Coming Out Muslim @ UTS

 Sitting at the table in front of me were faces that I recognized and yet had never met.  Sitting at the table in front of me were young faces that carried the history of their families, their faith.  Sitting in front of me were calm and reserve faces ready to tell their stories.  Sitting in front of me were faces . . . and one face on Skype!

These faces were here to talk about “Coming Out Muslim: Radical Acts of Love.  These young Muslims would go on to speak about their relationship with their faith and families.  It is a perspective that many simply assume does not exist when talking about Queerness, when talking about the LGBTQ community.  And yet the reality is that sexualities are represented in every spectrum of human alliance—religion, race, creed, color, you name it.

And these voices spoke from a wellspring of faithful understanding of a foundational knowing, “Allah makes Muslims . . .” And so the equation resolves, “Allah makes queers.”– Terna Tilley-Gyado.

The simplicity of this statement coming out of the computer screen and scripted so beautifully on a business card, belies the profound nature of statement.  Listening, I found my head nodding in concert and my heart beating with unexpected surprise thinking, “I remember making the same claim as a young Christian as a pre-teen about Creator God!”  This basic claim of belonging to faith because God belongs to all was comforting to hear in this room on this day because I felt in solidarity as a child of God.  A God that does not begrudgingly claim me simply because there are people and institutions that do so.

As the evening progressed, something else struck me. I listened to a woman recount her unconscious notions that come to light when contemplating coming out a person of faith within the community but most importantly family.  As she spoke I recognized the similarities between Muslim families attitudes about their child’s sexual life and that of my African American family and church attitudes about the same.  Everybody knows its going.  If nothing else, everyone knows that everyone is thinking about it in some way, shape or form.  But knowing and thinking about it is much different then acknowledging the sexual beings that we all journey to understand.  (And let it be stated firmly that asexuality is a journey as well.)  She reminded me of a time when I was a teenager, when my family talked about me having children devoid of a sexual union with anyone.  Nobody wants their baby to grow up.  But can you imagine?  If you can’t talk to your family or community about sex period, how do you talk about your sexual identity?  It’s a weird kind of thought—we are sexual beings granted, but we are sexual beings that don’t want to address our sexualities.

Before I go on and with this musing, let me just say that Coming Out Muslim is a project that not only tells of what it means to be a practicing Muslim but it tells of how powerful it is to be queer and a faithful child of the Creator.

http://comingoutmuslim.com/

coming out muslim

radical love: queer muslims live and love

A Yogi at Union Seminary: A Year in the Books and the Dirt

What did this aspiring Hindu yogi realize after my first year at the progressive Christian institution of Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York?

I realized that in going to Christian seminary that I no longer belong to Christianity, the religion of my upbringing and cultural heritage.

I also realized in going to seminary that I want to be a farmer.

It was an interesting year.

They tell us at orientation that Union is the kind of place which turns your faith upside down, shakes out all the loose change, and by the end of the ride you have hopefully a much deeper understanding of yourself as a spirit soul in the material world, one with a much tougher skin and a much deeper heart. I’m happy and grateful to be walking such a path, even if its not quite the existential crisis as advertised. What I have experienced is a clarity of calling, and for us folk of faith nothing is more sensitive than our calling. The personality and many manifestations of the Divine has many ways of suggesting to us our directions in life. If anything, despite the many flaws of our institution and our community, Union is a place where the many voices of the Divine reveal her/himself to us constantly in our classrooms, contemplation, and communion.

I’ve been writing about my experience as a Hindu at Union here at The Huffington Postand at the Union In Dialogue blog on Union’s website. What strikes me now is the very first piece that I wrote for HuffPost Religion, in which I described ”Why Being a Hindu Has Made Me a Better Catholic.” The spirit of that reflection is one I still adhere to with all of my heart, but the letter of it is different now. Ironically it was my class on “Double Belonging” with the esteemed and humble Dr. Paul Knitter, author of Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, which revealed to me that I was not actually a double or multiple-belonger in terms of my faith. In exploring the concept of belonging, I realized how much my body, mind, and soul truly finds deep solace and meaning in the bhakti-yoga tradition. No doubt this had much to do with my immersive experience of monastic life of the bhakti tradition in the five years before I came to Union, but through my studies with Dr. Knitter and our fellow students, I could see also the deep integrity of what it meant to belong to Christianity, and how I must honor that integrity by claiming any romantic or sentimental notions of belonging to the faith tradition I was raised in.

