. . . by every tongue . . . rediscovering Siraya

Providence and Pilgrimage or you never know what you will do once you graduate from seminary.

I enjoy reading a series of detective novels by the Chinese American author Qiu Xiaolong. The protagonist of his mysteries is Comrade Chief Inspector Chao Chen of the Shanghai Police Department. Chen is given the most politically sensitive and complex cases to unravel. In solving his crimes, he says, “There are no coincidences.” The following story supports this assumption.

Did you know that, in addition to leading a music ministry, a Master of Sacred Music degree gives you the tools to resurrect an aboriginal language in Taiwan that lay dormant for 200 years? Well, maybe not for everyone, but it sure did for M.S.M. alumnus Edgar Macapili ’02. This is a fascinating story of providence.

One of the expectations I have for this pilgrimage is the opportunity to reconnect with former students, and I plan to share some of their stories. My first trip to Taiwan took place almost twenty years ago. Returning here several times since then, I have developed a number of particularly rich friendships. I recall my first encounter with Edgar Macapili and his wife Uma Talavan in the summer of 1996.

I was studying Asian hymnody with Dr. I-to Loh in Tainan. Dr. Loh wanted me to meet a prospective student for the Master of Sacred Music program at Perkins. Edgar and Uma took me to their family home in the serene mountainous countryside in Tainan County. Actually, it seems that Uma’s family – siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins – covered the entire mountain. They are a close-knit group including Uma’s father Cheng-hiong Talavan, an elder in his Presbyterian Church and a fine musician.

Edgar grew up in Zamboanga in the southern part of the Philippines and received his undergraduate musical training from the Asian Institute of Liturgy and Music in Manila, where he met fellow student Uma. They married and Edgar left the Philippines and moved to Uma’s home in Taiwan to serve and begin their family. When I met him at the church that first Sunday, he was directing the choir at the Presbyterian Church in his village and demonstrated versatility and competence as a guitarist, composer, soloist, and choral conductor. To make a long story short, Edgar and Uma came to Dallas with their daughters Euphony and Eucharis in August 2000 and Edgar completed his Master of Sacred Music degree in 2002. Edgar returned to Taiwan where he has taught at the Tainan Theological College and Seminary, directed music in local congregations, and conducted civic choral choirs in the Tainan area, becoming one of the leading choral conductors in southern Taiwan. Edgar achieved professional recognition in his adopted home at a level comparable to a number of our M.S.M. graduates. Indeed, we are proud to call him an alumnus!

In addition to all of those activities, it turns out that Edgar had been developing skills as a linguist since his graduation in 2002. I received word that Edgar and Uma were coming to Austin College in nearby Sherman, Texas in 2012 to make a presentation (See http://www.austincollege.edu/asia-week-focuses-taiwan-issues/). I attended and was blown out of the water! Edgar had become an expert in the Siraya language, an indigenous language of one of the aboriginal groups in the western coastal plains of Taiwan. While several aboriginal groups in the eastern mountains of Taiwan were recognized, the aboriginal groups in the western coastal plains, the Pingpu, were thought to have lost their identity and language, having been absorbed into the dominant Han Chinese who had migrated from mainland China especially during the Qing Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China dating from the mid-17th to the early 20th centuries.

The Siraya people are found primarily in Tainan County in the south of Taiwan. They have been struggling to be recognized as an aboriginal group by the Taiwanese government since the Chinese National Party assumed control of the government in 1945. Being recognized by the government is important in preserving Siraya identity and culture (See https://intercontinentalcry.org/support-siraya-and-other-low-land-indigenous-peoples-of-taiwan/). One of the key components of making a case for recognition is having a distinct language. The Siraya language had not been spoken in 200 years. Dutch missionaries came to the Siraya in the seventeenth century and developed a written language. Here is where Edgar enters the picture.

As it turns out, Edgar Macapili, an immigrant to Taiwan from the Philippines, was perfectly equipped to resurrect the Siraya language! The pieces started to come together when he found the Gospel of Matthew in Siraya in 2002 that had been prepared by the Dutch. This manuscript served as a Rosetta Stone for developing a Siraya vocabulary. Edgar modernized the older language using current Romanized spellings (rather than Chinese characters) and formed a Siraya dictionary. A dictionary does not provide grammar and syntax, however. As it turns out, Edgar was able to do what other linguists had not been able to do on two fronts: First, because the structure of the Siraya language was very similar to his native Filipino tribal language Bisaya and other Austronesian languages, an indication of the migration of Filipinos to the island of Formosa centuries ago, Edgar added syntax and form to Siraya in addition to developing a lexicon. Furthermore, his knowledge of the Bible and theology allowed him to deal with some of the nuances of translation in the Gospel of Matthew that eluded other linguists, e.g., translating the concept of bread and wine in a culture that did not have words for those originally. Trained linguists from Australia and Taiwan have verified the accuracy of his work.

As if that were not enough, Edgar and Uma developed Siraya grammar books for use in elementary schools as well as summer training seminars for teachers. Thanks to Edgar’s research and Uma’s activism for the Siraya cause, the Siraya language is now being taught in thirteen schools in Tainan County. Edgar, a skilled composer, has prepared nearly 100 compositions in the Siraya language that have made it easier to transmit the language to larger groups. Some of the songs have won recording awards! [LISTEN TO ONE OF THE SIRAYA SONGS as sung by Edgar and his second daughter Eucharis in the recording below. YOU WILL BE ONE OF THE FEW LIVING PEOPLE TO HAVE HEARD THE SIRAYA LANGUAGE!] While the Siraya people have not yet won recognition by the Taiwanese government as an aboriginal group, they are on the way. Uma, chairperson of the Siraya Culture Association in Tainan, has led the charge with the support of other civic officials to be recognized (See http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2014/11/27/2003605423). The case for recognition is much stronger with a written language and the revival of Siraya in the schools.

For me, this is a lesson in the power of providence. A talented young man from a remote tribal area of the Philippines attends the Asian Institute of Liturgy and Music in Manila and is exposed to theology, issues of liturgical inculturation, and musical skills. Then he continues his education at Perkins School of Theology/SMU, broadens his theological and ecumenical perspective, and refines his skills in music and research. He develops a vital ministry as a church and civic choral musician in his adopted country, brings a perspective from his culture of origin and his commitment to his faith and the Siraya people, and breaks the code of the Siraya language! I agree with Comrade Chief Inspector Chen’s observation that “there are no coincidences.” We have a theological word for this – providence.

Photo: Edgar Macapili and Uma Talavan in their home in the Xinhua District (Siraya area) near Tainan, Taiwan.

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