Myanmar and the Dilemma of the Church’s Prophetic Witness

 

 

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Asia is home to all of the world’s major religious traditions.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Myanmar.  I was there as part of the Protestant Church of East Timor’s (IPTL) delegation to the Asia Mission Conference.  The Asia Mission Conference was initiated by the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) which is an diverse group of churches across Asia.

I found out that I’d be accompanying my colleagues from IPTL in August.  I didn’t know much about Myanmar so I started reading as much as I could. And then on August 25th the Myanmar government began its military campaign against the Rohingya people of Rakhine State. And now the whole world is talking about what is happening in Myanmar.

From its inception, the CCA has been a voice for justice in Asia. Its diverse member churches know that because Asia is home to all the world’s major religious traditions, peace among religions is critical. Hence, CCA has addressed issues of justice and peace common to all Asian people regardless of religious affiliation.

myanmar mapThe theme of the Asia Mission Conference 2017 was “Prophetic Witness to the Truth and Light in Asia.” This theme was explored through presentations and small group reflections.  We discussed what it means to be a “prophetic witness” on issues like migration, human trafficking, economic justice, interfaith harmony, environmental concerns and peace building.

Based on that kind of content, I assumed the Rohingya issue would at least be a topic of discussion. Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country and the Rohingya people are Muslim. I thought that on the occasion of this multi-national gathering of Christian leaders, a statement of some kind responding to this international crisis would be issued.

I was wrong. In a 5-day conference focused on the Church’s call to be a “prophetic witness,” on a whole host of justice and peace issues, the Rohingya issue was hardly discussed. After a day or so this seemed like an elephant in the room. I started asking my Myanmar colleagues about it. We discussed it in our small groups and daily Bible reflections. What I discovered is that most Myanmar people, including Christians, support their government’s actions in Rakhine state. Indeed the Rohingya (they are called Bengali by most Myanmar people) are accused of various things including efforts to secure Rakhine State for the implementation of Sharia law, rejecting the Myanmar government’s offer of citizenship, armed insurgency and terrorism.

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Theological reflections and small group discussion on social issues facing all Asians were part of every session at the Asia Mission Conference.  My group had members from the Philippines, India, New Zealand, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste and Taiwan.

Silence on the Rohingya Issue

It seemed clear to me that people in Myanmar are getting different information about the Rohingya situation than what the rest of the world is reading from day-to-day.  Indeed from virtually everything I’ve read, it’s a horrific situation involving two parties with vastly disproportionate resources.  Yet the Myanmar Christian community, and so far the CCA, had nothing to say on this issue. I found this really troubling.  The theme of the conference was on “prophetic witness” and the whole world is now talking about Myanmar. Yet here we were, an ecumenical gathering of church leaders concerned with issues of justice and peace and we weren’t talking about it.

After reflecting on it for a few days, a few thoughts come to mind. First, Myanmar is a new democracy and although it has a civilian government, a lot of power is still in the hands of the military.  The Myanmar Baptist Convention hosted the Asian Mission Conference and it was the first time such a thing has been allowed in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Thus, voicing opposition to a government policy that has the support of the average Myanmar citizen, not to mention the government and military, might have had serious consequences for Christians in Myanmar.

Second, it would be easy for foreigners to go to Myanmar and express their moral outrage at this situation with a bold statement of “prophetic witness” against what some people are justifiably calling a genocide – and then get on an airplane and leave. Such an act of “speaking truth to power” might be a feel-good response for those visiting, but it would leave the Myanmar Christian community to face any consequences that might result from such a statement — alone.

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Last year CCA made a pastoral solidarity visit to Pakistan.  Something like this might be possible in Rakhine state as well, but it would have to be convened by the Myanmar Christian community.