I began to realize that while I still had deep resonance with Christian faith and experience, and found or recovered a wonderful connection with the communal sacrament of communion in our chapel services at Union, I could understand that my faith was securely centered in the yoga of the Hindu/Vedic tradition. This is who I am now, who I want to be, who I want to become and represent as a person of faith. This realization was nothing traumatic for me personally, although sometimes I got the indirect sense it may have made others uncomfortable. At the same time, through the living and vital example of Dr. Knitter and my eco-feminist mentor Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung, I could see that not only was double or multiple-belonging truly something real and possible in our world of faith, but that, as Father John Dunne writes, it is the “spiritual adventure of our time.”

While I’ll took a distinct step out of Christian identity, I also took a deep step into true resonance and understanding with some of the most powerful, relevant, and enlightened aspects of Christianity. This came through the tremendous fortune to study the tragic, comic, and political with Dr. Cornel West the many strands of Christian social ethics withDr. Gary Dorrien, and the vast and visceral threads of justice for the oppressed within the New Testament with Dr. Brigitte Kahl, author of Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading With The Eyes of the Vanquished. These wise souls, by shedding light upon the radical potential of Christian values to change the flawed fabric of our 21st century civilization, invited me to stand with them even as someone who belongs, faith-wise, as the “other.” Yet this never turned into a sense of alienation for me as a Hindu.

I am fortunate in this regard, because I know that this is not always the case even in such a place as Union. I always think back to orientation and our academic dean Dr. Daisy Machado telling us that people identified with Eastern spirituality usually do not face moments of prejudice or insensitivity from others at Union. In that sense us Buddhists, Hindus, and other Easterns have a certain cache in our otherness that keeps us aloof from the intensity of conflict which may come within Christian circles. Union is often a place where, because of the intensity of our experiences and realizations in terms of “othering” and marginalization it can be sometimes quite difficult to transcend our alienation in terms of race, sexuality, gender, and religious identity. It is part of the tremendous mystery of so much intense human nature packed together in our community. I hope and pray that the positive experience of my own religious diversity can be an opportunity to serve the ideals of diversity and inclusion that are the very soul of Union.

Amidst all this tumultuous energy, I am also grateful for a renewed clarity in my calling to serve as an ecological activist and now theologian. As I’ve written recently here and here, I’ve come to understand, for my own spiritual journey, that there is nothing more sacred, radical, or necessary I can do but to return to the land, to the soil. The bhakti-yoga tradition which I have been practicing for nearly a decade now, like so many traditions of faith, foregrounds values, such as loving devotion to God and to all living entities, which inherently promote sustainable and ecologically-sound communities, such as the Govardhana Eco-Village outside of Mumbai and the Yoga Farm community in rural Pennsylvania.

These communities are what eco-theologian Dr. Larry Rasmussen, in his new book Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics In a New Key, calls “anticipatory communities”, showing the way to a lifestyle which adapts, adjusts, and harmonizes with our changing planet and civilization. There is such a rich and fertile ground here to explore not only for those us called to return and restore itself to the arts of growing, cooking, and sharing food in the most healthy and sane ways, but also in exploring the spiritual values of ecological community and civilization which can help us answer the call of humanity’s greatest challenge to date. This is a challenge which compels us to learn how to cast aside our “arrogant eye”, as eco-feminist Sallie McFague writes, not only towards each other, but also in terms of all other life that not only shares this planet with us, but which is the foundation of our very existence.

