Sin isn’t about eating too many truffles

Benildo died with a cry of exhaustion in the early morning of March 14, 2019.  He’d been sick for 2 years.  This morning as we walked up to his family’s house in the seaside village of Teno we heard the sound of women wailing.  People were crowded about the front of the house where inside the boy’s body was nestled inside a wood coffin covered with colorful tais cloth.  A small table sat beside the coffin.  On top were two pictures of Benilndo. Candles burned beside and a cup of juice and plate of crackers were there too.  This is the custom when someone dies in Timor.  The family holds a vigil with the dead until everyone arrives, a burial site is prepared and various cultural and religious traditions are duly observed.  Sometimes it goes on for a week or more.

I have been to many such events in Timor and they never cease to be a “thin place” for me.  A “thin place” is a space or occasion where the boundary between the finite and the infinite is particularly transparent. Death has a way of bringing the richness and giftedness of life closer to the surface.  Things we usually take for granted spring forth with meaning and urgency.  In Timor it’s a time of grief but one rich with consolation, solidarity and a stark confrontation with reality.  Here a death means that the entire community surrounds the family helping with everything from cooking and keeping vigil to serving coffee, digging a grave and attending to guests.  I believe this is a concrete expression of God’s presence alongside people in the midst of grief.

Benildo had a heart condition.  Over these two years he’d been to the national hospital in Dili and a private clinic multiple times.  A solid diagnosis was illusive and treatment more so.  In the end they gave up and told his family to take him home.  And there he died.  In all likelihood, in a more developed country Benildo’s death could have been prevented.  His heart condition would have been caught earlier and dealt with.  Not so here in Timor-Leste.  Here, medical care beyond the very basic is not available.  We know it’s not right, but we accept it as “the way things are.”  But we shouldn’t.

We shouldn’t because to do so is actually a sin.  I recently read an essay on the contemporary meaning of “original sin.”  The author, Marjorie Suchocki, lamented the fact that in many churches the concept of sin has “fallen on hard times.”  We’ve reduced its meaning to eating too many truffles. But original sin points to the reality that as humans we’re all connected.  And therefore we’re responsible for each other. Her idea is simple: original sin is a “depth reality” that reminds us of our interconnected existence whereby “one affects all others and all others affect each one.”  Sin, says Suchocki, is actually a positive not a negative though.  By naming a reality sin we “call upon a standard of justice derived from the gospel for the sake of transformation.”  One example of original sin she names is our tendency to accept as “normal” and “ordinary” serious brokenness and injustice.  Accepting such things constitutes a primal malformation of our conscience and consciousness.  One such case we can name is the death of Benilndo.  May it call forth a new standard of justice for the sake of transformation.

 

 

 

 

 

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Catch Up

Happy New Year!  We’ve been meaning to post something for a while now but for some reason the internet has not been cooperating.   Anyway, here are some photos and descriptions of what we’ve been up to lately.  Below is a recent newsletter Monica wrote.

Below is a (low quality) picture of Monica and I with Livia on the day of her baptism.  She almost died of malnutrition in 2010 but is doing well now and just started 1st grade.

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Livia’s family

After Christmas we took a vacation to Atauru Island off  Timor’s coast.  There we enjoyed activities such as this:

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Atauru is the best vacation spot: no tourists, simple accommodation, great food and world class coral reef snorkeling.

Simon started 3rd grade in late January.  He’s pictured here with best friend Alfon.

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Liddle Newsletter spring 2019

The Value of an Egg

On Wednesday, our Clinic Immanuel staff team visited 32 families in Nacroman, a neighborhood in Lospalos where we have chosen to focus our community outreach work.  In November, we visited 169 homes to survey the community’s health status. 26 need toilets, and as many homes have dirt floors with walls of rusted corrugated sheet metal. While the government has piped water to part of the community, this only reaches some of population, and even then, water runs only an hour a day—most days. Most people really rely on wells for their water, and many families rely on the kindness of neighbors to share access to theirwell water.  If you can afford a pump and electricity, people pump the well water to the surface and hose it to the kitchen or bathroom. Otherwise, it’s a rope, plastic jugs and manual labor to get your daily water.