A quick anecdote: on day three of the conference I was approached by a young pastor from Pakistan. He introduced himself and when he found out I was from the United States wanted to tell me a story. He said, “I want you tell your people back home that when someone burnt a pile of Korans in America, Christians in Pakistan got killed.” He went on to share the same story about when a European artist drew a caricature of the prophet Mohammed. “Christians in Pakistan got killed.” He said it several times, apparently wanting to make sure I got the point.  I did.

I realize that no one reading this would think that burning Korans is a legitimate act of “prophetic witness.” But some people do! The point is that what some people consider an act of “prophetic witness” can have unintended consequences for other people.

Thirdly, it appears that in Myanmar’s Christian community, the notion of public theology has yet to emerge. What I mean by public theology is simply looking at social issue in light of our faith.  It would seen that in Myanmar, like in most American churches, religion is primarily for the edification of one’s personal life.  By saying this I don’t mean to marginalize the transformative aspects of Christian piety & spirituality of the Christian communities in Myanmar. Indeed, we in the West have a lot to learn from our Asian church partners when it comes to faith. It’s simply a reminder that public theology, like thoughtful social analysis, is something that has to be learned. And as several presenters reminded us, theology in the postcolonial world has to be de-colonized in order for that to happen.

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Christianity is very vital in many parts of Asia but often lacks the kind of public theology that would compel churches to speak prophetically on something like the Rohingya issue.

Which brings me to my last point. Lest we point the finger at the Myanmar Christian community for its silence on this issue, let us not forget that in the U.S. 80% of white evangelicals, 60% of mainline Protestants and 50% of Catholics voted for Donald Trump,  a leader whose personality and policies are the antithesis of the way of Jesus Christ. And long before Trump, U.S. churches have been sitting silently by through any number of horrific actions by our own government, apparently not noticing the contradiction between those actions and their own faith claims.  So when we think about the dilemma of “prophetic witness” faced by the Christian community in Myanmar, humility is probably in order. I’m not saying this to excuse Myanmar Christians or make light of the situation.  I’m sharing what I think might partly account for the Church’s silence on what is by all accounts, a horrific issue that should concern us all.

 

 

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Mama Alda is a small woman not more than 4’ 6” tall and well under 100 pounds. Her grey hair is always pulled back in a somewhat frazzled knot. She showed up at our house yesterday. As Monica opened the door she shuffled in, her frail, wrinkled face smiling widely, exposing a few betel nut stained teeth.

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Alda lives nearby in a small shack with not much of anything in terms of worldly goods. It’s a blockhouse that is better than some. But still, it has a dirt floor and a rusty corrugated iron roof that leaks. Inside, Alda’s bed is made of thin strips of bamboo with a worn-out mosquito net hanging above. Like most old Timorese women, Alda wears a lipa, which is a colorful cloth that is wrapped around the waist, along with a homemade shirt fastened with safety pins.

When Alda comes to our house, she comes bearing gifts. Usually a bunch of bananas or some ears of corn. She comes in, has a bowl of rice and vegetables, maybe some eggs or a cup of milk. Sometimes she has a health concern, sometimes not. Mama Alda only speaks Makassae, one of over 30 languages in Timor-Leste. Monica is better with Makassae than I am. Working in the clinic every day, she knows the words for basic health questions in several local languages in addition to the national language, Tetum. Even still, when Mama Alda comes over we don’t understand or say a whole lot; but it doesn’t matter. She sits, chats, smiles and laughs. We offer food; she eats.

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock…” says the risen Christ in the book of             Revelation. “…If you hear my voice and open the door I will come in to you and eat            with you, and you with me.” Rev. 3:20

“Christ is hidden among us,” says Mama Alda by her presence with us as she sits there in a cheap Chinese chair eating her rice and eggs, smiling and drinking powdered milk.

