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African Faith: Student to Study Religion through Watson Fellowship

Michael Le Chevallier '06 majored in religious studies and French at Willamette University, but he's still not sure exactly where his learning will take him. In one imagined future, he sees himself as a professor, sharing his knowledge with others. In another, he has his dream job as a religious consultant for National Geographic magazine -- a position he's not sure exists but one that could allow him to travel and interact with people of other religions. Or maybe he'll be a children's librarian.

"Clearly, I have diverse interests," he says. "But I can't stop studying religion right now. I think it's one of the most relevant things I could have studied here. It affects the way I live, the way I understand the world."

His passion shows in the way he gushes when asked about his studies, eager to elaborate on his experiences learning about world religions. Le Chevallier's thirst for knowledge will carry him to Africa for the next year through a prestigious Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a grant for independent study and travel outside the United States. Le Chevallier describes it as "a $25,000 fellowship to go explore your passion for a year." He is the fifth Willamette student to be named a Watson fellow, and one of 50 students in the country to receive the award this year.

Le Chevallier titled his project "A Faith of Their Own: A Study of Inculturation in Africa." He plans to immerse himself in local religion in Uganda, Tanzania, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia and examine how Christianity -- particularly Catholicism -- has blended with traditional African cultures. "It can't help but happen, this blending. I just want to go there and document it," he says. "What I really want to know is how the Africans are making their faith relevant."

The Catholic church is highly based on tradition, which has had an influence on religious ceremonies in certain African countries, Le Chevallier says, although many churches there are independent and have adopted native and Christian practices. He is particularly excited about studying Ethiopia, which has not been colonized, to see how its long-time Ethiopian Orthodox church has managed to maintain its own traditions, he says.

He will observe different ways Africans express their faith at their services, like through dance, for instance. "Language for us is just spoken language, but over in Africa, the body is expressing these ideas. Dance isn't just something added to the service to make it aesthetically pleasing. Dance is an expression."

Le Chevallier, who aspires to earn a PhD in theological studies, has long been a keen observer of religion's impact on people's lives. He received a grant from the Lilly Project, a program at Willamette that helps students discern their calling in life, which took him to Berkeley, Calif., in spring 2005 to study at the Jesuit School of Theology. While there, Le Chevallier ministered to inmates at San Quentin State Prison.

When he returned to Oregon, he took his ministry work to the Oregon State Penitentiary, where he leads the music at worship services. He noticed a definite difference in the services at San Quentin, which drew numerous inmates, and those in Oregon, a less-churched state with fewer attendees.

Regardless of how many attend, Le Chevallier says he has relished his time working with the inmates. "I can go there and talk to any type of guy," he says. "I enjoy that opportunity to engage in conversation with people who are ignored by the rest of society."