I’m very indebted to Dr. Rasmussen, to Cynthia Peabody, Rabbi Larry Troster, and Bob Pollock of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung for the chance to study with them and broaden my ecological literacy. This summer I will be participating in a series of organic farm internships with Bluestone Farm of the Community of the Holy Spirit in Brewster, N.Y., the Small Farm Training Center in West Virginia, and the Yoga Farm with the intention not only of learning how be a tiller of the land (after all what kind of eco-activist/theologian am I if I don’t know how to grow a tomato?) but also to deeply learn and imbibe from the souls in these communities as to how spirituality creates and sustains an ecologically sound life in the 21st century.

Now that I’ve plugged every single incredible person I have worked with this past year at Union and will work with, take a few moments to click on the various links and explore the vital work being done by these scholars and farmers.

On my farm journey this summer, I plan to extend my Yogi at Union series with a set of blogs titled “The Yoga of Ecology”, in which I will share my explorations into the anticipatory communities I will be serving at. I hope these blogs will inspire you to experience the sacred soil all around us and the sacred ground of the Divine in our heart.

The Yoga of Ecology at Bluestone Farm

The Yoga of Ecology blog originally began in 2008 as a chronicle of the spiritually inspired agricultural exploits of the Small Farm Training Center project at the New Vrindaban bhakti-yoga community in the foothills of the West Virginia Panhandle. I wanted to share the unique experience I was having not only of monastic life in the 21st Century, but also the experience of being part of a community and project focused on the ideals of “simple living and high thinking.”

Inspired by the practical wisdom of bhakti-yoga scholar/teacher A/C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, communities like the Small Farm Training Center were and are presenting a model of anticipation as we move from an unsustainable model of industrialized and commodified civilization to an ecologically sound civilization.

The waves of time has moved my own journey and the journey of this blog in new directions and vistas. I am now studying for my master’s degree in eco-theology at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and once again I am drawn to the work of the soil, of the spirit within the soil, and to those people creating what has been coined by eco-theologians, including Larry Rasmussen in his latest book Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics In A New Key, as the anticipatory community.

These are sacred sanghas of individuals who are determined, courageous, knowledgeable, humbly setting themselves to the rhythms of our Mother Earth, showing us today the ways and means of harmony that will lead us to the cultural, ethical, and spiritual adaptation that tomorrow calls for.

I have realized that if I am going to be any kind of eco-theologian, eco-activist, eco-ethicist, or simple tiller of the soil, citizen of the Earth, my studies must include but not remain solely in the head-space. The Earth is the realm of the hands and heart, and with this understanding I have embarked this summer on a series of organic farm internships that will help me to learn the fine arts, skills, and meditations of grounded ecological life.

This is an experience that I hope will help me to overcome my nature-deficit disorderIn this mood, this blog will return this summer and beyond to a chronicle of experience in the communities I am serving in, as we share the bounties of our harvest that fill our plates and our spirit.

First, a brief word on what I mean by the the yoga of ecology. Having been a practitioner in the bhakti-yoga community for nearly a decade now, I have come to understand that the values of yoga, values that connect us, that yolk us, to the Divine are values that inherently create ecologically-sound lifestyles and communities.

Bhakti means devotion to the Divine, and this devotion, when it is the foundation of a spiritual community, creates an understanding of the boundless potential for spiritual grace and happiness that can only truly be found when we respect and understand the boundaries and spaces that Mother Earth asks us to live in. Devotion is a value which removes the dust from our heart, the dust of greed, envy, and selfishness, the internal pollution which manifests in the external pollution that wrecks our planet.

To farm, to till and love the soil, for the purpose of loving devotion to the Divine and to each other, is a form of yoga, and the soil also teaches us much about the true essence of spiritual values if we become tuned in enough to observe and listen.

