Winter 2000
Volume 4 Number 3

by Leslie Dobbs-Allsopp

As the Seminary’s traditional Christmas Service of Lessons and Carols opened with a solo voice singing the first verse of the carol “Once in Royal David’s City,” the clear soprano notes of Ester Pudjo Widiasih transported worshippers across time and culture to the Bethlehem manger.

The native Indonesian woman knows something about the power of music to cross cultures. She is a Th.M. student at PTS this year, on leave from teaching music and worship studies at Jakarta Theological Seminary in Indonesia.

She has extensive training, including a five-year M.Div. from Jakarta Seminary, plus two years of further work at the Asian Institute for Liturgy and Music in the Philippines. She is an academic, yet even more she is a musician, a composer, an artist.

Ester chose to spend her leave from Jakarta at Princeton because of the freedom PTS offered her to fashion a program of study uniquely fitted to her needs. She satisfies her passion to learn by taking classes both at the Seminary and at Westminster Choir College. She fulfills her urge to perform by working with Martin Tel as a member of the Touring Choir.

Ester is passionate about music. According to her parents, she was singing before she was talking. “I may have been predestined to be a musician, for I come from a family of musical performers,” she says. Her father is a conservatory-trained Javanese traditional dancer and her mother a self-taught choir director. Ester was raised in the Javanese Christian Church in Jakarta, Indonesia, part of the Javanese Christian Churches Synod. She says that about ten percent of the population in Indonesia are Christians, members of various tribal churches.

Ester Widiasih has an ambitious and innovative agenda for music in the churches of Indonesia. She says that only in the last decade has there been any formal church music education there. Sadly, many churches lack funds for any kind of musical program. Ester wants to reclaim traditional Indonesian music for the church service. She also wants to contextualize the liturgy so as to be more “Asian.” She’s not interested in syncretism, but rather in creating an authentic grassroots Christian and Indonesian music and liturgical tradition. At Jakarta Seminary, Ester directs her own touring choir, which she prefers to name a “creative music group.” They sing, but they also play instruments and dance, according to the dictates of the music. They even create new instruments out of items like used water jugs. She delights in the creativity of her singers and performers (who have traveled as far as the Netherlands and Belgium to perform), encouraging them to use whatever resources are available to make music.

Ester Widiasih composes hymns, sets them to music, and teaches them to congregations. She enjoys working with traditional Javanese music, but does not limit herself to one tradition. She has great respect for all musical traditions and is currently interested in adapting the Gregorian chant structure to the Javanese pentatonic scale for use in churches back home. Her “creative music group” performs music from all over the world, and always in the proper traditional styles. Ester also teaches other musicians how to bring traditional Indonesian music into Christian worship.

Ester practices an activist theology with regard to church music. She wants to use music from around the world to introduce ecumenism into the life of worship: “By singing each other’s songs we are ecumenical,” she says, “and so better understand each other.” This is an important concept in Indonesia, a place of diverse peoples and faiths. Ester also believes that “music must express the struggles” of poor people, of women, of those who are marginalized. In worship “we speak out the struggles of others, we are able to give a place for the voices of women and children.”

Putting that theology into practice, Ester was asked to create an opening liturgy for a recent Indonesian Women in Theology Conference. This was soon after a mass rape of ethnic Chinese women in Jakarta. She was moved to write a liturgy of lamentation of women, to try to “give a place for the crying of women” in the life of worship.

Ester Widiasih feels immeasurably enriched by seeing other worship and music traditions and has found traveling with the Touring Choir exciting and informative. Tel, the Seminary’s C.F. Seabrook Director of Music, was “thrilled” when she auditioned for the Touring Choir. He says she has “a most warm and beautiful voice that bears evidence of years of training. At the opening hymn sing of the academic year, she taught the gathered community an Indonesian song. Not only is she a marvelous singer, she is an equally gifted teacher. She led with such pathos that at the end we just had to be still for awhile before moving on to the next hymn. We have taken this beautiful song on the road with us, affectionately noted on our repertoire list as ‘Ester’s Song.’”

Although she holds the M.Div., Ester is not sure that she’s been called to ordained ministry. While having a strong connection to a single church would obviously provide the opportunity for an exciting and innovative music ministry “home,” she would not be free to travel and to share her musical gifts with other churches. At the end of the academic year, she will return to Jakarta Seminary and take up her teaching duties.

One has the sense that exciting things are in store for the musical and worship ministries of churches in Indonesia. 

Copyright 2000 Princeton Theological Seminary
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