Indonesia Day 1: Seminary, Obama, and a Hijab

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I have been in Jakarta for three full days now. They have been a mix of delicious foods, traffic jams, learning, and conversations.

My first full day I spent with Rev. Joas Adiprasetya. I first met Joas in Tanzania, where he was my group leader during GETI (Global Ecumenical Theological Institute). He was also the one who walked alongside me when I received news of my father’s passing, and was a calm and compassionate presence for me during that time.

Joas is a professor here at the Jakarta Theological Seminary. He specializes in Interfaith Relations, and has connected me to various organizations here in Jakarta that work to establish peace and tolerance between the various religions. I will spend my first week here meeting with some of these groups and talking with individuals as I learn more about Muslim/Christian relations in Indonesia. Then, next week, my learning will transition from theoretical to practical, as I immerse myself in a Muslim community; Joas has arranged for me to stay in a Pesantren in another part of Indonesia.

Pesantrens are Islamic boarding schools, and are very common here. Parents send their children to these schools to learn not only basic subjects like math, science, etc., but to also help give them a foundation in their religious beliefs and understanding. Therefore, the daily life at Pesantrens is structured around prayer times (5 times a day), religious classes, and worship, as well as secular learning.

The Pesantren that I will be going to welcomes foreigners and Christian visitors, but to participate in their daily life and rituals, I must respect their customs and traditions. Therefore, one of the first places Joas took me to was a mall to purchase a hijab.

Hijabs are a kind of head covering worn by Muslim women. While at the Pesantren, I will need to fully cover my hair (but not my face), and also cover my arms (down to my wrists), and my legs (down to my ankles). Pants cannot be worn by women there either, only long skirts or dresses.

Shopping for a hijab was quite a humorous experience, considering neither Joas nor myself really knew what to look for. Thankfully the Muslim women at the store were very helpful – though they didn’t speak English. I found myself in front of a full-length mirror, being handed various head coverings and long-sleeved over shirts to try on. My head got stuck in the first hijab I tried on, and one of the women had to help me adjust it correctly.

Joas helped translate, and also asked the women for advice on what exactly I needed so as to be dressed appropriately for the Pesantren.

One of the women had attended a Pesantren herself before, and so explained to us that all I needed was a hijab that would cover my hair, and also my neck. They showed me how their own hijabs were pinned at the neck, and folded in a certain way as to cover the sides of their face. Thankfully, they recommended one to me that was made of stretchy material, an “easy” one that would not require any pins or special folding to wear.

After this experience, Joas took me by the elementary school that Obama attended for a few years in his childhood. There is a statue of him as a child out front, with a plaque commemorating his time there.

After this, we went back to the seminary for a tour and also some fresh dragon fruit juice (which I had never had before, and found to be very tasty)!

Jakarta Theological Seminary is the oldest seminary in Indonesia. It was founded in 1934, which is before Indonesia’s independence, in 1945. One of the things I found fascinating about this seminary is that it is one of the most theologically progressive school in Indonesia. In fact, it is the only seminary in all of Asia that is inclusive of LGBT students, and that is willing to discuss LGBT issues and theology. They even hold an annual LGBT-affirming Faith Conference to help raise awareness and tolerance on the issue.

This is a very big deal here, since it is still taboo to discuss LGBT issues in most of Indonesia. Though homosexuality is not criminalized here, like in some Muslim-majority countries, it is something that is not often talked about, and definitely not something that is culturally acceptable.

After a full day with Joas learning about the seminary, I arrived at my hostel, which will be my home for my first week here. It is a small room, but with my own shower and (western!) toilet. It is cozy and clean, and centrally located. It also only costs around $10 a night!

I hope to post more soon about the other experiences I have had so far here!

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