Faith deep underground

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Dr Kathleen Turner in the Grasberg mine in Papua, Indonesia, where she discovered what may be the deepest church in the world. Photo: Supplied
Dr Kathleen Turner in the Grasberg mine in Papua, Indonesia, where she discovered what may be the deepest church in the world. Photo: Supplied

By Dr Kathleen Turner

Social scientist Kathleen Turner discovered one of the most unique Christian churches in the world – almost two kilometres below ground in a mine in Indonesia

Working deep beneath the surface of the earth is not particularly new to me. I’ve worked in the mining industry for years.

But when I entered an underground mine in remote Papua, in the farthest most eastern reaches of Indonesia, I was not prepared for what I found.

I was in the remote and secluded small town of Tembagapura, up in the highlands in the province of Papua, Indonesia and home of the Grasberg mining operations.

The extensive footprint of this mining operation consists of both an open pit and underground mines operated by PT Freeport Indonesia.

Grasberg is the world’s largest gold mine – and also its second-largest copper mine.

“Apart from the spectacular open pit mine, one of the deepest in the world, I was about to survey the underground mine which accounts for at least 75 per cent of the operations. “

It is uniquely situated high in rugged mountains near two rare equatorial mountain glaciers, some 14,000 feet above sea level.

Having worked for many years throughout Indonesia, this was my first foray into Papua, one of the remotest parts of the Indonesian archipelago.

The town of Tembagapura (which translates as “Copper Town”) was established during the initial construction of the mine and its associated infrastructure back in the 1960’s. It caters to the thousands of workers employed in the Grasberg operations.

Apart from the spectacular open pit mine, one of the deepest in the world, I was about to survey the underground mine which accounts for at least 75 per cent of the operations.

Donning the required protective gear, my colleagues drove me to the entrance of Grasberg’s underground tunnels and we entered the dark passages, driving down the labyrinth of tunnels with which I was already familiar.

Dr Kathleen Turner and fellow workers smile for the camera nearly two kilometres underground in the Grasberg mine in Papua, Indonesia. Photo: Supplied
Dr Kathleen Turner and fellow workers smile for the camera nearly two kilometres underground in the Grasberg mine in Papua, Indonesia. Photo: Supplied

Travelling more than 1700 metres below surface level we finally stopped and alit.

In front of me was a low white wall. Behind it was a prominent large metallic cross. On the lower part of the wall in large red writing I read ‘Gereja Oikumene Soteria’. The Indonesian phrase told me this is a church of Christian worship.

This is the deepest underground church in Indonesia and may be the deepest in the world.

In a show of just how strongly the faith is rooted in the Papuan people, the church is hewn deep into the rock, and adorned with an altar, flowers and articles of Christian faith.

I imagined the miners with their full Personal Protective Equipment, including hard hats and weighty boots, seated in rows facing the altar, their orange PPE gear in stark contrast to the white tiles and the dark, imposing rock face.

“From far above there is no sign that it exists. As I observed streams of workers arriving or leaving on their shifts, I could also see the testimony of a people of faith.”

The church was built by Freeport Indonesia for the mine workers who are on duty and frees them from the need to travel back to ground level 1.7 kilometres above to pray or attend a service. Both the size of the church and the depth at which it is located make it truly amazing.

From far above there is no sign that it exists. As I observed streams of workers arriving or leaving on their shifts, I could also see the testimony of a people of faith.

Despite the geographic remoteness and life of subsistence for most in this part of the world, this underground church is a real testament of a people whose belief in both prayer and God remains strong.

Dr Kathleen Turner is an applied social scientist currently working in Indonesia