Partnership For God’s Justice

What are global church partnerships for? What are they based on?

There are historical reasons of course, i.e. ties to churches and institutions started by missionaries of a previous generation. Up until recently churches in America and Europe supported them financially. Nowadays this is hardly needed or possible. As the church grows in the global South most of our partners hardly need financial assistance. And with diminishing church involvement in Europe and America we can hardly afford it. So historical partnerships are’t the center of why we should be in partnership in the 21st century.

 

In early April we took a trip to Kupang Indonesia, which is on the opposite end of the island of Timor. The occasion was a conference called “Partnership for God’s Justice.” The specific topic was how, through grassroots partnerships, churches can work together and with other organizations to confront human trafficking and modern slavery. The meeting was convened by Global Ministries and hosted by GMIT, the largest Protestant denomination in West Timor.

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The basic premise is that church partnerships nowadays should be issue-based. Actually, the title suggests an even more fundamental premise: that God is the primal agent of partnership. God is the one who calls humanity to partner with God for the work of justice. What we do in partnership together is a response to God’s call, God’s historic acts of liberation and God’s ongoing work to set people free. The church should be the first to understand and embody this. Yet, I feel like often times the church is on the sidelines while God is working in and through any and all means to bend the world a little more toward the image of the New Jerusalem we find at the end of the Bible. So that’s one thing: churches have to partner with secular and multi-religious groups to confront issues of injustice.

We started out the conference with some reflections on the nature of God’s justice as opposed to generic or philosophical notions of justice. Remembering the biblical story, it’s easy to see that God’s justice is a biased justice. It’s a justice in favor of the slaves in Egypt. It’s a justice in favor of the poor, the oppressed and the outcast.

We should not simply view such people as objects for our help though. They are not to be seen as candidates for our charity as we seek to assuage our guilt for being privileged. Rather, what we need to see is that they are people who are sinned against by a world driven by greed, power and wealth. Wrenching poverty is most often the root cause of human trafficking and poverty of this kind the result of sinful structures, institutions and ideologies. When people don’t have hope for a future in their own place, or when crisis strikes, they become vulnerable to traffickers or dubious migrant work. Often they agree to leave to go to a new place and once they get there they find that the good deal they heard about is actually non-existent. What they end up with is on a spectrum from a raw deal with low pay and long hours to forced prostitution or outright slavery. And none of it is easy to get out of.

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Part of a warm welcome we received visiting Emmanuel Church in a small village outside Kupang.  Dancing and singing were elaborate! 

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Members of the congregation showed us their papaya plantation.  They view agricultural development as part of combating human trafficking because it encourages young people to stay in Indonesia rather than migrating to Malaysia for work on palm oil plantations.

So we learned that our response to human trafficking has to be holistic. Rural pastors in West Timor are focusing on developing agricultural projects so that young people don’t feel the need to move abroad to look for work. And part of that is restoring the dignity to rural life and farming. Indonesian activists we met with told tales of legislative work and street outreach connecting girls forced into prostitution with human rights advocates. And while we were in Kupang, the corpse of an Indonesian migrant worker came in on a flight from Malaysia. Most of our delegation went to the airport to receive the corpse and console the family, all the while demanding that the Indonesian government act to protect migrant workers and prosecute traffickers.

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Global Ministries partners from all across Southern Asia

It all sounds quite heavy and actually, it was. I often tell Hannah a quote I read somewhere: “The truth will set you free…but first it makes you miserable.” It was that kind of a week.   We had been aware of human trafficking but not engaged in confronting it through our partnership with the Protestant Church in Timor Leste. Now we are. And so it was also a week of inspiration and learning as we connected with people from 11 different countries who find hope in the struggle for justice on this issue.

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Save Bairo Pite Clinic

Friends, please consider reading and responding to the appeal below.  Maybe someone could post it to FB since I closed my account.  Bairo Pite is a critical part of East Timor’s health infrastructure.  Monica and I are good friends with Dan and Clinic Immanuel Lospalos refers patients there.
https://commitchange.com/et/dili-east-timor/bairo-pite-clinic/campaigns/bairo-pite-free-clinic

Save the Bairo Pite Clinic!

GOAL: 3000 monthly supporters ($10 dollars/month)

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The Bairo Pite clinic needs your help!

After almost two decades of serving the impoverished community’s health needs, Timor-Leste’s government is no longer able to provide the clinic with financial support. As of the 5th of April 2018, most of the services it provides (including the care for malnourished children, maternal and infant health, and the treatment of HIV, TB, and leprosy) have been suspended, making it much more difficult for the thousands of people it was treating each week to obtain quality medical care. Through an ongoing donation of $10 a month you can help the Bairo Pite clinic continue its vital work well into the future.