This Wednesday, as we shared some public health messages with our Nacroman community, we had another question for them: “Do you have chickens?”

Virtually everyfamily has chickens in Nacroman. Everyone! The follow-up question was then, “How often do you eat eggs?”  The most common response: “Maybe once a week,” with a bashful laugh.

I referred three children to the local hospital this past week for severe malnutrition. All were 1 ½ to 2 years old, two had diarrhea with dehydration and needed inpatient care, and one needed the referral to receive the nutritional food, Plumpynut, which is kind of like a very robust peanut butter with complete nutrition for severely underweight kids.  In Nacroman this week, I visited two families with babies severely underweight; it turns out, the babies’ mothers are sisters, 19 and 21 years old.  One baby had been hospitalized in December for a week. In the hospital, the baby received medicine for intestinal parasites.  The next day, more than a dozen worms were expelled….the details would disturb many of you, so I will leave it at that.

Olinda, my clinic colleague and a resident of Nacroman who knows essentially everyone there, was my partner and translator as we visited families.  Not only does Oli know everyone, she seems to have the respect of everyone we met during the home visits. She has worked at the clinic for 10 years, and continues in her official duties as “cleaner” during all this time; but Oli does much more.  She frequently helps me translate into the multiple other local languages (people often prefer Makasae or Fataluku to Tetum), she takes vitals, informs me when someone needs to be seen urgently (she does patient registration, too), is learning prenatal care skills, and organizes the Sunday School breakfast each week. She didn’t have a chance to attend high school, due to the political and social chaos at the time, but she continues to impress me as one of the most insightful and capable women here at clinic.

So, back to the egg. On Wednesday, Oli and I sat with a woman in her small home with corrugated iron walls and dirt floor, 4 small children climbing around her.  I asked the chicken question.  She averted her eyes, appearing embarrassed to reply, “We eat eggs almost every day, we often don’t have other vegetables to eat, so I go get the eggs…we have so many chickens.”  It struck me, her embarrassed reply; I asked Oli why she felt this way.  Oli interpreted for me that eggs are really considered second-class food.  “Ema seidauk comprende,” “people don’t yet understand,” the value of an egg, Oli informed me. So I affirmed this mother for feeding her family eggs. I informed her that eggs are a perfect food, complete in protein, with many vitamins; indeed, a food that makes her and her family healthier.  Oli translated my Tetum into Makasae, to make sure the woman got the message, and to encourage her to keep feeding her family eggs from their own chickens.

In Nacroman, virtually everyone has chickens.  But they are seen as products to raise to sell. Not often are they eaten for meat, and the value of the egg is completely unrecognized.  The chickens wander around freely each day, often sleeping in trees at night.  Chickens easily get lost, and chicks are easy prey for cats and other animals.

So this morning, Tom and I talked to Oli and her family at their home in Nacroman.  We are going to help them design and build a model chicken coop.  We talked about how this could increase their family’s nutrition, and generate income, too. We hope to create a model that we could easily reproduce at low cost, using many local materials, to assist other families in Nacroman and Lospalos.  And as we go, we will surely teach everyone we can about the perfection of the egg.

 

Advent in Lospalos: Part IV

Reflection for Advent IV: December 23, 2018

Luke 1:39-55

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Christmas Youth Gathering 2018

 This week’s reading is Mary’s Magnificat, a song of praise to the savior God who, in choosing Mary to be the mother of Christ, has “…looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”  Mary is beloved in the church for her humility and joyful submission to God’s will. But Mary is also a young woman of courage who strikes out, apparently alone, on a journey (1:39-45).  In addition to her humility and courage, Mary is also a mystic.  She has an abiding inner sense of the meaning of her pregnancy.  She knows it means that God has alreadyaccomplished something that will turn the world upside down:

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

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We used this reading in our Advent candle liturgy last Sunday.  Appropriately, a young woman did the reading.  She was also one who played one of the main parts in a play that Monica wrote for our youth event this week.  The play was about two smart young women who make different choices in life.  One gets pregnant early and has an abusive, irresponsible partner.  By age 24, she has 4 kids and a life of domestic violence and poverty.  The other woman has a supportive, loving partner who wants her to go to school and fulfill her dream to be a doctor.  But this young woman’s mother thinks school is a waste of time.  She wants her to get married and start having children. “Jenny” takes a risk though.  She denies her mother and stays with her supportive partner while avoiding pregnancy.  In the end she makes it through medical school and has a successful life as a doctor.

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Some of the actors from the play

I think it’s fair to say that the youth who did the play had a transformative experience with it.  Monica gave them the basic script but they wrote their own lines based on their experience of what home life and social expectations are like in Timor-Leste. The play itself was a huge hit with everyone who saw it.  Afterwards we divided into groups and discussed things like domestic violence, teen pregnancy and, well, how to choose a decent husband!  Not surprisingly the youth had insightful responses, questions and more than a few good laughs while discussing things that are usually taboo.

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Mary’s poem, it seems to me, is a signpost for the Timorese youth of today. They are torn between worlds, have few opportunities and feel ignored by their government.  But Mary’s poem offers the assurance of God’s providential care and preferential option for those who, in the eyes of society, are lowly, humble and ignored.  The poem assures them that God’s mercy is an available source of strength with the power to overturn the status quo and create newness in ways we can’t comprehend or anticipate.  And that is good news for Timor’s youth, as it is for all of us who live in hope for the in-breaking of God’s promised future.

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Heros of our youth event: three moms who did most of the cooking!

 

 

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Advent in Lospalos: Part III

Reflection for Advent III, Sunday December 16, 2018

Isaiah 12:1-6; Luke 3:7-18

On Thursday of this week we’ll have 40 – 60 youth arriving at Immanuel Church Lospalos for a Christmas youth event.  They’ll be coming from the eastern part of Timor-Leste for three days of fellowship, faith development and fun!  This generation of Timorese youth is particularly vulnerable.  They are, mostly, born after the independence struggle and are therefore somewhat estranged from the identity-shaping power of that time.  They are pulled in two directions: traditional culture with its tight social fabric, and the modern world with its insistence on the autonomy of the individual.  They have mediocre opportunities for secondary education and an economy with little in the way of employment possibilities.

Our theme for this year’s event is “Reading the signs of the times.”  Taken from Luke 12:56, the idea is to help these young people think about what is going on in their lives and society through the lens of faith.  This week I am struck by the simple question the people ask John the Baptist in response to his ministry of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Lk. 3:10ff): “What then should we do?”  John’s answer is terse.  He tells them to share what they have with those in need and not to use a position of any kind to exploit the neighbor’s financial vulnerabilities.  What both the above readings insist we “get” is that authentic repentance has a social dimension.  It’s about aligning ourselves with God’s purposes in gratitude and freedom, a theme expressed poetically in the Isaiah reading.

For our time this week, Monica has written a drama that deals with various social issues Timorese youth face: teen pregnancy, patriarchy, traditional culture, domestic violence and the future.  Timorese love doing drama and I have no doubt that the play will result in conversations about the social issues they face.  The point is to get youth thinking and talking about their social context and the things that impact their future and the well-being of the nation.

During the Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste, the church (esp. the Catholic Church) was an astute observer of social issues and a prophetic voice for justice.  Sadly, that vocation has mostly disappeared.  The Catholic Church, now in a position of power, is closely linked with the government and focused mainly on liturgical routines and feast days. Meanwhile, various Protestant groups typically peddle an individualistic theology of salvation and have little interest in social issues or action.  The biblical vision of salvation, however, is more expansive, inclusive and hopeful than either of those.  Our aim is that our activities over these three days will embody a bit of that hope and vision as a central theme of Advent waiting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advent in Lospalos: Part II

My devotional reflection for this week.  Again, it will make more sense if you read the scripture texts first.  Blessings.