Christ is hidden in that which is weak and powerless, fragile and vulnerable. Commenting on the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt. 25:31-46) Karl Barth puts it this way:

“But where is [Christ] hidden now? With God, at the right hand of the Father? In His             Word and sacraments? In the mystery of His Spirit, which bloweth where it listeth?       All this is true enough, but it is presupposed in this parable, and the further point is            made, on which everything depends, that He is no less present, though hidden, in all     who are now hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and in prison.” (italics mine)

Why does everything depend on this? That’s a question to ponder.

If we don’t perceive Christ hidden “…in all who are now hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and in prison,” then we’re unlikely to perceive Christ anywhere. This seems to be what Barth is getting at: “…no one can know [Christ] in His majesty, or honour and love Him as the Son of God, unless he shows concern for these least of His brethren.” I think about this when Mama Alda shows up. I think about it when patients line up at Clinic Immanuel and along with them dedicated Timorese staff who themselves struggle to get by. I think about when I read of refugees fleeing conflict and disaster or when I attend our weekly home worship visits with members of Immanuel church. Increasingly, I think about it when I read about Donald Trump’s new immigration policies or his “health care” proposals and whom they’ll affect. In Christ God is on a journey with us — especially with those on the margins, those living in poverty, sickness and misery.

What are the ethical implications of the incarnation and the cross? I used to think they were self-evident. If God has chosen to be revealed as a stranger, to be born weak and vulnerable, to take on human flesh and live “…not to be served but to serve” and to suffer and die as a criminal among criminals, to “…give his life as a ransom for many,” it follows that we ought to recognize with Barth that:

“Wherever in this present time…one of these is waiting for help (for food, drink,        lodging, clothes, a visit, assistance), Jesus Himself is waiting. Wherever help is granted or denied, it is granted or denied to Jesus Himself. For these are the least of  His brethren. They represent the world for which He died and rose again, with which He made Himself supremely one, and declared Himself in solidarity.”  (italics mine)

Well put Professor Barth! But nowadays I don’t think this is primarily about ethics. It’s certainly not about people with capital acting on behalf of or speaking for the poor. Now I am convinced it’s more about God’s own journey in the world, which is a journey of solidarity with all of humanity, but especially with the poor. We can describe it as a journey of suffering love. It’s a suffering love because it cannot and does not “fix” every problem. What God promises and does however is practice presence, bestow dignity and give life. This is especially so for the poor and oppressed (see Luke 16:19-31). However, there are ethical implications for all of us.

Gustavo Gutierrez, a priest working in the slums of Lima, Peru talks about the ethical implications of the incarnation and cross as “Practicing God’s presence of justice in the world.” If God is a God of justice, we who believe in God must embody this justice too. It is a matter of ethics, but more profoundly a matter of spirituality and accompaniment. By reducing the distance between ourselves and those living on the margins, we find that the distance between God and ourselves has been (miraculously!) reduced as well. And for that reason I’m thankful that Mama Alda comes to visit us. I’m thankful to receive the gifts she brings and to share some of what we have. I may not understand much of what she says, but I do understand that when she speaks, echoes of the hidden Christ resound saying: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”

Spring Without a Fishing Opener

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The end of the rainy season in Timor-Leste is a bit like the coming of spring in Minnesota. Of course there’s no melting snow or freeze-thaw cycles that finally, grudgingly, come to an end. And alas, there’s no fishing opener! But blue sky becomes more common, laundry is easier to get dry and one’s general sense of well-being seems to mysteriously improve from day to day.

Timor had a parliamentary election last week and that went well. I spent the day riding my bike around to local polling places to check it out. I continue to be impressed by how seriously Timorese take their democracy. They have to travel to their hometown’s to vote, which means voting is a multi-day affair for folks who live far away. Overall, the election was peaceful, with lots of participation and everyone seems to have accepted the predictable preliminary results. There were however a few surprises. A “disenfranchised youth” party won 5 seats and the new party of former president Taur Matan Ruak (People’s Liberation Party) won about 10 seats I think. Other than that, the two main parties, Fretilin and CNRT won the majority of seats.

