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.