The Burke Library Archives: An Unexpected Healer

Earlier this year I received the good news that I was chosen out of a large pool of applicants as one of the six graduate student interns for the CUL Graduate Student Internship Program 2012-2013. This program is designed to enrich the student’s graduate studies and professional training through hands-on archival work, while simultaneously providing an opportunity for the Libraries to benefit from the unique expertise and scholarly knowledge that doctoral/advanced degree students bring to related archival projects. Interns work a total of 375 hours throughout the academic year, focusing the bulk of their hours during the summer months. I was chosen to work at the Burke Library with Brigette C. Kamsler, Luce Project Archivist, to assist with processing the Missionary Research Library (MRL) and William Adams Brown (WAB) archival collections.

Currently, I am a doctoral student at Union Theological Seminary focusing on biblical studies. I grew up as a missionary kid in a fundamentalist Christian denomination and was born on the mission field (made in the U.S.A., born in Lisbon shortly after my parents began their time on the mission field!). I lived overseas for the first eight years of my life and have memories of the church that my parents planted in Portugal. I was born into a bilingual context and my first words were in Portuguese (“lua,” which means “moon”). The first self-portraits that I shaded in crayon on coloring pages during Sunday school hour were dark-skinned as the bulk of my friends and fellow church-goers were Angolan refugees, Brazilian immigrants, and Portuguese nationals. My child’s mind had no conception of my white skin, blue eyes, sandy hair, or the implications of my family’s presence as white, American, conservative Christian missionaries in the second-poorest country in Europe in the 1980’s. I grew up amid poverty with daily reminders of the devastation of alcoholism lining neighborhood stoops during the day and shrieks of domestic violence wafting faintly through apartment walls at night. I had very few toys and learned how to play the old-fashioned way with my brothers and the neighborhood children swarming the quiet street out front for a game of soccer, and the occasional romp through open fields to pick blackberries at the edge of town. I had no idea how little we had or needed.

Upon assimilating into an American lifestyle and attending public school, college, and graduate school in the U.S., I learned about the ill-effects of postcolonialism. I gained a new perspective on how white, Christian missionaries used the excuse of evangelism to exert power over other cultures in the name of the Gospel, subverting valid cultural experience to convert people to a “proper” (meaning, forced or white) enculturation. Desmond Tutu is famous for using the following anecdote (which exists virtually in various formats): “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land” (Steven Gish, Desmond Tutu: A Biography, 2004, 101). As I learned about postcolonialism, race matters, religious manipulation, and interrogated my own white privilege, I felt confused and ashamed that such a formative, integral (and happy) part of my life’s narrative was so painfully wrought through domination, power-abuse, racism, cultural degradation, and religious narcissism. When I began my studies at Union Theological Seminary, a liberal theological institution, I was received with curiosity and suspicion from certain faculty/peers about my Master’s seminary education at a moderate evangelical institution, such that I knew information about my upbringing as a conservative baptist missionary/pastor’s kid would make me even less popular. I learned to be ashamed of my upbringing as a missionary kid, to loathe this part of me that so intricately connected and implicated me in white colonialism, and would omit/frame generally this information when discussing my personal narrative for the next three years.

Working on the World Council of Churches (WCC) and Foreign Missions Conference of North America (FMCNA) collections has been a surprising opportunity for me to confront some of my guilt/shame issues surrounding my upbringing as a missionary kid. As I put on the white cotton gloves and sleeved into Mylar picture after picture of religious leaders gathering from around the world in the early- to mid-20th century, I entered into their narratives and saw the finer strokes of nuance that archival material tends to unearth. I placed the missionaries and ecumenists in their cultural contexts and began to consider that perhaps some of their intentions were good, though thoroughly enacted within contexts that were, decidedly, imperialistic, racist, sexist, and problematic for contemporary standards. Reading about initiatives to create active dialogue among the worldwide Christian church, I gained an ability to place alongside the essentializing narrative of white missionary colonialism the transformational implications of global disaster relief, orphan care, agricultural, and public service initiatives, which originated with missionary and ecumenical movements. Sleeving picture after picture, laughing over head shots of archbishops with bushy caterpillar eyebrows and imposing pontifical stances, marveling at the various Orthodox/Catholic/denominational headdresses, squinting to see the women and persons of color standing with various committees as leaders and change agents in landscape photographs, and celebrating the countries and diversities represented through the WCC conference photographs, uncovered and simultaneously healed a part of my narrative that I had not realized until this point was so deeply bruised.

I expected to walk into my internship this summer to house collections, learn a new thing or two about processing materials, and get really dusty. I did not expect to walk out with a renewed sense of narrative and a peace with my upbringing as a missionary kid. Who knew that the Burke Library Archives, with its crumbly materials and yellowing pictures, would prove to be a place of reflection and acceptance, of healing and renewal.

2 thoughts on “The Burke Library Archives: An Unexpected Healer

  1. Micah

    Thanks very much for writing this. As an MK from Africa and an archivist your story resonates deeply with me. I'm so glad that the archives became a place where you could wrestle with your own past and gain some perspective on your identity. It's an ongoing struggle for any MK who has assimilated to American culture!

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