In recent years there has been concern that there was not a significant opposition party in parliament. But disillusionment with the government’s spending on big-ticket infrastructure projects that do little to lift people out of poverty seems to be growing. The country’s oil reserves are almost taped out and investment in the basics like education, agriculture, health, water and sanitation has been minimal. The small parties making inroads suggests that public disillusionment with this (rather unfortunate) approach to development may be gaining ground.

While it seems like spring here, it’s mid-summer in Minnesota and Hannah is there enjoying it with family and friends on our behalf (I’m hoping she gets in a canoe, if not out camping, at least once!). Around Christmas, we decided to offer her the opportunity to head home for a couple months this summer to reconnect with people in Minnesota and Indiana. She’s having fun but assures me that she does in fact miss us and will in fact look forward to coming back to Timor! She’ll be back in early September with my folks who will be staying with us for a few weeks which we’re looking forward to.

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Simon was a bit sad when Hannah got ready to leave for Minnesota

Simon is also on vacation for the next few weeks. He finished the second quarter of public school in Lospalos where he studies mostly in Portuguese (and some Tetum). So these days he’s out and about playing with friends and generally enjoying being seven year-old with an unstructured life.

My time as interim pastor here at Immanuel Church is coming to an end after almost a full year. I didn’t expect that job but it’s been a great experience. One part of my assignment here is continuing education for IPTL’s pastors, and I think it would be hard to do that effectively without being involved in local church ministry myself. So I’m glad I’ll continue to be involved in that even when the new pastor takes over. Going forward though, I’ll have more time to focus on the work I’m doing in other parts of Timor-Leste. Some of that will get started this month with a IPTL pastor’s gathering in the town of Liquisa (grassroots approach to continuing education), an annual Synod meeting in Dili and the start of a mini research project in the village of Lisadila.

Some of you may know that Global Ministries has been partnering with the IPTL in running a public middle school in a rural area about 3 hours from Dili. The school has been going for 10 years and we want to find out what kind of impact it’s having in the community. So starting later this month, together with IPTL colleagues, I’ll be doing a series of interviews with graduates, parents, current students as well as some listening sessions and chats with community leaders. Ultimately, the goal is to try to figure out if what the school is currently offering is adequate or if a “course correction” of some kind is needed. Education is great, but we want the school to be a force for social transformation in this village and – ideally – throughout the country. But we’ll see how it goes. I expect to wrap up this inquiry by the end of the year and I’ll be writing more about it along the way.

Things with Clinic Immanuel continue to be in transition but steady nevertheless. Every week between 100 and 200 patents come for consultation and staff continue to treat them with dignity and respect while serving with compassion and love. Uniting World of Australia, the clinic’s main funder, has long stated that it wants the clinic to move more toward grassroots health promotion / education rather than its current clinical model. Prevention should always be the goal of course, but it’s a bit of a rocky transition because for over 25 years the clinic has been functioning basically as a standard outpatient health post. So what exactly the clinic’s role in the community will be going forward is still a bit up-in-the-air. For now though, they continue to serve the public doing both clinical care and health education.

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We had a restful vacation in Bali in early July before Hannah went home

Well, I hope that gives you a bit of a sense of how things are with the Liddle family over here in Timor-Leste. Summer is my favorite time of year in Minnesota so I am particularly missing the land of 10,000 lakes about now (wave of nostalgia pours over)…!

 

 

 

Back to Basics

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We are thankful that this well on the church property provides a constant supply of clean water.

We’ve been quite busy the past few weeks but since Monday it’s been back to basics. We’ve been spending time each day drawing water out of our well and carrying it back to the house in order to cook, bathe and wash the dishes. We’re at the end of the rainy season in Timor but it’s not over yet. The past 10 or 12 days have been near constant rain. That has meant, among other things, that the municipal water supply has resembled what you see when you look at a mud puddle. In fact Monday morning the local authorities just turned it off. Why have a faucet if what comes out is muddy?

