RIP Kodae

When we stepped across the threshold into Kodae’s house in Lospalos, I could tell he wasn’t breathing. His younger brother was sitting beside him on the dingy mattress he had been on for months, shooing flies away from the pale corpse.  The smell in the room was putrid.  The boy turned to us with tears in his eyes.  Their father appeared from a side room.  On seeing us he announced, “He just died.”  It was 4 in the afternoon, the sun was shining, and it was very quiet.

Kodae had a massive tumor on his lower left jaw.  When Monica first went to see him at the request of a mutual friend, the tumor was the size of a volleyball.  That was January 11.  Two days later the bottom half fell off, leaving a gaping, but painless, massive open wound.  Over the next couple weeks we went to visit Kodae often.  He was afraid of what was happening to his body.  Yet both he and his father were hanging onto hope.  Day after day his dad sat with him, lovingly cleaning his wound and repositioning his frail body.

In the last week of January we were there for another visit.  This day was different: Kodae was writhing and moaning in pain.  Monica suggested medicine to ease the pain, which he was willing to try.  Kodae had not taken any pain medicine until now, despite nearly a year of serious illness.  I read scripture and prayed with him.  A few days later, Kodae’s right leg swelled up.  The next day his breathing became increasingly labored.  As we left that day I pulled Kodae’s dad aside and talked to him, encouraging him to invite close family and friends to say goodbye to Kodae.

Kodae’s tumor was the size of a marble for maybe a few years, according to stories we have heard from his friends and family.  It eventually got bigger and in March 2020 he was referred to Dili, where doctors surgically removed the tumor.  The biopsy, sent out of country to a pathology lab, showed cancer; Timor has no pathology lab of its own, and it has no treatment for most cancer patients beyond surgery.  Kodae’s tumor came back within two months and grew rapidly. The family went back to Dili but doctors told them it was stage four cancer and there was nothing they could do.  Kodae’s dad was desperate; they were given no treatment and no option but to go home and wait for death.

Kodae’s story was on Timor’s television news program a couple months ago.  In the t.v. interview, Kodae’s father expressed outrage. Though he had fought for Timor’s independence, he feels ignored, marginalized, oppressed.  Helpless to get proper treatment for his 25-year-old son with cancer.

Timor Leste invests less per capita in health care than any country in the world.  Basic medicines are often in short supply. The well connected and the elites can go abroad for health care and higher education, and they do.  Kodae’s dad knows this.  It’s not fate, bad luck or a shortage of money that prevents some people from receiving decent health care in East Timor.  It is the choices that people in power make that have far-reaching impacts on the lives of many.

Three Showers a day

Since you last heard from us we’ve entered what we call the “three-shower-a day season.”  This morning I woke up at 5:00 AM as I always do, and it was 86 degrees!  The humidity comes later in the day.  As the dry season gives way to the rainy season, the heat and humidity build until, it seems, one day something “pops” and down comes the rain.  Then we get daily breaks of coolish, rainy weather, flowers start to bloom and things get green again.  It’s really quite a lovely seasonal transition, but this end of the dry season is rough!

Simon finished up school last week.  He did first, second and third grade in a Timorese public school, learning in Tetum and Portuguese.  What a guy! And he made a lot of good friends along the way too.  In preparation for our return to America in a few months, Hannah just finished reading George Orwell’s 1984.  It stimulated quite a few good conversations about the meaning of freedom, the prevalence of propaganda and the danger of authoritarian rule.  Monica has on her playwright hat again.  She and Hannah are working on another drama for our Christmas youth gathering.  The topic is teen sexual health and HIV. Timorese youth love drama so it should be great, although I’m sure some of the parents might squirm a bit.

Today I did a funeral for a woman in her mid 80s.  As always it was a sacred honor to officiate at such an occasion.  Family and friends gathered for four days of eating, socializing and grieving together while keeping a 24-hour vigil with the body of the deceased. Then, today, we held a worship service that started in the home and moved to the gravesite, finishing there with stories, prayers, hymns and a proclamation of the gospel.

Last Sunday was a unique occasion at Imanuel Church.  I looked out at the congregation at one point, and there sat Linda, a middle-aged, mentally ill woman who wanders Lospalos brandishing a knife.  In times past, Linda has thrown rocks through windows, shown up at all hours of the day or night for meals and slept on the veranda of Clinic Imanuel.  When she has come to the clinic for consultation in recent months, her demeanor is milder.  Now, before leaving, she bows her head and prays.  She is living with a church member, and perhaps the stability of having a “home” is all the difference we see.

