In January 2012, I began working with the archival collections of the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, helping to preserve, process, and make available the materials contained within the now-inoperative Missionary Research Library and William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library, both housed in Brown tower. These collections included a large number of unprocessed rare materials gathered from all over the world by missionaries, missionary boards, and ecumenical councils that played a major role in shaping the international vision and spread of Christianity during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
What began for me as a curious but agreeable part-time work-study job to accompany my academic studies at Union and my career as a folk singer and songwriter, over the course of a year has come to play a significant role in my theological education and vocational development. My encounters with hundreds of diary entries, letters, reports, news clippings, and pamphlets from the height of colonialism to the fall of communism and everything in between have forced me to reckon with the complexity surrounding the question of “Christian missions” within the real history of international ecumenical and interreligious relations, a history that is much richer and more nuanced than any secondary accounts on the subject would seem to suggest.
Every finding aid that I publish bears the name of Henry R. Luce, president, founder, and editor-in-chief of Time, Life, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated magazines. This man who built a multimedia empire seems to have become something of a benefactor to me through the philanthropic foundation he established in 1936, in honor of his parents who were both missionary educators in China. The Henry Luce Foundation not only funds my archival work for the Missionary Research Library, but it is also now sending me, through a separate grant, to live in Indonesia for the summer, where I will have the opportunity to live out my own story of discovering what it feels like to travel into the midst of an utterly different cultural and religious context and try to make sense of my encounters with humanity and with God as a minority and a stranger.
From June-July 2013, I will be living in the ancient city of Yogyakarta on Java, conducting a research project through the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies Graduate School at Gadjah Mada University. In a Western context, my academic work has tried to highlight the theological depth in a diversity of artistic approaches to meaning-making across multiple genres and contexts, to complicate our notions of the categorical distinction between “the sacred” and “the secular,” a vocabulary that is often used by religious and non-religious people alike in Western culture to reinforce the perception that these two spheres of life are radically distinct and opposed. Indonesia offers an opportunity to research how these categories do or do not apply in this particular non-Western and non-Christian context.
This will mean getting to know the diverse cultures and people of Yogyakarta in order to understand perceptions about music and the relationships between the arts, religion, culture, and the Divine. It will mean allowing myself to grow as an artist by listening carefully to the sounds of the region and letting them influence my ears and and inspire new thinking about the arts, the creative process, and what music in particular can do. It also means confronting questions of cultural assimilation, artistic appropriation, and exploitation as they arise, and learning to navigate issues of power with relation to my ethnicity, nationality, and gender.
One of the most profound insights resulting from my work with the Missionary Research Library archival collections has been the humanization of history. It is important to look back at the choices and decisions of our ancestors to see in retrospect how those choices have contributed to cycles of oppression and violence that have played out in our world. The missionaries who worked “on the field” in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were, in many ways, terribly short-sighted and as a result made decisions that helped contribute to genocide, oppression, cultural imperialism and other forms of violence.
Yet, that is not the entire story of missionary work. I have not found in the stories and writings of history the wholly arrogant, ignorant, racist, condescending people of my postcolonial imagination, but people who were also in many ways humble, compassionate, thoughtful, radically self-aware, and critical of cultural imperialism and those in power. At the end of the day, I noticed, people then were not very much different from people now: conflicted, confused, and frustrated with the limitations of their situation…yet still hopeful, basically well-intentioned, and striving in the best way they knew how in order to achieve positive outcomes in their lives and in the lives of others.
Thanks to my work in the archives I will go to Indonesia aware that I am likely to be not very much different from them: a representative of my culture and a product of my moment in history, limited, and imperfect, but still intent and hopeful to encounter That Which I Know Not with all the humility and grace I can muster.