Reflection for Advent II: December 9, 2018

Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

Walking into the Lospalos hospital, we followed a trail of dried blood drops up the stairs, through a hall and across a dirty tile floor to the emergency room.  We don’t do x-rays or casts at Clinic Immanuel so a few of us were taking a kid with a broken arm to the government hospital.  My colleague put the child on a dingy examination bed.  I stepped over some used gauze lying on the floor to hold him while the nurses put on a temporary splint.  He had just fallen while playing on the church compound.

This boy is one of 12 siblings, all of whom are clinically malnourished.  In all likelihood a well-nourished kid wouldn’t have broken an arm with the minor fall this guy took.  As I stood holding this little boy’s arm, there was a palpable sense of defeat in the room.  I witnessed a staff doing her best with what little resources she had, but nonetheless, with an affect of resignation.  The place looked as if there weren’t a cleaner on staff.  As it is, x-rays and casts require a trip to the referral hospital in Baucau.  So after going to the child’s home to get the mom, the two of them climbed into the back of an ambulance for a 3-hour bumpy ride to Baucau, where they could get proper treatment.

I share the story above because Advent reminds us that the life and ministry of Jesus Christ unfolds within a specific socio-political context (Lk. 3:1-6).  During Advent therefore we are invited to reflect on the socio-political context in which we find ourselves and ask what the gospel means in that context.  Along those lines, my Advent devotional reading this year is the spiritual classic Jesus and the Disinheritedby Howard Thurman.  At the outset Thurman reminds us of some basic things about the world. “The masses of men live with their backs against the wall.  They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed.”  The Lospalos hospital testifies that is certainly the case in Timor-Leste.  Thurman goes on with a simple question: what does the gospel of Jesus Christ mean to them?  He’s not concered with “…what it counsels them to do for others,” but rather, how it consoles and empowers them to be human.

I also appreciate Thurman’s observation that one of the spiritual perils of Christianity is the emphasis on helping others and in so doing making the dispossessed and disinherited the object of self-righteous “faith in action” at the expense of real relationships.  This is a danger when people of privilege engage in mission or justice work of any kind.  And that is why in the midst of the suffering we observe daily, I often remind myself that we’re not here to solve Timor-Leste’s problems nor those of our partner church.  We’re not out for measurable outcomes or other commodifications of a relationship. We’re called to practice koinaniaKoinaniais the Greek word Paul uses to describe his relationship to the Philippians.  It means sharing, fellowship, participation.  That is, “sharing in the gospel” (Phil. 1:5).  It’s a word that guides the kind of mission partnership we hope to embody.  But most importantly, it’s an expression of the truth that the life of Jesus Christ is God’s koinania with the masses who have their backs against the wall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advent in Lospalos: Part 1

I’m going to do an Advent devotional this year.  Each week I’ll post a reflection about our life and ministry based on the texts for the next Sunday.  You can read the reflections alone but they’ll make more sense if you read the texts first.  Advent Blessings!

Reflection for Advent 1, December 2, 2018

Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 21:25-36

It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m walking up a rocky trail to the house of a family of Immanuel Church.  As I get closer, I see a huge blackened pot sitting atop a cooking fire.  Smoke from the fire wafts in the breeze and drifts off over the top of a barren hill. The mom comes out to tend the fire. She is likely boiling cassava or taro, both staple foods of Timorese.  Meanwhile, about a half dozen scantily clad kids run around playing.  Dad is down the hill digging up rocks.  The soil here is full of them and before you can plant anything you have to extract them.  And that only happens one way: with a crowbar and bare hands.

The family’s house is a one-room shack made of corrugated sheet metal.  It’s dark inside with a dirt floor, two small beds and a pile of clothes in the corner.  It sits next to the sturdy foundation of a more permanent house they will one day finish building.  Inside the shack is a one-month old baby, the family’s fifth child.  She is sleeping peacefully on the bed.  Before I leave, the mom asks me to pray for the child. She calls in the dad, a small, muscular yet gentle-looking man wearing only a pair of shorts. The kids come in and we share a few minutes of prayer together.  It feels like an act of rebellion against an absurd world.