The Bairo Pite Clinic?

Up until last week, the Bairo Pite Clinic had been providing free health care to the poor of Timor-Leste since 1999. Not your average NGO, its founder, Dr. Dan Murphy, finished medical school in the early 1970s and since then has spent much of his career using his skills to address human suffering in Mozambique, Laos, Nicaragua and among migrant farm workers in the USA. He arrived in Dili in 1998, just as the traumatic final chapter of Timor-Leste’sindependence struggle was beginning to unfold.

Conditions in Timor-Leste have improved since those dark days, but in spite of the heroic and ongoing efforts of many capable Timorese medical staff and public servants, often aided by volunteers from throughout the world, the health situation in Asia’s newest nation remains dire, especially for the majority who make their living as subsistence farmers in its mountains. Infant and maternal mortality is persistently high and many of the surviving children grow up stunted due to chronic malnutrition. Preventable and treatable infectiousdiseases such as leprosy, tuberculosis and malaria continue to cause widespread suffering and death. In the mountains, advanced medical care that has given hope to patients with catastrophic illnesses such as cancer in much of the world is simply not available.

Dr. Dan Murphy set up the clinic in 1999 by making use of a building left to ruin from the conflict in Dili and consulting anyone in need with the meagre resources that he could gather.Since then it has grown into one of the young county’s trusted sources of medical care, employing 80 local staff and providing free health care to up to 300 patients each day. Over the years it has hosted around 1000 international medical students and trained some 40 nurses, 26 midwives, and 26 lay-midwives, whose exploits in helping bring vital natal care to remote villages are very appreciable. Far from setting itself apart from Timor-Leste’s expanding health system, the clinic has become a reliable partner and ally to Timor-Leste’s medical establishment, helping provide essential clinical experience to many local medical staff whose continuing hard work and dedication make the dream of a more self reliant and healthy Timor a possibility.

How things stand

In April 2018 the clinic announced it had not been able to secure funding going forward and that most of its functions would be been suspended indefinitely.

The clinic’s founder, Dr Dan, has informed us that as of 2018 it would cost around $1000 a day to run the clinic optimally, and through this fund raising effort we hope to find a way to cover that. We are looking for 3000 people to make an ongoing donation of $10 a month to ensure that regardless of the political situation (someone which is Timor-Leste is rarely certain or stable) it can continue its lifesaving work.

        $10 a month. That’s $2.50 a week. Please consider helping us out. As         they say in Tetum, “hamutuk ita bele”, together we can.

Some interesting references

Dr Dan tells his story to the inquisitive people of Reddit.

https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/3e41ez/im_a_70yo_doctor_from_iowa_who_hasnt_taken_a/

And for Ted X in Dili!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7UiVu0u0zE

Healthcare Spending: Last Place

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In 2018 patient numbers have been way up at Clinic Immanuel.  Part of that may be because the TL government spends so little on healthcare.

Well, evidently it’s official: Timor-Leste spends less money on healthcare than any country in the world. For 25 years courageous men and women fought for independence against an Indonesian military backed by the world’s most powerful nations. The Timorese won independence. I have nothing but respect for the common people of this nation (especially the women!) who struggle daily against poverty, patriarchy and entrenched hierarchy in every aspect of life. The political class that has been in power since independence are those people associated with the resistance. But ironically, they’ve decided that healthcare isn’t a priority.

Of course there’s plenty of rhetoric about how important healthcare is. But numbers don’t lie. According to the map published by Focus Clinic which used data from the World Bank, the politicians have decided to spend just over 2.4% of the annual budget on health care, the lowest in the world. It’s not that there’s no money available. To be sure, Timor-Leste’s people are among the poorest in world. But the government has resources. Timor-Leste has money in the bank from its oil production, so it’s not that there’s no money. It’s a matter of politicians making a list of what to spend it on. And here, as elsewhere, the health needs of the poor don’t make the list.

Today there were well over 100 patients lined up at Clinic Immanuel Lospalos, a modest outpatient church clinic with a dedicated staff. Some patients waited 3 to 4 hours for a few minutes of consultation. Many had awful cases of scabies and secondary infections related to it. Clinic Immanuel is the only clinic in town that has appropriate medicine for the current epidemic. Several patients were screened for tuberculosis, as well. It’s good and right that the church has a ministry of this nature. Care for the physical is every bit as important as care for the spiritual. They are interrelated and inseparable. And making a “preferential option for the poor” is what the church does in any time and place that it is faithful to the news of “Immanuel” – God with us.