Early in the month we had an unexpected trip to Kupang, West Timor, Indonesia.  To make a long story short, we had to leave and re-enter the country for our visa.  This involved a 12-hour, nail-biting bus ride from Dili to Kupang.  Once there, we had a much needed but unplanned 5-day break, enjoying some more modern delights this Indonesian city has to offer.

This will be our fourth Christmas here in Lospalos; we admit that we still miss the snow during this season. This year, December will include a trip to Dili, a youth event, and various Christmas services in the rural congregations. As always we are thankful for your interest in our ministry here with the Timorese people.

Advent Blessings,  Tom and Monica


October Newsletter

October 1 was an exciting day.  We picked up three friends from our local church in Duluth, Minnesota, at the Dili International airport.  Andy, Jill and Jessica put their busy lives on hold for a few weeks and entered “Timor Time.”  First, we took them to Atauru Island, a small tropical island a one-hour boat ride from Dili. There we took two days for them to get over jetlag while snorkeling over world-class coral reefs and relaxing in hammocks.  Then it was back to Dili and off to Lospalos.  Our small truck isn’t big enough to carry us all over the bumpy road home, so Andy went with Monica and Hannah on the bus.  They left Dili at 9pm and got into Lospalos by 7am, while the rest of us left at a leisurely morning time to arrive home mid-afternoon.  Andy loved the overnight ride!

During the next week our three friends took in life in Lospalos – the opposite of the world’s typical rat-race. They spent time in the clinic with Monica and the staff, visited small farms and took walks.  They joined Tom and colleague, Pastor Ayang, on two of our weekly home worship visits.  Through these experiences our three friends witnessed firsthand bits of Timorese hospitality, faith, and daily life.  Andy also helped Tom with a construction project on the clinic, and they picked up some locally made crafts which support livelihoods for Timorese women and their families.  The best part, though, for us at least, were the many talks we had.  Living in Lospalos we are in many ways isolated from the “modern world,” and connections with English speaking friends are limited to our infrequent trips to Dili.

These past ten days the Liddles have been in Dili.  It’s that time of year: Visa Renewal Time.  In East Timor, this means chest Xrays, blood tests for communicable diseases, fingerprints at the Department of Justice, and multiple trips to the IPTL Synod office for various documents.  It also means standing and waiting in hot, muggy, crowded offices with hordes of others, both Timorese and internationals, also hoop-jumping to fulfill their various bureaucratic tasks.  It makes this time for us a truly unique, annual spiritual pilrimage.

Yet another highlight this month has been a 4-day theological seminar with all of IPTL’s pastors, which Tom helped to organize and lead, along with an Indonesian theologian and Deenabandhu Manchala, our Executive Minister from Global Ministries.  The three of us facilitated Bible studies, presentations and small group work, all with the aim of helping our friends in IPTL clarify their theological orientation and sharpen their sense of mission.

As we enter November we are down to four months left in our assignment.  The notion of moving back to the US is both exciting and daunting for all of us.  We are ready to be nearer to family, yet having become accustomed to this place and people, it already hurts to think of leaving.  Nevertheless, we believe that our connections will continue here.  And we continue to be grateful for the claim this special place has made on our lives.

God’s Peace,

Tom and Monica




September Newsletter

Dear Friends,

Our water tank has run dry twice this week, leaving our faucets dry.  Running water and electricity are not constants here, creating something between a small challenge and a great annoyance for us.  For locals, anyone our age remembers when there was no electricity, and when the state water supply didn’t exist, meaning every night was dark, and every day included hours of ferrying water.

In the clinic, we fortunately have two decent sized “tankis” (like bathtubs) of water. So, when the main water tank is dry, and the clinic faucet isn’t available for hand-washing, we just walk back to the back room tankis and scoop water to wash up.  Even after six years, Monica still finds this challenging; the clinic staff, not so much.  No one, except us, has running water at home.

Hannah, 15, recently went to the seaside village of Teno with her friends for a getaway. She ate fresh fish and rice, hung out in sun huts, took walks on the beach each day.  One evening she went out in a small fishing boat and cast nets with Anito and his dad.  At night, she and the girls slept in the house on the hill, a newly constructed home that Lena’s family has been building with money that her older brother sends home from England, where he works in a Chinese restaurant.