I have spent the last three weeks in Brewster, New York, an hour north of the City, at Bluestone Farm and Living Arts Center, which is part of the Community of the Holy Spirit. From their website the resident Sisters explain a bit of their history and standing:

The Melrose house was established in 1961, in Brewster, New York, about an hour northeast of New York City.  In 2004, we began to pursue our interest in sustainable living by starting Bluestone Farm and Living Arts Center. Grown organically, the produce we cultivate and store (by drying, lactofermenting, and freezing) feeds us throughout the year. Over the last five years, the farm has come to include beekeeping, duck and chicken flocks, cows, maple syrup and honey production, and wine-making among other activities.

Together, we are engaged in weaving together our worship and our work, inspired by the writings of the late Thomas BerryBrian SwimmeEllen Davis, and Cynthia Bourgeault, among others. (Learn more about the “new cosmology” and thespirituality of farming.) 

Sisters Helena Marie, Carol Bernice, Catherine Grace, and Emmanuel, of the order of the Community of the Holy Spirit, are the wonderful and wise souls who have devoted their lives to this project. They are joined by Resident Companions Rev. Matthew Wright and Jody Ballew, and for the past few weeks and months interns Katie Ferrari, Yanick Savain, Sarah Lucas, and myself. We are a small but determined group, happily set to explore a way of life which carries deep meaning, potential, and soul.

The voices of the Sisters and Companions explain the heart of their intentions and work:

Melrose is a biodynamic farm community…practicing the principles of permaculture and the religious life, we foster a mutually enhancing Earth-human relationship through prayer, ongoing reflection, manual labor, celebration and the arts. We hold a deep respect for creation as a primary revelation of God, and by sharing our work, worship, harvest and all we learn we model sustainable living, social justice and spiritual fulfillment in the context of local community and resilience.

We stand at the turning point. We are a small group of people who have transformed a yard into a farm to help save Earth. We do not mean to startle or preach; we mean to declare that with intention and the labor of love we will ease the damage done to our Mother Earth by civilization gone awry. We mean peacefully to weave our own strand into the web of life as it exists here and now in our neck of the woods.

We eschew any form of agricultural practice that shocks, destroys, or otherwise inhibits participation of all the species in the life of our farm. We recognize the rights of beings to their habitat. Thus we enjoin upon ourselves the patience, tolerance, and care needed to proceed mindfully through our days.

Working together, we will learn from one another how to care for our Mother Earth. Working together, we will walk naturally into the great creative rhythm of the universe. We mean our lives together to be our act of love for one another, and in love we are confident of redemption.

 

Here is a photo essay of some of my experiences of life at Bluestone Farm:

 

 

Our backyard, the Bluestone Farm

 

St. Cuthbert’s House and the Farm

 

Jiffy, her daughter Mercy, and the milking shed where our beloved cow-friends give us gallons of fresh raw milk daily, which we drink and also use to make homemade butter and cheese

 

Resident Companion Jody Ballew hand-milks Jiffy. With the guidance of Jody and our “sacred cow-woman” Sr. Carol Bernice, I have already accomplished one of my main goals for the summer: learning how to milk a cow!

 

Sunset over the Farm

 

 

Freshly harvested strawberries and peas

 

Broccoli blooming

 

Katie and a ginormous kale harvest

The first gaillardia bloom

 

The caterpillar of the monarch butterfly

 

Sr. Helena Marie amongst the Margarittes

 

Matthew, Katie and myself displaying the spaceship kohlrabi

 

Matthew and our harvest of kohlrabi, collard greens, and snap peas

 

Cauliflower blooming

 

The omnipresent height of evolution: the weed. Farming is eternal. Weeding is eternal. If you don’t like weeding you are in the wrong business

More to come in the days ahead, including the unique ways we incorporate our harvest into our worship and celebration life, and the magic of biodynamic techniques and cow manure.

 For more, check out Bluestone Farm Fans on Facebook

Why This Devotee of God Doesn’t Think To Be Atheist Is To Be A Demon

There are two kinds of people in this world. Devotees and demons.

I think this is absolutely true.

But let’s parse this out a bit.

First of all, what is the source of my seemingly eccentric and dogmatic statement?

