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The definition of serenity. Photo by Hannah Richter (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Finalist), Indonesia Semester.


As I sit with my homestay parents and eat my dinner of bakmi goreng (fried noodles), the Call to Prayer echoes throughout the kitchen. I stop what I was saying to them, and we exchange the same familiar smile that we give each other every night, communicating “wait a moment.” One minute later, when the Arabic fades away, our conversation picks up again right where we stopped, and we continue discussing our days.

After moving into my homestay, I soon realized that the speaker for the Call to Prayer was right outside my house. It is impossible not to hear it, but at this point, two months into my homestay, I have stopped noticing it. I now rarely wake up to the morning Call to Prayer (at 4am!), and this daily reminder of religion has become background to our routines.

Our focus of inquiry (FOI) in November was religion. Throughout the month, we visited religious sites and discussed our beliefs and upbringings openly with each other. We started by visiting an Interfaith religious center, where Western and Eastern religions existed in one. There, Christian iconography incorporates Javanese symbols and influences, a church includes traditional Javanese architecture, and a Hindu temple sits in the middle with people praying in front. Later in the month, we attended a Balinese Hindu ceremony for the full moon, dressed in batik. We learned about Buddhism in Java as we circumambulated the levels of Borobudur. We discussed Islam and gender with a professor, took photos on the top of a chicken church, and visited a waria (transgender woman) Islamic boarding school. For our mini-X phase, we traveled to Dieng Plateau, where we visited the remnants of Hindu temples that were scattered throughout the highland. Throughout all this time, religion revealed itself to me in other ways, from my family stopping at a mosque to pray when we are out, to me photographing my NGO’s presentation at Islamic and Christian schools.

In this past month, I have come to realize how secular the US is and how separate religion was from my day-to-day life growing up. I began to see how important religion can be, how it can be both so personal and omnipresent at the same time. It gives people community, and it can create common ground between strangers, as it did for my Ayah (homestay dad) and I as we discussed our Abrahamic faiths. It can release people from their worries and fears, give people a place for self-reflection, provide morals, and create tolerance. Religion can create different rhythms to people’s day, setting when they wake up, eat, shower, and sleep.

As religion began to be ubiquitous in my day-to-day life, I began to reflect on my own religious beliefs. All of the physical manifestations of religion that are throughout Indonesia pushed me to think about the religion of which I was raised and ask again: who and what do I worship?

Before coming to Indonesia, I hadn’t thought about my beliefs since I was 14. I was raised Catholic, attending religious after-school classes until I was confirmed into the church at 14. After turning 12, my religious classes became more in-depth to prepare for my confirmation, but as they became more serious, I began to lose my faith. My pre-teen self didn’t understand the value religion could bring to my life and couldn’t rationalize the Bible. I didn’t see how a God could have an influence on my life when there are so many people in the world. Once I was confirmed into the church, I let go of my religious ties. I stopped attending mass on Sundays, and when asked what my religion was, I would say agnostic or atheist. As I went through high school, I received positive reinforcements from my friends who were almost all atheists and became more confident in my decision and beliefs. In the four years since I was confirmed, I stopped thinking about it; I was an agnostic atheist—I was not really sure if there was a God, but I was not Catholic.

But, now, I’ve begun to think about religion more than ever. I find myself reflecting on the connection religion brought me to family and friends in my childhood, and how it defined my worldview from a young age. I am so grateful to my mom for passing down this tradition to me and raising me as Catholic. I keep wondering if having faith would have alleviated some of my stresses and anxieties in high school.

A month ago, my Ibu asked me, “What is your religion?” and immediately, I answered, “Catholic.” Before coming to Indonesia, that wouldn’t have been my response. I never expected to question my religious beliefs, never thought this would be a place I would see myself in again. I thought that when I accepted my lack of faith, that was it.

Now the question of religion is reopened to me, and I am giving myself the time to redefine my faith. I still don’t know what I believe, but I am opening myself up to new beliefs and choosing again who I worship, what I believe, and to whom I pray.

Assalamualaikum, as I say to my Ibu as she leaves the house every morning. Peace be with you.