Thankfully, we have a well on the property with a rope, pulley and a bucket. Amazing technology! As we’ve been drawing and carrying water this week, I’ve been wondering what would happen if something like this happened in an equivalent sized American or Australian town. I think it’s fair to say people would FREAK OUT. Even conservatives would be banging down the doors of the mayor’s office demanding the authorities “do something about it!” Not in Timor. Here in Lospalos most people don’t even have a faucet in their house and those that do, just go on with life. Some have a well they can use. If not, you just load your 5-liter “jerry cans” in a cart and push it to the nearest well. Several times a day.

We’ve done the same thing this week, and it’s been a good reality check. It’s been a good way to reconnect with something basic and essential.   Amazing how most of us Americans take clean water for granted. I’m picturing manicured Midwestern lawns in late summer that you have to water in order to keep up appearances. I’m picturing cases of those cute little plastic water bottles people love nowadays because “they’re so convenient” – even though you have potable water in 5 different places in your house. I could go on, but you get the point. We take the availability of clean water and reliable government services for granted.

I truly admire Timorese people’s resiliency. They seem to just go on with life no matter what happens. Such is the habit of people who’ve lived through wars, military occupation and a struggle for self-determination. They’re used to unpredictability. They’re accustomed to struggling for the basics. An uncertain future is the norm, not the exception. So flexibility and adaptation, not to mention a relaxed attitude and a sense of humor are survival skills. On the other hand, I’m reminded of something a Filipina friend said a few years ago reacting to people’s admiration of Filipinos resiliency in the wake of yet another typhoon. She said: “F### resiliency!”

Indeed. What people in the world need is justice, not simply the ability to put up with hardship.  In the meantime, life goes on. People all over the world exercising revolutionary patience and resiliency in the face of adversity.

Timor’s Way with Death

Late last Wednesday my collegue Alberto and I went to the village of Ililapa to find out who had died. A few hours earlier a truck had overturned on the steep mountain road going down into the village. Three people died instantly and a couple dozen more went to the hospital in Lospalos, about 7km away. We had heard that possibly one of the dead was a member of the small congregation in Ililapa but information was scarce. We got on a motorcycle and went to the village.   When we got there, as we walked up the muddy road toward the grey concrete-block house, we could see a tent being errected out front, a sign that some kind of community gathering was imminent. People were busy cutting stakes, carrying firewood, coming and going. A bit further up we heard the haunting sound of women wailing.

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When we got there we were saddened to learn that one of the young woman who’d died was Elsie, a member of the congregation there. Inside the house her body was in a dark, cramped room. Several men went in and moved her to a larger space so we could all be there together in one room. Elsie was only 14. Her thin body was wrapped tightly in the colorful tais that is common in this part of Timor-Leste. Only her face was exposed as her mother sat on the bedside weeping softly, holding a baby in one hand and caressing her deceased daughter’s wounded face with the other. We stood silently for several minutes and then prayed for the child and family. In the house children were coming and going; some with tears, others playing as if something very normal was happening. And it was. The Timorese were dealing with their dead.

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Elsie and young friend, 2011

Over the years I have been involved with Timorese people, one of the things I’ve come to appreciate very much is the way they deal with death. When someone dies in Timor, you do what humans have done for milenia. Some care for the body, while others dig a grave. Neighbors bring food, firewood and other supplies. Mourners come and sit in the house, light candles, quitely weeping or praying. People socialize outside. This may go on for several days. When the time is right, they have a funeral. And in that rite they tell the story of the decesed persons life within the framework of Timor’s blend of Christian and Indiginous sprituality. And then they bury the body in a dignified, solom observace of reality: one has died, but many still live.