This family is living with hard realities.  Behind those realities stands the history of Timor-Leste: colonialism, occupation, a violent independence struggle and grinding poverty – a history filled with trauma.  And yet, in this place on this day, with this family, there stands in our midst the foundation of their future home and a new baby.  I see both as veiled signs of hope amidst a life of suffering.

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Advent begins with blooming flowers in Lospalos

 

Advent starts with veiled signs of hope as well.  Luke talks of signs in the heavens, distress among nations and fear and foreboding.  But then a paradox: these are signs that redemption is near.  They will precede the coming of the ‘son of man,’ an angelic figure that will usher in a reign of peace.  A parable about learning to see follows and imperatives to “be alert” goad our attention toward adopting a posture of discernment in daily life.

Most of us live life largely asleep.  We go through the motions, do the tasks and tow the lines.  Mostly, we miss the deep meaning of daily life amidst a barrage of anxieties and preoccupation with past or future. Faith however, invites us to adopt a style of discernment and engagement focused on the present.

One of my favorite theologians, William Stringfellow, says this about discernment:

“The gift of discernment is basic to the genius of the biblical lifestyle.  Discerning         signs has to do with comprehending the remarkable in common happenings…it has to do with the ability to interpret ordinary events…to see portents of death where   others find progress or success but, simultaneously, to behold tokens of the reality of the Resurrection or hope where others are consigned to confusion or despair…discerning signs means sensitivity to the Word of God indwelling in all Creation and transfiguring common history, while remaining radically realistic about death’s vitality in all that happens.”

Psalm 25 is a prayer that fosters this kind of discernment.  If we internalize its petition “Make me to know your ways, O Lord;…lead me in your truth…” we may, gradually, begin to discern the world’s realities and the people we encounter differently.  One of Jesus’ common refrains has to do with leaning to “see” because faith is a different way of seeing and indeed of knowing. It’s neither naïve optimism, cynical pessimism nor dry empiricism.  Faith looks boldly at reality but through the lens of hope.  It’s a kind of knowing that sees truth in paradox, passion and pathos.  Advent, it seems, is a good time to ponder this.

 

 

 

 

 

Toilets in Sorolua

We had a great morning in the village of Sorolua, a small village about 45 minutes from Lospalos.  Two years ago Clinic Immanuel started a partnership with this village to do health education and some consultation visiting the village monthly for a year and then decreasing frequency.  Part of the program included a “healthy home” project and building some toilets.  Clinic staff worked with the village chief to figure out how to make the village “open defecation free.”  Families that were committed to doing the work (which was all of them!) were provided basic materials: sand, cement, rebar, pipe, toilet seat.  The families were responsible to do the work and come up with their own walls and roof.  Uniting World of Australia provided the funding and Clinic Immanuel worked with the community and facilitated getting the materials there — not always easy during the rainy season!

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Two sided bathroom.  Right is a toilet, left side for washing clothes.  Notice bamboo pipe coming in on the left.  This catches rain water for use in the bathroom. Bamboo walls.

 

 

Happy to report that after a relatively short time and a small budget, everyone in the community has a sanitary place to do their business!  We were really happy to see the simple but very effective models the families used for their toilets.  After touring about 6 toilet sites we had a nice closing meeting with the village chief.  It was a great exercise in grassroots community development with the Clinic, community and international partners working together to improve health and reduce suffering.  Below are a few pictures of the toilets.  Folks came up with some really great bathrooms using local materials for walls and other creative solutions!

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note water pipe going in the back.  This one has a toilet on one side and clothes washing area on the other.

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This bathroom has a hand washing station on the outside!

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hand washing station

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Basic design with tin walls and local wood

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Bamboo walls on this one with tin roof and door

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toilet is good to go but still needs walls.