An enjoyable time, her two night stay turned into four.  She lived with an extended family of about 14.  Women and girls spend lots of time cooking, but there are lots of hands to share the work.  There is a nearby water source, so the family only has to carry 5-liter containers of water a short distance.   When we checked in with Hannah by cell phone while she was in Teno, she would call us from on top of the hill, or from the side of the paved road that runs through the town to get cell signal.  One day she and her friend took the motorcycle into Lautem, the nearest town with “services,” like shops and roadside vegetable stands, to buy phone cards. The high school students who live on the church compound here with us in Lospalos are from Teno and so we have a special connection with this village.

Simon is busy with slingshots, bikes and going to his friend’s gardens.  He is handy with a machete and can scale coconut trees.  In addition to Tetum, which he speaks fluently, he’s also picking up the Makassae language, the native tongue of some of his friends. Simon goes to school each day at 1pm, studies math, Portuguese and Tetum, then comes home at 6pm and continues playing with his buddies Alfon and Floriano until dark.

We had a celebratory occasion two weeks ago with the ordination of Rev. Ita Tong, whom Tom has been mentoring as a pastoral intern for the past year and a half.  She’s an energetic 29 year old woman who grew up in Imanuel Church and has a deep commitment to the people and place.

We continue to learn and grow as we serve along side our partners in Clinic Imanuel and Imanuel Church. Thank you, as always, for your interest and support of our ministy.

Tom and Monica

The Indispensables

“…the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable…” 1 Cor. 12:22

 “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Luke 16:13

I’m not trained to look at X-rays.  But when I looked at Ferra’s chest X-ray I knew something was wrong.  The heart of this 5-year-old girl took up virtually the entire left side of her chest cavity.  Ferra is a member of Imanuel Church Lospalos.  Last week, her mother brought her in to Clinic Imanuel.  Monica noted that she had a heart murmur, an abnormal respiratory rate and facial edema. She sent Ferra to Bairo Pite Clinic in Dili for a cardiac consult with Dr. Dan, an American doctor who has been in Timor for 20 years.  Dr. Dan admitted Ferra right away.

When Monica and I first came to this country in 2003 we worked at Bairo Pite Clinic for several months. Over the years the clinic has had its ups and downs, but it is held steady by Dr. Dan’s commitment to seeing patients every day of the week, year in and year out.  I was in Dili for a meeting over the weekend and I wanted to see Ferra and her mom.  Dan suggested I join him for rounds on Sunday morning.  Two young Timorese doctors, several nursing students and I accompanied Dr. Dan.  We saw a new baby, half-dozen TB patients, a woman with cancer of the mouth, several young kids being treated in the malnutrition unit, and finally, Ferra.

Dan examined Ferra and discussed her condition with the young Timorese doctors.  “She’s doing much better today,” said Dan, looking slightly hopeful.  She had been on medication to relieve some of the stress on her enlarged heart, but the medicine can only treat her symptoms; it is not a cure.  The underlying cause is likely a congenital heart defect. “There’s a heart specialist team coming in September.  They can do an echocardiogram…that’ll tell whether surgery can help, but it might be too late.  If they can’t do surgery, she’ll die,” said Dan grimly.  “Health care is for the rich” he added, matter of factly; “the poor are expendable.”  I looked at Ferra and her mother, who is an elder in the church I serve.  She scratches out a living selling vegetables on the streets of Lospalos.  They sat quietly gazing downward surrounded by their modest belongings.  Expendable? What human life is expendable, I thought, as I stood witness last Sunday morning in Bairo Pite Clinic.

On the drive back to Lospalos the next day, my mind wandered back and forth between Ferra and Dan’s comment. “Health care is for the rich…the poor are expendable.”  It’s hard to argue that’s not the case.  But why? I suggest it’s because the current global economic system, also known as “neoliberalism,” simply has no place for people like Ferra and her mom.  That’s because they’re neither diligent producers nor obedient consumers. They’re not profitable and hence, they’re expendable.

