Master of Arts (Theology) NAIITS Partnership student Melodie Turori shares her journey of how Creator is weaving different parts of her life into something personally holistic.
The Beginning of the Journey
Kia orāna, my name is Melodie Bergquist-Turori and I have roots in many places––Aitutaki, Pukapuka, Germany, and Sweden are the lands of my ancestors; I was born in Aotearoa and raised in southern California. My siblings and I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian household, though I have always known of Jesus, discovering who Jesus is has been a lifelong voyage.
My journey to now has been a long, winding path that at many points has made little sense to anyone, including me. After I finished my BA in Cinema and Media Arts at Biola University, I started doing freelance multimedia production work around LA and Orange County. I was interested in attending seminary after graduating, but at that point it felt a bit self-indulgent as I had every intention of joining the television studio ranks in Hollywood. Instead, freelancing put me in the sports broadcasting industry, marketing and communications, and web development.
While working in these spaces, I was also trying to launch a filmmaking career in documentaries. Nothing ever seemed to stick, especially the filmmaking. My time at Biola coincided with me finding connection with the Cook Islands side of our family, and for several years, film was the way I tried to explore that cultural space more deeply (the short story is I tried to make a feature length documentary and it failed because I did not yet understand the western way I was raised did not work in a relational and communal cultural setting like the islands). To have that area of my career be a “failure” by film industry standards was difficult for me to accept for a long time. However, working on that film is what brought me into the local Pasifika community in California, which led me to NAIITS… really, it’s the best film I’ve never made (yet!).
Discovering NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community
I had been working in the Pacific Islands communities in Southern California for about six years when I found the Indigenous Community Development NAIITS-ADC program (INCD). Even though my full-time employment was freelance multimedia production, my heart was in the cultural and community work. Periodically I would look up different seminary programs or consider a Pacific Studies track for my MA. However, none of those options ever seemed like a good fit.
At the time, I don’t think I realized what I was really looking for was a way to explore how my cultural identity fit with my spiritual identity.
As soon as I looked through the curriculum for the INCD program, I knew it was what I needed to commit more deeply to the work that mattered most. When the offer to start the program came, I immediately said yes. Being part of NAIITS has been one of the most important experiences of my life thus far; it’s been healing for my family, my community, and myself.
My calling is less a specific moment and more of a long unfolding process. Like finding puzzle pieces without knowing the size, shape, or picture of the puzzle that’s being built. I’ll confess that as the puzzle started to take shape, I resisted what I saw coming for a long time.
I am learning to trust that Creator has already written a good story for my life and within that, it’s possible to dream and imagine a future beyond the next year or two.
One of the beautiful things that has come out of my time in the NAIITS-ADC partnership is that all the disparate experiences on the journey are coming into harmony with one another. As I was starting the NAIITS-ADC program two years ago, I decided to put the pursuit of personal creative work on indefinite hold to focus on school, a career pivot into teaching at community college and community work. I was exhausted from splitting focus across too many different activities that were each siloed from the other. In the last year, the academic work became the creative work, both of those became the community work; and all of it flows back into teaching.
2022 has been a year of firsts: first time directing a short documentary that premiered at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, first time as part of an art exhibition, and my first time presenting at an academic conference. It has been a full, but lovely weaving of all these different parts into something that feels holistic to me, even if it doesn’t always appear so to the world. There’s a degree to which I look back at the last six months and wonder if it has all been real. This is all the work of Creator, I could never orchestrate anything close to it myself. I am continually humbled by these opportunities to share in Creator’s work.
Hopes & Plans
This summer and fall are full already––I’ll be writing my MA thesis on ancestor pieces, or what the western world calls “artifacts,” as our ancestors; persons holding spiritual knowledge. Being raised in a diaspora context complicates the process of decolonizing and reconnecting to our cultural inheritance, however, many diaspora folks have ancestors like these that can help our spiritual and cultural roots strengthen.
I’ll be guest curating a project with the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum (PIEAM) in Long Beach called Te ‘Iti Nei Te Marama. Our aim is to create a living handbook that thinks about reconnecting work practices to the land for our wellbeing, raising the consciousness of Oceania and her people living in the Turtle Island diaspora. I’m also one of the mentors for a cohort of Pasifika filmmakers through the Armed With a Camera (AWC) Fellowship for Emerging Media Artists at Visual Communications; it’s exciting to be able to support these artists as they bring their stories to life over the next year. I also intend to dig more deeply into research work around how the Oceania diaspora on Turtle Island understands connection to land and a theology of place through the PhD program at NAIITS, and beyond that… well, the Spirit knows.
Melodie Turori was born in Aotearoa and raised on Luiseño land in California. She is descended from the peoples of Aitutaki, Pukapuka, Sweden, and Germany. Her research, filmmaking, and art practice explores layers of identity, belonging, and theology in the Oceanic diaspora on Turtle Island. Melodie is an MA-INCD student at NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community, and associate faculty in the Cinema-Television-Radio department at Saddleback College.