Mike Stack | for The Salt Lake Tribune) Jemmy Mongan, LDS Church public affairs representative in Jakarta, Indonesia (center), his wife, Indah (l), sister Roos Mongan (r) and mother Erna Mongan (bottom). Jakarta, Indonesia, in October 2017

Building on the foundation

Mormonism in Indonesia is built on early converts like former mission president and Area Seventy Subandriyo, who, like other figures in his country, uses only one name. (Packer felt he needed another so he gave the Indonesian a first name, Joshua.) Subandriyo oversees the church’s office in Jakarta as well as supervising construction efforts in Malaysia, Cambodia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

The faith also relies on members such as Juswan Tandiman, a current patriarch and former mission president, who is the Church Educational System adviser for much of Asia.

Both joined as teens and served missions, Emmett notes, and have created a generation of Mormons who are “mature in the gospel.”

That also describes the Mongan family.

It boasts four generations in the fold – starting with Jemmy Mongan’s parents, then passed to him and his wife, their three children including son, Aditya, who lives with his wife, Anne, in Provo, and that young couple’s infant son, Finnley.

Ten of the original Mongan clan who were baptized in April 1978 remain active Mormons, seven have served missions, several have been married in an LDS temple, and two graduated from BYU-Hawaii.

“Everywhere you go in the Indonesian LDS church,” the church spokesman says with a hint of pride, “you will meet a Mongan.”

It all came from a chance encounter in an Indonesian bookstore, explains the 80-year-old family matriarch Erna Mongan, where her husband, Constantein, spied a couple of name-tag-wearing Mormon elders and struck up a conversation with them, eventually inviting them to his house.

At the time, he was Seventh-day Adventist and she was Pentecostal.

The couple had seven children and were rearing another seven from the husband’s first wife.

It was “not normal to see young, handsome Americans,” she recalls, as her son translates. “Their home was so far away.”

The proselytizers visited the family regularly until “we all got baptized,” she says. “We had been looking for the truth for a long time.”

From then on, they were all one faith.

Sometimes they had to walk miles upon miles on the Sabbath to and from the Mormon meeting place. They would carry food and stay there for hours — “like an all-day holiday.”

It changed the entire family’s future.

“Because of this church, I can see all my children growing up in a good way,” Erna Mongan says, sitting on a couch with a paper-size reproduction of Jesus hanging above her on a spare wall.

“They all wanted to serve missions. They were good children and have become good parents. They understand the importance of the family and the temple.”

Her extended relatives never joined the U.S. church, but they have come to respect it, she says. “They see how we keep the Sabbath Day and our way of life.”

Jemmy Mongan’s sister Roos (pronounced “Rose”) adds that the church has been a pillar for her as she has raised her daughter and faced divorce.

“The family circle,” she says, “is enough for me.”

Mongan’s wife, Indah, says her Muslim relatives also have seen the benefits of her conversion. They appreciate, she says, how successful and happy her offspring are and the values they model to others.

For his part, the cheerful church spokesman doesn’t think Mormonism is too American.

The restored gospel “is everywhere,” he says beaming, even at his tiny point on the map.