Last Sunday I preached on Philippians 2:5-10 here at Immanuel Church Lospalos. It’s an ancient Christian hymn that talks about the humanity and humility of God in Jesus Christ. It speaks of God in Christ “emptying” himself of divine power and taking the form of a slave — an abused and rejected person — yet one unwavering in faithfulness to the Word. This, I said, is what Immanuel means for us today in Lospalos. God in Christ does not scorn, despise or ignore the suffering of the Timorese people, but enters it fully. That in itself is good news. God humbles himself to be with and for those the world despises and rejects. But for me, it’s not enough to say to people,“God is with you in your suffering”, and that’s not the only aspect of the good news of the gospel.

Karl Barth has a great reflection on the gospel news of “God with us.” He affirms it as the center of the gospel message: Christ is the enfleshed form of God’s radical commitment to humanity. That in and of itself is reason enough that something like healthcare should be a priority. But then Barth goes on to talk about how the claim “God with us” has a counterpart: “We with God.” That is, through the good news of “God with us” we are:

“…directly summoned…lifted up…awakened to our truest being as life and act…we are set in motion by the fact that God has made himself our peacemaker and the giver and gift of our salvation. By it we are made free for God…and our humanity is established.”  Church Dogmatics Volume IV, 1 (014)

Related to that, in the sermon Sunday I shared the story of Saint Bakhita. Bakhita was a Sudanese slave who was captured by Arab slave traders at age 8 while collecting firewood. Following that she lived a miserable, suffering life for 12 years under several different masters until a man who was the Italian consulate to Sudan bought her. He treated her with respect and eventually she herself asked to return to Italy with him. There she reportedly encountered a crucifix for the first time and was mesmerized by it. On seeing it, one story goes, she said, “Who is that?” Needless to say, she immediately “got” the message of the gospel.   Bakhita was “…lifted up…directly summoned, awakened and set in motion.” What happened to her is a witness to the liberating power of the gospel. Her humanity, dignity and truest sense of self was affirmed and she spent the next 50 years as a Catholic Sister serving the poor in Italy.

Similar stories could be told about slaves in America. Although their masters often mis-used the Bible to further oppress them, some slaves learned to read the Bible themselves. And when they did, they too heard the news about “God with us” and they too said, “We with God!” They made it into songs and stories and shared it because they knew it wasn’t an empty promise, a churchy doctrine or an abstract idea, but a reality that empowered bold action for freedom.

The latter days of Lent are, I think, a good time to reflect on the physical realities of life. One way to do that is by remembering that “God in the flesh” looks forward to “God on the cross;” realities that will not allow us to create a false separation between the spiritual and physical or dismiss something like healthcare as a low priority.

In Christian faith the physical body is not “just a shell” as gnostic spirituality was (and is!) inclined to think. And the conviction “I believe in the resurrection of the body” is not pie-in-the-sky or only about the future. It is, like the entire Creed, an affirmation of the goodness of the created world and the gift of physical life. Therefore healthcare cannot be only a privilege for the wealthy. It is a human right for all people in all places undergirded by the humanity of God in Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

Spring Newsletter

It’s 4:00 AM on a Sunday moring and Pastor Rojerio is waiting for a bus in the darkness beside a dirt road. He is on his way to the congregation where he has been assigned. Because he is commited he’ll get on the bus sometime before 5:00 and arrive at the small congregation a couple hours later. There, he’ll lead a simple service, following which he’ll wait for another bus to return to Lospalos, getting home by late afternoon.

John and Maria also serve a small congregation in rural Timor-Leste. They have three kids who are undernourished and often sick. They receive no salary except for what they get on a typical Sunday: a bucket of tomatoes. This is the bounty of their congregation and while you can’t live on tomatoes, it’s what their people have to offer.

Four youth live with us on the compound of Immanuel Church Lospalos. They are IPTL members from rural villages and have come to Lospalos to attend high school. Their lively presence is a welcome addition to our daily lives. Recently we have begun fixing up a long neglected building to make space for an all purpose youth center – and it’s going to be the best thing we do this year!

Aurelia is a young pastor in Lospalos who has just returned from yet another trip to a local school where she is facilitating religion examinations for Protestant students. Timor-Leste is a Catholic country (95%) that requires students to take religion in school. People who are not Catholic in Timor-Leste face various kinds of discrimination. In school for example, Protestant churches must provide their own exams, otherwise students fail religion and their GPA goes down. Each school has it’s own requirements for Protestant or Muslim students which often results in the pastor running back and forth to fullfill requirements on behalf of their students who are often among the poorest in the community.