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The congregation of Ililapa, 2011

Actually, what Timorese do with their dead is nothing new or special per se, in fact it’s what humans have done for most of history.   But it’s a refreshing contrast to the recent trend, at least in American culture, in which a solemn observance of death with a dignified disposition of a corpse is replaced by a “celebration of life” wherein the body of the dead has already been whisked away, being viewed as either “just a shell” or simply an inconvenience that bums people out.

Tom Long and Tom Lynch in their book, The Good Funeral: Death, Grief and the Community of Care, caution against the wisdom of this recent trend. They note that, “The major religious traditions may disagree about many things, but on this one theme they all raise their hands in assent: we will learn wisdom about how to live when we care lovingly and reverently for the bodies of the dead.”  Timorese get this. And by the blood, sweat and tears they put into caring for their dead, it would seem they also understand another thing Long and Lynch come back to again and again: “By getting the dead where they need to go, the living get where they need to be.”

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Why does a truck full of people overturn on a steep mountain road? Why these particular people on this day in this place? Why a scary and early death for some and a peaceful death at the end of a long abundance life for others? There’s a lot we don’t know about death. But I can’t help but asking: why do some children get to ride safety-approved buses over well maintained roads en route to fully-equipped schools with highly qualified teachers while others have to choose between walking miles in blistering sun or riding in open bed trucks to get to schools with broken desks and no electricity or books? Accidents happen everywhere, I get that. But underneath an accident like this lie deeper questions about wealth and poverty and justice and who gets access to the “goodies” of life. But that’s another topic for another time.

 I notice that Timorese have a very high view of the soverignty of God and that sometimes they find comfort in the notion when someone dies that “It was God’s plan.” Perhaps at the end of a long life or an extended debilitating illness that’s true. But I can’t accept that God plans for people to die young in tragic, scary ways. Indeed, “Blessed in the sight of the Lord is the death of one of his faithful ones” (Ps. 116:15). Nevertheless, I do believe that God can and does work in our lives to transform even tragic events into something redemptive (Rom. 8:28). At least I hope and pray that that happens with Elsie’s family.

Easter with 10 frozen chickens and one can of trash

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cooking for such an even is epic

Easter happened here in Lospalos even without the Easter Bunny.

Instead, we hosted the Lospalos Easter Youth Event: 80 youth, 5 pastors.   1 goat, 10 frozen chickens, 90 kilos of rice, lots of vegetables. 1 water well, 2 toilets, and in the end, only 1 garbage can of trash.

Youth from the eastern part of Timor gathered here in our church compound for 48 hours of singing, playing, eating and learning together. Some kids rode buses and open bed trucks for 6 hours on bumpy, curvy roads to come. Church women cooked over open fires all day and night, and there was plenty to go around for every meal. Kitchen duty for the kids meant boys hauling up water from the well and girls prepping vegetables and washing dishes in buckets beside the well, at night by moonlight.

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The day before our guests arrived, our local youth were preparing the space, and one kid went to use the church toilet. She came back and reported that the toilet overflowed. On further assessment, it was decided that the toilet was “full”, and thus, unusable. This meant that 1 of the 2 toilets we were planning on the kids using, was no good. As you can imagine, this presented a dilemma, considering 50 guests were slated to descend on us the following day. Tom and I were immediately concerned about the “tee arbiriu”, or “random pooping”, issue, thinking that kids would just head over to the banana trees behind the church to do their business. But, no one else was as concerned as we were, and soon, a solution suitable to all using the private toilets available was devised. It worked, too.

Clinic staff and I performed a theatre piece on gonorrhea. This segued into a broader talk on sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS, and safe sex. We had recently diagnosed a young man in the clinic with gonorrhea (thanks to Amena Cristovao’s laboratory skills), and we used the story in our drama. Pretty certain the youth had never heard the word “gonorrhea” before now, so I made sure the staff repeated it profusely during the show. Tom thought our sex talk was one of the highlights of the youth event; I hope the kids thought so, too. At least, I hope they remember something about STIs.

