The Thing I Am Most Proud of Last Term

By Rachel Werz
Oct. 19, 2017

I grew up in a very small, conservative, farming town called Summerfield. I attended church twice a week throughout my childhood and young adult life. 

In college, I studied Islam and Arabic, and studied abroad in a Muslim country. My interest in those things was born out of the fear I felt watching the second tower fall in New York City on September 11th at the age of 15 and trying to make sense of the world we lived in after that day. Five years after graduating from university, my husband Evan and I chose Indonesia as our country of service in the Peace Corps. We chose the most populous Muslim country in the world at a time when tensions and fear were rising in the U.S. for a specific reason - to intentionally share our lives with people back home. We wanted to show them how normal and loving our Muslim family is, how my 15 year old students are the same as 15 year old students everywhere, and that my daily activities don’t really differ much from my daily life in the U.S. Our main goal is to expose our family and friends to the images of Muslims that are missing from Western media - smiling, laughing, silly faces, family gatherings, delicious food, and beautiful customs.

As I deboarded my plane and set foot in an America that was a little less familiar to me than when I left, my mind flooded with these images. Messages from my students about what they wanted Americans to know about them, their country, and their religion I had memorized long ago. “Tell them I am just like them.” “Tell them we love America.” “Tell them Islam is peace.” “Tell them my veil empowers me.” My students get it, maybe more so than the Indonesian adults I have relationships with. We have more similarities than we do differences.

I had three opportunities to share these messages with people from my hometown. The first two were visits to the middle school and high school I attended as a teenager. Interestingly, the middle school class had much more thoughtful questions than the high school students we talked to. In the middle school class, I taught them the word ‘mosque’, and was met with curious comments like, “so it’s just like our churches?” At the high school I was met with much more suspicion. As I talked about living with my Muslim family, the room fell silent. I saw eyebrows raise. I continued to share, and by the end of the presentation we had students trying on sarongs and happily eating Madurese snacks. Evan and I walked away from the high school visit with certainty that at the very least, sharing our perspectives and experiences living and working in a Muslim country will cause them to stop and think for a moment when they hear generalizations about Muslims in the future. That is our hope.

Evan wearing sarong
Evan showing how to wear a sarong
One of the students wearing the sarong Evan brought from Madura,  East Java
One of the students wearing a sarong Evan brought from Indonesia

Visiting the schools was a great experience, but our visit to my home church’s women’s meeting was the most fulfilling. My mother is a member of the United Methodist Women, and they meet monthly to learn about a variety of topics affecting women globally. When I received the invitation from the group to present at their June meeting, I was instantly nervous. Was I really going to talk about Islam in the same room that vacation bible school was taking place the very next week? In today’s political climate? Evan and I put a lot of thought into our presentation and how to frame our experiences in a way that would be palatable to the audience. We have never provided a lot of details of our life abroad before coming to Indonesia, frankly because no one seemed really curious and rarely were we asked about the country we were living in. Over the past year in Indonesia, I have been more intentional about sharing my life to family and friends back home, and this presentation would be a culmination of a lot of those conversations and provide a platform for them to ask intentional questions about our time there.

We were given 45 minutes out of an hour long meeting to talk, and we chose to focus our presentation on women and Islam in Indonesia. We knew that Western media often focuses on the hijab, and that there would end up being a lot of questions about that anyway, so we decided to take the issue head on. Women run the household in our family in East Java, and my school is also mostly run by women. They have been the biggest influence on my life in Indonesia. I started by sharing pictures of my 4 host sisters, my coworkers, and friends. In some pictures, they were wearing a veil, in others, they were not. In the pictures we were doing familiar things like eating ice cream, posing, and taking selfies. 

I also showed photos from around Indonesia of girls and women doing all kinds of things wearing a veil, like singing in a rock band, making YouTube videos, and dancing. Their initial comments were about how beautiful and colorful the scarves were. I shared with them how I learned how to think about intercultural differences as interesting, rather than scary and different. The conversation naturally led to concepts of modesty, and I could see understanding in their eyes when I explained that we have similar ideas of modesty in the church. Just like some churches may expect more conservative forms of dress because they  have different ideas about modesty, so does Islam and different communities of Muslims. I stressed that Islam is not just one monolithic thing, and that much like Christianity, it is diverse in beliefs and practice.

Rachel and Evan speaks to a class at Rachel's old high school, which is also her partner school with World Wise Schools
Rachel and Evan speaks to a class at Rachel's old high school, which is also her partner school with the Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools program.

“Why don’t they show these kinds of Islam in the news?” The question made my heart start pounding. Not because I was terrified that at any moment the conversation would devolve into toxic political vitriol (well maybe that was part of it), but I was overcome at the possibility that for a few people in the crowd, this could be the first time they’ve ever questioned their view of Muslims. It didn’t matter that they used the wrong word, those things are surface level and easily fixed. I did explain the different terminology to them, but the fact that they now have a different narrative of what Muslims are in their mind is so valuable. 

They all wanted to know why, if there were so many good Muslims in the world, billions as I explained to them, why do we only hear about the few bad ones? Hearing the numbers of how many Muslims there were in the world shocked them, and I said light-heartedly that if most of the billions of them were scary and had ill-intent, we would all be in much more trouble than we are now. They laughed but with understanding. Many of my sentences started with “The Muslims I know…” as I shared my stories about how much love and hospitality I have been shown during my first year in country. Introducing disruptive narratives that vary from the mainstream media’s representation of Muslims is in the spirit of Peace Corps’ third goal and was our mission in doing these presentations. The 45 minutes allotted to us stretched into an hour, and then an hour and a half, as they continued asking questions about everything from toilets, to food, to the batik they all fell in love with. 

When everyone was finally leaving, many said they could stay and ask questions forever, and expressed how much they enjoyed learning about Indonesian culture. One of their favorite things they learned about was Indonesian greetings. I explained the meaning of touching your hand to your heart after you shake hands with someone, and it touched them. The pastor of the church approached me after everyone left and thanked us for bringing a message of openness and love to the church.

Both Evan and I were on a high on the way home, talking about how the presentation exceeded our expectations. But what were our expectations? That they would see the faces of the family that has taken me into their home and invalidate my experiences with them? That they wouldn’t believe that they were just like us? That those messages from my students wouldn’t mean anything to them? But this presentation reminded me that a simple story or photo can make a different culture, religion, and way of life seem real to someone. It can humanize differences and make their world a little bit wider. And unintentionally, my conversations with members of my hometown church, that I’ve known most of my life, made my world a bit wider too.

Rachel Werz