Author Archives: Amy E. Meverden

Smug Musings and Humble Landing Places

Sometimes when I am processing archival materials, I muse smugly to myself, “Oh, you silly people from the early 1900’s. Whatever were you thinking! How grand it is to live in more enlightened times.”

At times, such lofty musings are founded, say the time when I opened up a folder housing pictures of missionaries in black face, or that other time when I found a document describing the inferiority of the female gender and how to accommodate this on the mission field. Smug musings were duly appropriate in both instances.

Today, the opposite experience happened when I opened a pamphlet titled, The Memorandum on the Further Development and Expansion of Christianity in India, written by the Christo Samaj in 1921 to J.H. Oldham, the secretary of the International Missionary Conference (IMC). This pamphlet is part of the Missionary Research Library Archives, series 3: South Asia.

As I browsed the pamphlet searching for historical information to write the finding aid for this single-item collection, I came across ideas, phrases, critiques, and suggestions that could be heard in a Union Theological Seminary theology course addressing liberation theology, racism, Western imperialism, and other such themes (though these express terms are not used within the document). I could hear voices similar to that of my doctoral adviser, Brigitte Kahl, a New Testament scholar who specializes in critical re-imagination and empire-critical methodologies, speaking against the economic and ideological imprisonment experienced by indigenous Christians at the hands of Western Imperial Christianity.

I kept glancing at the date of this well-written, brilliantly articulated document, 1921, and wondering why these same sentiments continue to serve as novelties and mind-blowing conceptions for first-year Master’s students coming to learn about liberation theology in New York City, 2013. Church fathers in Madras a hundred years ago were talking about colonialism, racism, white, Western paternalism, and the dangers of imparting fractured systems of Western denominationalism into indigenous non-Western cultures. Church fathers in Madras were complaining of the socio-economic disparity between white missionaries and indigenous persons, demanding that missionaries live as those they serve, also highlighting the subpar nature of many missionaries as persons who were not employable in Western culture, so were farmed out overseas, bringing their idiosyncrasies and issues with them onto the mission field.

The question I want an answer to is this: why is this the first time I am hearing about the Christo Samaj? As a doctoral student who has a Master of Divinity degree, and one who engages in frequent conversations with peers regarding social justice issues, liberation theology and the like, this pamphlet holds the seedlings to undercurrents and movements giving rise to postcolonialism in India and should be treated as a source document for studies surrounding postcolonialism and theology. I am happy to report that the item is now processed and available for everyone to access, and I certainly hope that many, many people find the precious time to do so.

The Value of Ecumenical and Missionary Records


Credit to: WAB: Foreign Missions Conference of North America Records, The Burke Library Archives (Columbia University Libraries) at Union Theological Seminary, New York.

I had the pleasure of working on the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Foreign Missions Conference of North America (FMCNA) collections this summer and the following highlights the materials that I found to be most interesting and the ways in which these materials enhance my research. The WCC is an organization dedicated to ecumenical dialogue within the Christian tradition (and beyond), and the FMCNA organization is a missionary relief effort that, through various committees, sought to assist the underserved or populations in crisis.

While working on the WCC records, I found an extensive collection of scholarly papers and had the pleasure of looking at correspondence addressed to “My dear Reinie” (Reinhold Niebuhr) regarding papers presented at the WCC general assemblies. Among these papers were discussions of general theological interest, but also papers on ethics and education. I was pleased to see, firsthand, the level of scholarly discourse and intentionality engaged in by the WCC as it met to discuss ecumenism and a vision for the global, unified Christian church. One discovery that made me so proud was the forward-thinking nature of the materials circulated by the WCC on the inclusion of women and a push to discuss race issues long before such discussions were vogue. I know that these papers are published in volumes and circulating in general collections, but holding the hand-typed conference papers, seeing notes in margins, and reading correspondence regarding edits brings to life the work and efforts of the ecumenists.

My absolute favorite part of the WCC collection is the photographs series; I could look at these photos all day long. It was fun to see snapshots from the decennial assemblies, marking the passage of time through ever-enhancing technology and the preferred fashions of the day. From petticoats to bell bottoms, the photographs series documents the growth of the WCC movement, and takes a special look at Union Theological Seminary’s role. I was actually quite surprised at how involved Union’s professors were in WCC efforts, and pleased to see scholars emerging from their ivory towers to engage in ecumenical discussions via the black and white photos depicting hand shakes, scholars robes, and a general Union seminary presence at these assemblies.

