Final Post to our Indonesian Journey

My friends,
This blog of our journey to Indonesia ends here. But the reflections go on. Most of all I am left with the power of women’s coalitions in both Jakarta and Yogyakarta. In each place, the organizations that presented us took on with pride our full identities: Kathryn and I-- a 20 year lesbian couple: myself as a Roman Catholic lesbian priest, professor and theatre writer/director, Kathryn as a professor of Global Studies, and a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church.

The month before we arrived these same coalitions had presented Irshad Manji, a feminist lesbian Canadian Muslim whose heritage is Egyptian and Gujarati Indian. Her discussions about sexuality were held in private with various Muslim communities. With our journey, these same coalitions built on Irshad’s journey by creating public discussions of sexuality. Appearing on panels with women leaders who were Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian, the message was always the same, pluralism/diversity is both a beauty and challenge to any society or faith. As women creating alliances across our differences, we can model the society and the faith we wish to generate.

July 29: Tuesday, Borobadour, Indonesia

Our presentations and dialogs finished, we became tourists, and were taken an hour or so out of Yogya to the single most visited site in Indonesia, Borobudur. This 9th century Buddhist monument, located in Central Java, is a true place of pilgrimage. One begins at the base of the monument and follows a path circumambulating it and ascending through three levels: the world of desire, the world of forms, and the world of formlessness. All along the walls are narrative stone panels telling the story of Buddha’s life and teachings. Perhaps it was not surprising that on the second level, the world of forms, we got a cell phone call saying I had to hurry back to Yogyakarta because my return flight to the USA (taking off that very evening) had been canceled. And so we never reached the top, but perhaps that is for my second trip to this beautiful, inspiring and complex country. May it be so!

July 28: Monday continues

An informal discussion with the LGBT community of Yogyakarta on “ Diversity and Spirituality.” There were approximately 100 LGBT people present! The panel consisted of Kathryn and myself and Aria, the transgender Muslim woman I had been introduced to in the morning. Kathryn and I did not want to say much---we wanted to listen to what others wanted to share. And so we simply introduced ourselves as a twenty year old couple and that I was a Roman Catholic priest and she a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church and that we both considered our spirituality to be crucial to sustaining and enriching our relationship. Aria too spoke very briefly. As a transgendered Muslim woman she made it clear that the Holy Qur’an is totally silent on the idea of transgender/ “third gender.” She said that it is the Hadith, the second set of sacred texts based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, that speak about “mukhannathun”/third gender. She described composition and collection of these texts of the Hadith as imbedded in cultural contexts, and thus their prejudice toward a third gender.
However, Aria said, while realizing this was important, what was key for her was realizing the importance of her own self acceptance as a woman. When she realized this, she truly began to understand the Prophet’s words: “ Know yourself and you will know your God.”

The rest of the evening was spent hearing many testimonials by lesbian, gay and transgendered people who were gathered. Many stories expressed that most of the community did not feel safe in being out. Others expressed the importance of commitment in their relationships. Several described their relationships across faiths and how this was enriching. Kathryn wondered out loud how accepting the LGT community was of bisexuals. In four different responses, people said they often didn’t trust them and wished they would simply choose one or the other. It was clear that if there were bi-sexuals present they did not feel comfortable in speaking up. Kathryn then spoke of the importance both spiritually and socially of being truly inclusive in our LGBT community. Overall, the evening was an opportunity to gather the LGBT community, to share stories and receive mutual support. The palpable need for such gatherings was clear. And we felt blessed to be a part of their dialogue.

July 28: Monday continues

Lunch with religious leaders of Yogyakarta. I must mention here that an extraordinary young woman who did a major portion of the translation for us was Habibah, a young Muslim woman who wears a jilbab. She was the person that the Women’s Coalition sent out weeks before to invite religious leaders to this luncheon. I wish I could have been an ant on the wall as she walked into the Roman Catholic Vicariate of Yogyakarta to invite them to lunch with a Roman Catholic lesbian priest ! Of the 20 religious leaders present from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestant Churches, not one of them was Catholic---which of course I was not surprised at. But perhaps receiving the invitation to the lunch from Habibah made some intriguing impression.

Sitting outside under a thatched roof on a raised platform of bamboo, we all had our lunch. Amidst the lunch we spoke informally, yet a microphone was passed around so that all could hear. A Muslim man said that the verses of the Qur’an say that homosexuality is a disorder. Some feel that only people with low IQ’s are homosexual. He said that for himself it was a process because one of his children was gay and it took time for him to accept that. But now it was no problem, but he wanted to offer these thoughts because it is still hard generally for people to accept. Wilis who had been on the panel with me earlier again repeated what she had said regarding the Buddha and doctrines. A woman from the Dept. of Religious Diversity who was Hindu said that women’s leadership in Hinduism was not a problem, it was the culture around the religion that tried to “keep women in their place.” Another person offered that all texts, in any religion, have two faces: one that is about equality and the other that is prejudiced toward women. Near the end of the lunch a young Christian woman said she hoped that a forum lunch like this would happen again because of the need for dialogue across religious traditions.

July 28: Monday, Yogyakarta

A showing of excerpts from Jules Hart film “Women of the Holy Road”—a draft of a film about RCWP. Imagine that morning how it felt walking into a building that was a Muslim meeting hall, seeing it already filled with 150 people, all watching the faces of Patricia Fresen, Jane Via, and others on a large screen in the front of the hall talking about their call to ordination in the Catholic Church! Yes it was in English, so only some of it was understood, but all enjoyed the visual education offered by the images from Jules wonderful film.

