What is freedom?
Why do some of us fight for it relentlessly
And others give it away so freely?
Can one ever find true freedom?
Is freedom found in the moments between
the cracks of thoughts when time stops?
Is freedom found in joy
when your heart feels vibrant
Is freedom found in nature
when far removed
from an unnatural rhythm?
Or is it in death,
something we can never be free from,
that is perhaps when true freedom starts?
While I have always longed for freedom, there was equally an innate desire for me to belong. These conflicting currents led me to seek out charismatic individuals who claimed to possess the knowledge of redemption and salvation. As I conformed to their teachings that traced back to Christianity, Taoism, and Buddhism, a recurring pattern of unnatural structures, imposed hierarchy, and limiting beliefs started to emerge.
What began as a quest for freedom through a supposed enlightened being had me questioning what it was, I was seeking to be liberated from. Both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions speak of the Garuda, a mythical, bird-like deity that symbolizes freedom from hopes and fears. Tibet’s most ancient teachings believe that the Garuda is born with all its feathers fully developed inside the egg and that it represents our primordial nature, already perfect and complete.
The Garuda is fully grown at birth, but it is only at the moment when its shell cracks open that it can burst out and soar into the sky. Drawing this comparison, it is said that the qualities of Buddhahood are veiled by the body and can only be radiantly displayed at the time of death when the body is discarded.
Over time I have stumbled upon many more mythical stories, both foreign and intriguing, but the story of the Garuda has always remained with me. This exploratory nature to understand our unadulterated essence may have been attributed to my parents and the backdrop that preceded my birth.
My father was born in a small fisherman’s village in a town called Cilacap, located on the southern coast of Java in Indonesia, which used to be an important departure point for the Dutch colonists who were fleeing the Japanese invasion during World War II.
Growing up surrounded by tropical vegetation and the sounds of the sea, my father’s carefree childhood came to an end when his parents decided to move to the Netherlands. Born during the Dutch East Indies period, both my father’s parents were of mixed Indonesian and Dutch race. It is reasonable to think that the promise of a better life had their family leave the familiar confines of their village for the West.
When he was younger, my father had a harder time integrating and was always the odd one, compared to his brothers and sisters. When his mother died during childbirth, my father and his siblings were sent to live in an orphanage. A rebel without a cause, during his late teenage years he let his hair grow long and wore a flamboyant army trench coat that he found at the Salvation Army.
Having trouble learning at school, he dropped out and worked as a freelance photographer, shooting mostly weddings. Having to move out of the orphanage once he turned eighteen, my father would drift between shared spaces in abandoned buildings. It was right around that time, when my father was approached by members of a hippie movement known as the Children of God (COG).
A Christian cult that originated in Huntington Beach during the late 1960s, COG was founded by David Brandt Berg, a self-proclaimed apocalyptic prophet with roots in the Evangelical Church. Targeting the young dropouts who prescribed to the countermovement of that time, most of its members were young women and men who could be spotted with long, flowing hair, wearing the colorful flower fashions of the day. What differentiated COG members from other hippies was their spirited evangelical zeal of a “born again Christian,” a phrase often used in the group to describe someone who discovers a direct relationship with God.
People who were drawn to COG were usually young idealistic individuals who searched for meaning and purpose outside the established system of their time. Catering to the disillusioned by offering a community built on utopian values, it is natural to see how the movement gained converts rapidly.
Intrigued by their boldness and spirited enthusiasm, my father agreed to come to one of their gatherings where he could meet other members. He was immediately drawn to living a life that had purpose, and Berg’s call to leave “the system” spoke to the part of my father that had trouble integrating into society.
In the days that followed, my father invited Christ into his heart, which was done through a simple prayer. What transpired right after this invocation was an immersive body and mind transformation that he took as an undeniable sign of God reaching out to him. My father joined COG shortly after and became one of their enthused members.
My father’s fervor for sharing the Gospel, coupled with his mixed Dutch and Indonesian ancestry, is what led COG leadership to send him to Indonesia. It was during his time spent as a missionary in Indonesia where he met my mother, who was living in Bandung, the capital city of West Java.
My mother was born with a natural curiosity and an interest for a life beyond her traditional Muslim upbringing. Where her sisters and brothers had religious aspirations to plan a trip to Mecca, she aspired to see the world.
During her university studies she signed up for English classes that were given by foreigners, who in exchange wanted to improve their Indonesian. This was how she met my father, a bright-eyed young man whose mixed Indonesian ancestry made him seem like less of a foreigner.
Meeting someone who was carefree and driven with a sense of meaning seemed like the embodiment of freedom to my mother. She relished the idea of an escape from her otherwise conservative life. What started as English classes turned into Bible classes, and gradually my mother’s infatuation for my father had her adopting his religious beliefs as her own. They spent as much time as they could together. And with my father’s duties as a missionary, this often meant he would take my mother along with him.
Eventually, she started missing her university classes, until she decided to drop out completely. My parents shared the misfortune of having lost their mothers at an early age, which afforded them a refuge in each other. This strong feeling of connection is what allowed them to overcome their diverse social and cultural upbringings. But despite their challenges of coming from different backgrounds, no one could have envisioned the tumultuous times they were about to experience.
Berg was a prolific leader who produced a continual stream of new doctrines, which were often controversial and, at times, contradictory. He received his teachings through departed spirits who spoke to him in dreams that he interpreted and communicated to his followers as direct teachings coming from Christ.
One of the doctrines he introduced was “flirty fishing,” where he took the biblical scripture “to become fishers of men” and used it as a sanction for members to use sex as a way to gain new converts.
However, posing as a religious movement with sexual doctrines is like trying to mix water and oil and was guaranteed to get a backlash response from the media and established religious institutions. This wave of negative media spread worldwide, and when the news reached the authorities in Indonesia, there was a national program to extradite all COG members, who were seen as a detriment to Indonesian society and its Muslim values.
At the time, my mother’s brother in-law was a high-ranking police officer and saw this as an opportunity to end my mother’s romantic association with my father for good. My father’s photograph was headlining in the national newspapers, and the authorities placed my mother under house arrest with 24-hour surveillance, in case any COG member tried to contact her.
My father fled the country immediately by boat to Kuala Lumpur with a connecting flight back to Amsterdam. However, my mother was in the late stages of her pregnancy with me. With COG banned from Indonesia, the only way my mother could be reunited with my father was to join him and move abroad. When my mother saw her chance to escape from the watchful eyes of the police, she had to leave quickly and discreetly. As a result, she was unable to bring any of her belongings other than what she could wear.
Six months later, the call that my mother was waiting for finally came. My father had managed to arrange for a flight for my mother and me to come to the Netherlands. At barely six months old, I would have my first experience in learning how to fly before I could walk.