The FMCNA collection is a missionary relief organization and the materials here reflect the efforts of the FMCNA to provide assistance to communities suffering from war, famine, natural disaster, and poverty. Going through the FMCNA materials is like reading a world history book that details events of the past century. From accounts documenting accounts of the Gripsholm cruise ship as it braved war zones to trade Japanese citizens for US prisoners of war, to journals documenting Guerrilla Relief efforts in Japanese-occupied China in 1939, the materials depict the many logistics involved in these relief efforts. What these materials convey is less a story of white colonial domination and more an account of assistance in the midst of crisis, as the FMCNA stepped in to care for the most vulnerable individuals.

One of the most disturbing images I saw while working on this collection was a newsletter in the Committee on East Asia materials that had a picture of toddler orphan children from China living among the corpses of the toddlers who did not survive. Starving babies were crawling over their now deceased playmates, crying, emaciated, and alone. For all the commercials of hungry children compelling television viewers to donate to relief organizations, I have never seen an image like this. The FMCNA stepped into many war-torn situations, similar to the one in China, and provided aid via the Orphan Relief network.

That’s the amazing thing that most people do not realize about the missionary records that we keep here at the Burke Archives and about missionary archives in general: some of history’s greatest atrocities are documented and recorded in the accounts of missionaries. Missionaries are on the front lines (and not just in a spiritual sense), in the literal, day-to-day sense of living through various crises, and exchanging correspondence that documents historical accounts and needs from the margins back to the “dominant culture.”

At the end of the day, this is one of the greatest research benefits of the missionary collections housed at Burke and one of the most useful insights I gleaned in working with the WCC and FMCNA records: the value of perspective, location, and presence in the midst of crisis.

A Lay Person’s Love-Hate Relationship with “More Product Less Process”

As a doctoral student, and specifically a student of ancient Near Eastern languages, I have learned to become increasingly detail oriented (read: anal retentive) as the years pass. The longer I study cuneiform, the smaller my handwriting gets and I have noticed certain OCD tendencies related to classification and organization sharpen in my “old age.” I assumed that when I began work in the archives with the CUL Graduate Student Internship, I would be doing detail-oriented processing (my fantasies of archival work being that of handling 16th-century Luther Bibles and other rare/fragile materials, such that opening a box would justify Harrison Ford-esque “That belongs in a museum!” exclamations). I thought I would be working closely with very specific materials and processing on an item level.

As Carrie Hintz, Head of Archives Processing/director of the CUL Graduate Student Internship program and my supervisor, project archivist Brigette Kamsler would explain, the “More Product Less Process” (MPLP) method began around five-years-ago to help libraries house and make available a greater number of collections in a shorter period of time, or with less resources. They explained that no matter what we do in archives, whether processing in tedium or by less detailed methods, we are still making the collections better than they were when we first encountered the materials. Great, right? Making things better, hauling through greater quantities in shorter periods of time, win-win! Everybody wins!

And then the anxiety began to creep in:
“What if researchers begin looking through this collection and see that things are not actually as organized as well as they *could* be?”
“What if, in working on a box level and grouping huge quantities of documents into large folders, I missed something about the original organization of the materials?”
“What if I am actually messing this all up!”

Doubts began to set in as I continued working through the 108 boxes of World Council of Churches materials, and I am sure that Brigette grew tired of my constant questions concerning whether I was actually doing this right or making a big fat mess! Part of this anxiety, from what I can determine, is that:

(1) *I* would never have allowed my papers, personal or otherwise, to be in such an organized state of disarray! (No offense, WCC and the people who were organizing your files in the first place…)
(2) I had a difficult time with the fact that certain papers or boxes did not have a clear “home” in the collection, as some of the materials related to one or more committee or section, or could be housed comfortably in various places
(3) “[Darn] it, Jim, I’m a doctoral student, not an archivist!”—without a degree or years of experience in the field of archival studies, how did I know that I was actually doing this right?

Well, I housed the WCC records—all 108 of those boxes—wrote the finding aid, printed pretty, uniform labels, and hauled those boxes back into their snug corner in the WAB section of the archives, and in two months flat! It really was a sight to behold, looking at the entire collection in its final (for now) resting place. While working on a separate collection after finishing this one, I found more WCC records. I was able to integrate these materials smoothly because of the basic organization that I imposed. Brigette informed me that a researcher had been inquiring into the collection in the spring and was told that he could access it in the next few years, as the time frame for when it would be finished was not then determined. Because of the CUL Graduate Student Internship program and due to the wonderful innovation of MPLP, he can access the collection now! I would say that is a true success story.

So yes, I was a huge ball of nerves for a few days here and there as I gave MPLP the old college try and confronted my disorganization phobias, but now the finding aid will soon be uploaded online, information on the collection can be generally located, and (I think) this collection is easier to access. At the end of the day, I will probably always have a love-hate relationship with MPLP (hate in the midst, love at the end), but the process is a valuable tool and a practical archival trend.

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.