Clinic Immanuel in Lospalos serves as a bright spot in the life of the Protestant Church in Timor Leste. Five days a week the clinic provides patient care to hundreds of people from the district. The clinic is truly an alternative health care source focused on preventative care and public health outreach, while continuing to offer basic medical treatment, TB screening and treatment, prenatal care, and referrals for more complicated health problems. A recent highlight was an 11-year-old boy who came in and said “I have scabies!” When asked how he knew this, he said, “I read the poster and saw the picture of scabies on the clinic wall.” Thrilling to know that our homemade medical media reached this savvy kid, and also that we had medicine to treat him!

Hebrews 11:1ff is a passage that speaks to us lately: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”   The author goes on to reflect on the ways faith has helped imagine a different future in the midst of what seemed hopeless. Timor-Leste has a long history with such imagining. We hope that our presence here adds to that.

So day-by-day Monica works alongside staff in Clinic Immanuel. Tom serves a local church and works with IPTL’s pastors and leaders. Mentoring and teaching happen along the way, usually informally. The most substantial and lasting thing we give is our presence and friendship. Simon continues to thrive with his Timorese buddies, and started second grade in January. Hannah continues to astound us with her positive attitude and insightful thoughts on “Life in Lospalos.” When we announced to her 2 years ago that we were moving here again, she cried and thought her world was ending. Today, she still misses parts of her life in Minnesota, but she loves just as much gathering with the youth group here, eating fish and boiled bananas outside in the yard, taking field trips to the beach, and especially preparing for musical ensembles for church events.

In all it’s a challenging, meaningful life made rich by the people who surround us and support us. We are glad you are among them.

Monica, Tom, Hannah and Simon

 

 

 

 

 

You are worthy!

The main road is an hour away. To get there you traverse a bumpy jeep trail that crosses a river 11 times. In the dry season it’s an adventure. In the rainy season sometimes it’s impassable.   Ten years ago the only school in the area was an elementary school. If kids wanted to continue past elementary they had to go to the nearest town, an hour away. Yesterday I sat at a table looking out on the faces of 100+ parents who had shown up for a community meeting at a rural public school built and run by the Protestant Church in Timor Leste in partnership with Global Ministries.

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Over 100 parents gathered for a community meeting to talk about the school and possibilities for the future

I was there to wrap up a research project on the school’s impact in the community. As I sat looking out on the faces of those before me I saw farmers who scrape out a dollar or maybe two a day hawking vegetables to their neighbors. I saw people who had never had the opportunity for education. I saw people who had lived through war, an independence struggle and the first rocky decade of being an independent nation. Faces looked tired — worn out in fact. They looked older than their years.

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Students at Filadelfia Pre-Secondary School, Lisadila TImor Leste.

As I looked out on those people I was thinking to myself. “Yikes, we (Global Ministries) are really committed here!” Building and running a school in rural Timor-Leste is a serious challenge (*understatement*), and in this case the government wasn’t up for it. But the church was. Locals donated land and ideas. People abroad donated money and commitment, and boom! We had a school.

Well, it wasn’t quite that easy. In fact it’s been a slog to be honest. But yesterday it really dawned on me what a ministry of accompaniment and hope this is. Over the past few months I’ve made several visits, interviewed dozens of graduates, walked the village up and down, back and forth. I’ve seen how people live and what they do from day-to-day. Over 300 kids have gone to school here. And without the school I doubt more than a few dozen would have had the resources to go to middle school in a town an hour or more away.

During the course of my research project what became abundantly clear is how much the people appreciate and value the presence of the school. It’s like we are saying to them: “You are not forgotten! You are worthy! You are a human being! You deserve the dignity of an education!” In fact in our meeting yesterday one of the dads said: “I’m very thankful for this school because it is through education that we become human.”

To be sure there are limitations. There are questions about the future just as there have been disappointments in the past. And yet I do believe that the very existence of the school is a dose of that “salt and light” that Jesus talked about. It’s a sign. It’s like John the Baptist pointing beyond himself toward Christ. The school cannot solve all the community’s problems. But it does represent the affirmation that the people are worthy. And it represents the church’s willingness to slog into murky waters for the sake of community and hope, trusting in God’s mysterious tendency to appear in just such spaces.

 

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.

 

 

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.”