It is worthwhile to mention here that while waiting in the back of the meeting hall for the panel to begin, I was introduced to a transgender Muslim woman, Aria, wearing her hijab/jilbab and a full length robe. She was introduced to me as being on the evening panel about diversity and spirituality. Yes, it was clear at every turn in Yogya that the Women’s Coalition meant what they said --- a total commitment to pluralism in Indonesian society.

A Public Discussion on “Women’s Leadership in Religion and Spirituality.” The panel:
Hindun Annisa director of a feminist educational school/seminary for young Muslim women, Wilis Rengganiasih a Buddhist scholar at the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies and myself. Once again I was most grateful for superb translators!

Hindun spoke of the importance of education for all young women, and how that education must be feminist. She spoke of the complete alignment between the Prophet’s life and the empowerment of women. Education, she said, was not only important, but the responsibility of young women and their families to seek out in order to become full members of society who know their rights, including religiously.

Wilis addressed this same idea in Buddhism focusing on the 13 women who were ordained as monks by the Buddha. And yet how women are still struggling today in some parts of Theravada Buddhism for recognition (hence the connection to my earlier meeting with Ven. Dhammananda).

Initially I began with the history of women’s ordination in the early church and then the contemporary movement. But following the lead of the other panelists, I went on to state that the problem with the Catholic women’s ordination movement is that we do not speak enough with our Protestant ordained sisters and other women in leadership in other religions. These women understand that getting ordained doesn’t change the hierarchical system or change patriarchal language. Just getting in the door doesn’t mean we get a seat at the table. Catholic women need to be realistic about what ordination means and the systemic nature of power. Therefore, alliances are crucial, so that we can learn from all those who are engaged in similar struggles. From there I went on to address sexuality. Because it’s so hard to get to the table, we who are LGBT are not supposed to talk about our sexuality. We are pressured to prove that we are good girls---mothers, with children and husbands—and so LGBT folks are pressured to stay in the closet. [I’ll address the rest of my lecture in other places, but for now that was the gist of it]

Questions that were asked during the discussion:
What are the challenges you’ve experienced as a woman spiritual leader? How are women spiritual leaders different? than male priests? Can the women’s movement for ordination be successful? Why not choose another church where you would be accepted? Can we be feminist without being lesbian? How do I face being a lesbian priest in my daily life?

I particularly liked this one: There is a paradigm shift going on from single voices of authority to multiple voices of power, a kind of de-sacralization of power and sacred texts---how do all three of you address this? Wilis, the Buddhist scholar answered it in this way: The Buddha taught not to be attached to doctrines, including those given by the Buddha.

It was a lively, thought-filled discussion. We all walked away from it deeper and more connected to each other’s struggles.

July 27: Sunday Continues!

9:30—11:00p Sunday
Then to top off the night, the first Holy Union in Indonesia (so we've been told) and certainly presided at by a RC woman priest (see pics). Ani, the primary organizer of the Women's Coalition of Yogyakarta, and also an actress, helped to arrange it in two days at the Garage Theater - a small innovative group.

For hetersexual couples it is against state law to marry a person of another religion. And of course there is no sanctioned marriage ceremony for LGBT people. And while Yogyakarta intellectuals and activists have developed in 2006 a remarkable document-- the Yogyakarta Principles --which advocate for the sexual rights of all, it is still not socially or religiously accepted to be LGBT.

Given that information, I will use pseudonyms for the two women who so courageously vowed their commitment to one another on that Sunday night in Yogyakarta.

We walk down a small road beside dark rice paddies to the space. Friends began to trickle in - many in hijab. The planning of all this happened in a day, and it really does require some longer description. Ani says - 'just tell us what to do, we've never done anything like this.' The theatre people knew immediately that we needed a set, lights and sound! And so with Kathryn's guiding hand all went to work creating a stage set with chairs, potted plants, table, cloth and candle. "M" (Muslim) in a gorgeous Javanese dress and "C" (Catholic) in a Javanese headband and shirt.

The couple had emailed me in the States asking if I would create a Blessing Ceremony for their relationship. I said I would if we could have a talk the day before (which we did) about what commitment meant to each of them. At that meeting we also decided the elements of the liturgy: Opening Prayer, Readings from sacred texts (Christian Bible & Qur’an), poems that either of them would read, speaking their vows to one another, ring giving, and a final blessing that would be given by all to their commited relationship.

There were lots of tears. And even a surprise cake that was traditionally cut by the couple---but according to tradition the couple’s parents receive the first pieces. "M" and "C" offered us those esteemed pieces of cake. And lots of "paparazzi" --we're all laughing when we watch the video of it the next day --- how many friends were taking pictures!! Damai, who was the original person who had invited us, gave "M" and "C" a beautiful woven wedding blanket that is traditionally put around the shoulders of the newlyweds. And she also gave one to Kathryn and me! Knowing that the next day would also be abundantly busy we excused ourselves from the celebration at 11:00p, leaving the younger women to enjoy the night! But the memory of this extraordinarily intimate and risky liturgy stays deep within me signaling the courage and vision of young lesbian women in Yogyakarta.

Once again, I note the importance of women priests creating inter-faith alliances across sexualities, genders and ethnicities. We do this in different ways, in different places, but do it we must.

July 27: Sunday continues!

6:00—9:00p Sunday
Off to a FANTASTIC rehearsal of Theater Dinasti - a Muslim progressive theater like Philippine PETA. They've traveled the world. The rehearsal was outside, under the stars and we curled up with the women on mats and drank hot sweet tea and some
rice snacks as we watched. The work was so physical and funny with this amazing fushion gamelon orchestra backup. The play was about Iblis (Muslim lucifer) and a commentary on Indonesian societies' responsibility for its own complicity and lack of will to challenge authority. Afterwards, we had a rice-chicken satay meal wrapped in banana leaf and newspaper and sat in a big circle with the actors and orchestra talking about the play.