Alexander Hendra Dwi Asmara, S.J., lives in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. But the homogenous society, he said, has bred intolerance, discrimination, and even violence against religious minorities.
“People are very afraid that there will be war in the name of God. I believe religious education is one way to [defuse situations],” said Father Asmara, who will graduate this year from the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education with his Ph.D. in religious education. “I want to make a religious education model that unites people from other religions.”
‘Education Is in My Blood’
Father Asmara was born and raised in Ambarawa, a small town in Indonesia. His parents, an elementary school teacher and a junior high English teacher, inspired him to pursue a career in higher education. But he also wanted to become a priest, like the ones who led services at the Catholic church beside his childhood home.
Father Asmara earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the Driyarkara School of Philosophy in Indonesia in 2008. Five years later, he received his master’s degree in theological studies from Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. In 2014, he was ordained a priest.
“As a Jesuit priest, I could fulfill my dream of being a person who works in education,” Father Asmara said. “And education is in my blood.”
His Jesuit supervisors assigned him to Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where he taught Catholic religious education for two years. Then they asked him to earn a doctorate in religious education.
Finding A Fordham ‘Family’ in America
Father Asmara found Fordham, a Jesuit school that aligned with his values and offered courses in a city unlike any other in Indonesia—the biggest, most diverse city in the world, he said. In 2016, he moved to New York, where he learned about the Black Lives Matter movement and, for the first time in his life, visited neighborhoods that overflowed with diversity.
“I went to Queens and saw every kind of Asian—Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, Indian … I went to Brooklyn, where there were many different cultures, and the Bronx, with many Latinos,” Father Asmara said. “I was so happy [to be here].”
He lived in Fordham’s Jesuit community at Spellman Hall, where he was welcomed by priests who helped him adjust to life in America.
“I found a family here,” Father Asmara said. “I made the right choice to come to Fordham.”
A New Education Model to Address A Nationwide Problem
Over the next four years, he said, his classes taught him how to think critically and analyze situations from multiple perspectives—as a Catholic, as a priest, and as a human being. His professors also helped him develop a dissertation on a topic close to his heart: the deescalation of religious conflict in his native country.
“In the U.S., people are divided by race,” Father Asmara said. “In Indonesia, we are divided by religion.”
His dissertation, “Educating for Unity in Diversity: Religious Education for Transformation in the Context of Everyday Religious Conflict in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia,” proposes a “live-in” religious education curriculum where students live in a home with people from a religious community different from their own.
“Live-in provides students with an opportunity to have an experience of living in another religious community. It guides students to become deeply rooted in their own religious tradition, while being open to learning from and collaborating with people of other religious traditions,” said Asmara’s dissertation mentor, Harold D. Horell, Ph.D., associate professor of religious education. “Hendra further develops the model of live-in education currently used in some Jesuit schools for young people in his country. The model of interreligious education he has developed could inform religious educational efforts in other contexts about how to address religious conflict by nurturing interreligious understanding and solidarity.”
Last fall, Father Asmara returned to his job as a lecturer in Catholic religious education at Sanata Dharma University. He said he sees himself serving as a bridge between different faiths for the rest of his life.
“As a religious teacher, I teach my students to have an inclusive way of thinking through the Catholic tradition,” Father Asmara said, speaking over Zoom from his home in Indonesia. “I want to make sure that my students have an open mind, the spirit of dialogue, and a way of thinking that doesn’t claim one religion is the only right religion.”