A Table in the Diaspora (A Reflective Essay)

Thursday, February 6th, 2014, 09:18 WIB

Elivette (Elly) Mendez Angulo

Henry Luce Fellow (Fall 2013)

Each season has a scent, a smell one associates with change.  New England winters smell like cold, the air is so dry that it has only the faintest taint of a smell, usually of fireplaces and burnt wood.  Inside some homes, those blessed enough to have a fireplace; one can usually smell marshmallows and chocolate melting onto graham crackers (s’mores and hot-chocolate).  Each season has a food, and the memory of that food sets pace with an emotion.  Connecticut summers smell like fire and charcoal, the essence of heat burning and cooking on outdoor grills emanates from many yards and one can smell the barbeque grilling.  Each season has a unique texture, a remembered thought of ones preferred seat at the table set before you.  For me, fall in New England is a time when my favorite seat becomes the comfy couch on my mother’s sunroom, where the sun can be felt through the three walls of windows, while one is still protected from the cold winds blowing winter slowly in.

Notice that I speak of smells and foods and seats.  I do this purposefully as my interest is in the concept of the seats that we each occupy and in particular how our children (the eventual leaders of our community) learn about their seats and how they define those seats.  Prior to my arrival in Indonesia I had a notion that I have a seat (a place, a purpose) that only I can fill.  That I have a sacred place at a sacred table, and in my mind I wondered how that seat would be occupied after I was no longer its inhabitant.  I imagined that we each have a seat at this Sacred Table, regardless of our race/ethnicity, language, gender, or political leanings.  But I realized that often times in the American context, the seat I occupy probably belonged to someone who met those same requirements.  I began to wonder what would happen, what the future will hold, in the American vernacular, as our children are no longer identifying as either/or but rather as both/and.  I wondered what affects, if any, these both/ands would have on that Sacred Table.

So during my time in Yogyakarta, I planned to talk to people who are both/and.  Children of interfaith families, children of parents from different islands, each (island) existing with it’s own history, culture, and language.  Each child learning to relate in all those different ways of being uniquely itself, newly formed with all those differences.  I wondered if being a child of an interfaith family is the “new” diaspora. 

I should not be surprised to find that one semester is not enough time!  What I found is that though Indonesia has a historic and political explanation of plurality, plurality is not the same as pluralism.  Both can coexist, but occupying the same space does not mean that they relate. 

I found that Indonesia is full of wonders.  Sacred spaces touch sacred spaces.  Different faith traditions inhabit the same geography, but often times they do not quite meet.  There is a visible line that many are hesitant to cross.  And there is a need, a hunger, a passion for dialogue.  How that dialogue evolves depends on the politics.  It depends on the leadership.  It depends on the questions people dare to ask.  And it depends on the people they ask the questions of.

I was able to join a number of young adult programs in my time in Indonesia.  One that particularly astounded me was the Interfaith Youth Pilgrimage.  A large group of university students from different schools, in different regions and different islands came together to learn about each other’s Sacred Spaces.  A daring endeavor where some entered into the situation with their guards up, concerned that they would be initiated into a new faith!  While I found the program to be a success, I wonder how much more beneficial it would have been to have interfaith leaders from different traditions experience the program with the youth.  To have those leaders be available to pray together and discuss the things that made them nervous. 

I could sit and tell you all the wonderful things I learned in my courses of work, I could share what it felt like to realize that Religion and Multiculturalism in Southeast Asia is affected and influenced in a similar manner to that of the Caribbean context.  I could tell you that suddenly I wonder about the extent to which colonialism plays a role and impacts the way diaspora communities experience religion.  I could share how Amin Maalouf’s book In the Name of Identity Violence and Need to Belong reinforced my belief that sometimes uniting in our similarities really separates us further from others rather than helping us to create a new community.  I could share how ignoring any part of an individual’s identity can be harmful.  But instead I will share this…

Each season has a scent; a smell one associates with change. In Indonesia I learned that some people still burn their rubbish without acknowledging the harmful toxins that are being released.  Each season has a food, and the memory of that food sets pace with an emotion. Each season has a unique texture, a remembered thought of ones preferred seat at the table set before you.  I am grateful for my time in Indonesia.  My time in Indonesia allowed me the opportunity to do some amazing research, to meet, interact and interview individuals who have (re)informed my views of the diaspora community.  Having drunk the water from the wells of Yogyakarta, I look forward to my next trip.  Knowing that having immersed myself in the culture, I will be better able to understand the conflicting voices that are simultaneously, loudly, asking to be heard.