In the sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad-GitaKrishna speaks of two kinds of natures that exist in this world and in our being: the divine and the demoniac. After listing a number of qualities that are of the divine nature, such as charity, aversion to faultfinding, purification of one’s existence, cultivation of spiritual knowledge, and freedom from envy and from the passion for honor, Krishna lists six qualities-pride, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness and ignorance-which mark the demoniac nature. In the remainder of the chapter, Krishna unpacks further how the demoniac nature unfurls in our reality.

In the ninth verse of the chapter, Krishna says:

Following such conclusions, the demoniac, who are lost to themselves and who have no intelligence, engage in unbeneficial, horrible works meant to destroy the world.

In his commentary on this verse, renowned Vedic scholar/teacher A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada writes:

The demoniac are engaged in activities that will lead the world to destruction. The Lord states here that they are less intelligent. The materialists, who have no concept of God, think that they are advancing. But according to Bhagavad-gītā, they are unintelligent and devoid of all sense. They try to enjoy this material world to the utmost limit and therefore always engage in inventing something for sense gratification. Such materialistic inventions are considered to be advancement of human civilization, but the result is that people grow more and more violent and more and more cruel, cruel to animals and cruel to other human beings. They have no idea how to behave toward one another.

As a follower of the Gita, there is a straightforward-ness in Swami Prabhupada’s presentation which I find refreshing, important, and essential. It cuts to the rotted root of injustice, oppression, and hatred which exists in our world. It points to a deeper conception of why this injustice exists, in that without a conception of a divine reality, or a divine ethic, we all-too-fallible humans will all-too-often inevitably fall prey to the demoniac nature which surrounds us, and within us.

At the risk of appearing as a heretic (even more so than I appear to be already) to some more orthodox/literalist followers of the Gita, I want to critically examine what Krishna and Swami Prabhupada are saying in tandem in this chapter of the Gita. A surface interpretation of the dichotomy of the divine and demoniac here may provide a certain sense of clarity, but often what seems absolutely clear can lead to absolute expressions of theology and morality which can alienate and marginalize. This seeming clarity can also be at odds with people’s actual and visceral experience in the world, so I want to make a humble attempt to go a little bit deeper.

In thinking of my own experience doing Interfaith work in New York City, I have always made a sincere effort to be as open-minded and open-hearted as I can, with the appropriate respect and understanding of the natural boundaries that exist between different faith traditions. This mood has allowed me to develop wonderful relationships with Russian Orthodox priests, Reform Jewish rabbis, Wiccan priests, and just about everything else in-between. Being able to build, and walk across, bridges between faiths is one of the most important aspects of my spiritual journey. Real Interfaith work is a vehicle for creating the kind of deep and active compassion that is the most needed quality in this world at the present moment.

Yet as I went deeper into this work, I began to wonder what are the mechanics, as it were, of extending this joyful sense of communion towards those who identify as atheist/agnostic. More distinctly, I challenged myself to be as open-minded and open-hearted, with the same understanding of boundaries, with those I may encounter in my work and service who may not believe in God or a divine reality beyond the material reality we all inhabit together. This was a particular challenge for me, as I mentioned above, because to many within my tradition the terms atheist and demon go hand-in-hand. As usual, my innate sense of curiosity, or to put it more plainly, my independent streak, my desire to understand the truth beyond what may be “obvious” or “comfortable”, compelled me to question the basic assumption at hand: Does being atheistic mean one is inherently demoniac as described by Krishna in the Gita?

My opportunities to interact with serious and intelligent atheist thinkers were few and far between, so I was grateful to be invited to the 2012 World Faith Gala at the NYU Center for Spiritual Life this past December, with Chris Stedman as the featured speaker for the evening. Stedman is a unique figure in the world of Interfaith, as many of you already know. He is one of the founders of our esteemed community of thinkers here at State of Formation along with the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and a prolific writer, including blogging gigs at the Huffington Post and the On Faith blog at the Washington Post. Last year, Stedman published his first book Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground With The Religious, detailing his journey from being a “born-again” Christian through the acceptance of his alternative sexuality and eventual turn towards identifying as an atheist, along with his concurrent work and experience organizing for justice with communities of faith, even as he became someone for whom faith as most religious know it no longer necessarily applied.