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We do STI / sex ed. talks in almost every youth event

The first night, all the girls slept, for a little bit, on the church floor and on the wooden pews. At midnight when they were starting to settle down, none of the female pastors were bedding down in the church, and Hannah came home distressed that no adult was there. I foolishly volunteered to sleep there, somehow thinking I might get to sleep with about 50 teenage girls and their cell phones. You can imagine how happy I was when I found earplugs in my sweatshirt pocket! Alas, I had just fallen asleep when Hannah came shaking me awake, because someone had to pee and I was holding all the keys (the girls were locked in the church for security). I got up to let the girl out to go in the grass, but the chatter continued through the night, and my earplugs were never to find my ears again.

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community building games are always popular

On the last day of the event, we had a conflict. Someone’s computer speaker had been stolen. It was decided that there would be a bag check, and I was included in checking some of the girls’ bags. Now imagine the duffle most teens would bring for a 3-day co-ed gig. I searched one girl’s bag, and the only thing inside was a single shirt and a comb. If Tom and I ever thought we were minimalists, we don’t know the meaning of the word when we compare ourselves to Timorese, whether kids or adults.

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registration for Easter in Lospalos

Anyway, the bag check “worked”, because the taker stealthily returned the stolen property amidst the searching, and we ended the event on a high note of forgiveness and grace. For me, this event reminded me Why we are here in East Timor: to offer our gifts, and to receive the gift of community that comes when you gather people in one place for a few days, with a goat, a few chickens, lots of rice, and a well full of water.

 

 

Seeking a place to learn

In January a family from the fishing village of Teno built a simple shack on the church property here in Lospalos. It’s a simple place made of wood and corrugated iron panels roughly 30 feet long and 15 feet wide with a kitchen in the back. It has two bedrooms and a space in between. Ani, Arjelia and Meliana are living there. Two of them are middle school students and one is in high school. They’ve left home to live in a simple place where they draw their water out of a well and cook on an open fire. It’s a challenging way to live, but they’re doing it so that they can go to school.

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Lisadila School is a great example of what mission partnership can be.  

If you live in rural Timor-Leste, education is a serious challenge. In a lot of rural villages there are elementary schools and some may even have a kindergarten. Larger villages may have middle schools, but high schools are only to be found in the larger towns.   That means if you’re from a rural area and you want to go to school past elementary, you have to want it. Some kids walk long days in the morning darkness and the afternoon heat in order to study. Others are far enough away they have to find a place to live in a near-by town where there is a school. If you have family in that near-by town, no problem. You go live with them for several years until you finish high school. If you don’t though, your parents have to find another way.

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Ani, Arjelia and Meliana have joined us living on the campus of Immanuel Church Lospalos

Not surprisingly, in a lot of rural areas, kids don’t continue after elementary or middle school. There is work to be done on the farm, keeping animals and helping their parents with chores. The village of Lisadila is an exception. Over a decade ago the Protestant Church in Timor Leste (IPTL) invited Global Ministries to partner with them in building a middle school in this remote place. The community saw the need and several families in the church offered four hectares of land. Global Ministries worked hard to raise the funds and build the school. Managing it has been a challenge for IPTL; bureaucratic hurdles, the remote location and difficulty with water to name a few. But it’s a good example of what mission partnership can be. Global Ministries has continued to work with IPTL to run the school and over the past decade hundreds of students have graduated.

Recently 3 new classrooms were added and another 3 are under construction. But a question remains. In a place like this, what’s education for? Education is always good of course but we also should be asking what kind of education makes sense in a given context. Especially here in this rural Timorese context where most of these students will return to village life after graduating, standardized rote learning may not be the kind of thing that leads to a better life. Adding a vocational component however — one where students learn and practice practical life skills — may make a lot of sense. We’ll see. This year together with IPTL staff, we hope to do a simple study to measure the effect the school is having on the local community. With those insights we’ll be able to make plans and move into the future.