Back to the Burke: My Return from Southeast Asia

Last spring I wrote an article about my upcoming summer in Indonesia, an opportunity I received through an academic fellowship funded by The Henry Luce Foundation, the same organization that supports my work at the Burke Library Archives.  Now, three months later, I am back.  Of course, everyone wants to know: "How was Indonesia?"

What can I say?  It was absolutely life-changing.

Through the help of the faculty, staff, and fellow students at Gadja Mada University in Yogyakarta, I was able to research the complex relationships between religion, belief, culture, and the arts in Java by attending numerous artistic performances, taking regular gamelan music classes, and interviewing composers, puppet makers, religious leaders, dancers, instructors, musicians, gong makers, and everyday people about the role of music in their ritual and spiritual lives.  My master’s thesis hopes to put some new language around the role of music in ecumenical theological and cultural understanding, and this research will certainly make a significant contribution towards that end.  I also took a class on Interreligious Relations from the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies, and was incredibly inspired by the way that the religiously diverse faculty not only taught but demonstrated meaningful and effective communication across ethical and theological differences.  

The benefits gained from this program were not merely academic.  The most important learning happened in relationship with the wonderful community of people that I met.  Through developing deep – hopefully lifelong – bonds with friends from across the world, I learned not only about Indonesian culture but a great deal about my own.  Meanwhile, the experience of living in an Islamic country (hearing the call to prayer five times each day, searching for food during Ramadan, covering my hair up from time to time) challenged me to develop a much deeper appreciation for the value of discipline and humility in my own relationship to God.  In this context I grew in my faith and integrity as a Christian.  

For more information please visit the blog that I kept during my time in Yogyakarta, which contains articles, photos, video, sound clips, bits of interviews, and more: 

Through the Lens of the Archives

I was impressed by the deep relevance of my archival work in the Missionary Research Library Archives during my travels in Southeast Asia.  I was able to understand the different expressions of Christianity that I encountered in Java not simply through the lens of the missionary agenda or its postcolonial critique, but through the more nuanced appreciation that I have gained for the incredibly complex ways that people navigate issues of religious belief, ethical integrity, and cultural identity in their own time. 

It was also interesting to see evidence of how the disillusionment of most mainline Christians with missionary work led to the decline of their presence in countries like Indonesia, and to observe the growing influence of religious fundamentalism that has risen in its wake.  I began to wonder whether the attitude of non-involvement in missionary work held by most progressive Christians is really moving us toward a more religiously tolerant world.  Again, this led me to continue pondering the ultimate short-sightedness of even our most well-informed, ethically-minded choices.

Traveling to the other side of the world for three months is as terrifying as it is exciting, but knowing the struggles of travelers from the 19th century actually helped me to maintain perspective in some of my most personally difficult moments.  In particular, I carried within me the memory of Katie Isabel Chapin (Isabel Burrows) and Bertha E. Davis, two women that I came to know intimately through my archival work.  In a strange sort of way, I felt like they gave me strength. 

Bertha Davis has been on my mind especially since coming back to the United States.  Most of the diaries in her collection are from 1932-1940, decades after returning from several years of missionary work in Burma.  It is clear from her diary entries that she never fully re-adjusted back to life in the Midwest.  On April 6, 1938 she writes,

I have been having another spell of the dumps…I like Salem but it is not home to me: I have no roots here.  So many friendly people, but I am all alone too.  People do not go to one another’s homes.  If I go once or twice a year I am well-received (usually) but I remain solitary – different from the “city loneliness” where one usually finds a few others within reach who are ready for reciprocal calls…  Only in Burma would I ever feel really at home.

I can relate to that.  My own re-entry has been somewhat fraught as I become more and more steadily aware of the seismic shifts that have taken place within me academically, theologically, culturally, artistically, and personally.  In so many ways large and small, I feel that I discovered another home in Yogyakarta, and it is clear to me that I must return there. 

In the meantime, though, while I finish the final year of my M.Div. degree, I must say I am very, very happy to have my job back at the Burke Library Archives.  Especially after seeing what an impact these stories have made on my life and my perspective, I look forward to seeing what I unearth and learn in the year to come. 

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