As I listened to Chris that evening, and had the chance to meet him, the thoughts I had been having about my desire to understand the humanity and reality of the atheistic perspective became more intense. First of all, the work that Chris is doing is indeed of an enlightened nature. He is someone who understand the values of wisdom, empathy, and compassion. These are indeed spiritual values, but to understand them as spiritual values in the context of the work and convictions of someone like Chris Stedman means that one has to take a much broader, inclusive, open, and truer understanding of what it means to be spiritual. Hearing Chris speak, meeting him, and reading his words, it struck me that one cannot automatically assume that someone who is an atheist is inherently demoniac. Chris Stedman, who he is and what he does, is proof enough to me that what Krishna is saying in the Gita has to be understood with discretion, intelligence, and compassion. It has to be understood beyond the surface.

As our human civilization faces a massive existential crisis in understanding that our consumerist way of life is no longer, and never was, a sustainable way for us to interact with the web of ecology that surrounds us, what is needed most is the kind of dynamic communication that builds a sense of community across not only the boundaries of different faith traditions, but across all unnecessary boundaries between people who sincerely want to create justice on this planet today, tomorrow, and going forward. There is a tremendous courage that is needed to cross through these boundaries, and the realm of Interfaith is a place where this cutting edge exists.  In Faitheist, Stedman writes:

I believe that change will come from within-that by participating in Interfaith work, the nonreligious will broaden the meaning of such efforts and that the language used to describe them will change accordingly…I cannot begin to recount all of the times Interfaith work has opened up a space for robust conversations on problematic religious practices and beliefs. In fact, it has been a hallmark of my experience working in the Interfaith environment. Furthermore, it has allowed me to engage religious people about atheist identity and eradicate significant misconceptions about what atheism is and what it isn’t

I regularly hear from atheists who are leading the charge for Interfaith cooperation on their campuses and in their communities, and their experiences echo mine. They too have found that Interfaith is expanding to incorporate them and that, when done well, Interfaith engagement doesn’t require that people check their convictions at the door; it invites people to try and understand and humanize the other.

This understanding, and this shared grasp of what it means to be human in this world, at this time, is immeasurable more powerful and effective in organizing, working for, and living by the principles of divinity than by any surface labeling of who is divine and who is demoniac.

Let us look again to what Swami Prabhupada said above, to truly understand what is demoniac. The demoniac nature is that which exploits the material nature simply for the selfish exploitation of the senses, an exploitation that invariable leads to violence and cruelty. It does not take a great leap to understand, through the examples of our shared history and also our contemporary experience, that those who may claim to have an obvious “concept of God” can easily become wrapped up in the demoniac qualities. This is not a black-and-white equation. There are “devotees of God” who act demonically. There are “demons” who act divinely. If we stay on the surface of this dichotomy, without diving deeply, without the kind of courageous thought and activism that someone like Chris Stedman is offering, we will add nothing to the equation but the kind of irrational hatred that scars our very existence.

As I said before, the Gita is straightforward, and everything I have said above is not to discount that there are people who are obviously divine and obviously demoniac, and that those categories can fall alongside certain accepted parameters of faith/lack of faith. But instead of condemning every atheistic/agnostic person to be inherently demoniac, I challenge anyone who is challenged by this to think a little deeper, to broaden their experience working with and knowing the non-religious, to try to understand that the religious and the non-religious have a lot to learn from each other, and to read Faitheist. The true arts of compassion and communication require much more than intellectual and theological complacency. They require a courage based in a divine sense of love that belongs to all beings regardless of what they identify as.

From Archives to Indonesia: Living a Luce Legacy

Brown Tower at Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary

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.

Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

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.