Ferra’s mother is, like most people in Imanuel Church, a subsistence farmer.  She spends her days working a small farm with hand tools and selling what she produces locally. People like this grow enough to eat and sell what’s left over.  They are, therefore, not really producers.  But neither are they consumers.  Although they make enough to buy rice and basic supplies, they don’t have a bank account or disposable income, not to mention stocks, bonds and retirement plans.  According to market ideology they are thus “useless” to the economic system.

That Ferra’s life may be cut short because during her first 5 years she didn’t have access to the care needed to diagnose and treat this heart problem is tragic.  And yet it poignantly, brutally, reflects the values of a market ideology which values profit over people.  As journalist Tom Friedman has noted so frankly, it’s also an order that has to be defended militarily: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist.  McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15.”  This is something we need to come to terms with.  It’s not a matter of Democrat or Republican or Fox vs. MSNBC.  The market ideology that makes our economic system so greedy and so inhospitable to Ferra and her mom has been a bipartisan consensus since Ronald Reagan.

There is however an unexpected way to resist market ideology: our baptismal identity.  “You cannot serve God and wealth,” says Jesus in Luke’s gospel.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t have wealth.  Taking our baptismal identity seriously means we can’t serve wealth.  It means we need not sell our souls to market ideology.  When health care is only for the rich, it means we’re serving wealth. But God wants us to serve God.  And that means, among other things, that people like Ferra and her mom are not expendable.  According to the gospel, they’re indispensable.



Story of Freedom

The following is a Bible study of Exodus 3:1-12 which I’ve written for Global Ministries’ Southern Asia Initiative.  Every year and a half Global Ministries has a special focus on one region of the world.  Starting this June, for the next 18 months, the focus will be on Southern Asia.  You can learn more about the Southern Asia Initiative at:

Social Context:  Timor-Leste

The nation of Timor-Leste comprises the eastern half of the island of Timor on the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago.  The western half of the island is part of Indonesia.  That’s due to the colonial history of both countries.  For centuries, the western part of the island, along with the rest of Indonesia, was a Dutch colony.  The eastern part of Timor was a Portuguese colony.  That arbitrary boundary was due to a 15thcentury dispute between the Dutch and Portuguese over who would exploit the sandalwood resources on the island of Timor.  In the end, the two colonial powers split the island, the Dutch taking control of the west, the Portuguese the east.  Such are the assumptions of colonialism: the world is here to be exploited; it’s simply a matter of who’s going to do it.

The Portuguese ruled Timor-Leste for over 400 years.  During its rule, Timorese were often enslaved for hard labor.  My colleague, I’ll call him Joao, recently told me a story.  As a young man his parents recounted to him how they were forced to participate in road building.  The women had to gather rocks while the men were forced to build the road. Joao’s father was willing to work but he refused to allow his wife to be enslaved.  That was simply too much for him.  But the Portuguese didn’t accept this.  An officer came to their house and confronted him.  Joao’s father was forced to hold his hands out while the Portuguese officer whacked his hands with a stick until they were swollen and black and blue.

In 1975 the Portuguese left Timor-Leste.  A week later the Indonesians, who’d gained independence from the Dutch in 1945, invaded with the full support of the United States and other Western powers. The Indonesian period was marked by brutality, fear and war.  Another colleague, I’ll call him Miguel, shared a story about his experience during this period.

One day he and his friend were working on Imanuel Church, where we both now serve as pastors.  They were carrying rocks for the foundation and an Indonesian soldier was supervising them.  Indonesia, anxious to prove that it was not affiliated with Communism, required every Timorese to have a religious affiliation.  The Indonesians thus enthusiastically supported church construction.  Miguel and his friend were speaking their local language, Fataluku.  Suspecting the two might be part of the Timorese clandestine resistance, the Indonesian soldier held a gun to Miguel’s head and told him if he spoke another word of Fataluku, he’d be shot.  Timor was now part of Indonesia, he said, and Indonesian was the only legitimate language.  And that is why, Miguel told me, no matter what, he would never be able to forget the Indonesian language.

Stories like these are common. Over the years I’ve heard many of them.  But the main story in Timor is a story of freedom and hope.  Over the 25 years of Indonesian occupation, the Timorese fought a David and Goliath struggle for freedom.  And against all odds and expectations, against all the calculations of the rich and the aspirations of the powerful, today they are free.


Biblical Text: Read Exodus 3:1-12

 Biblical Reflection:

When we open the Bible, we encounter reports, stories and testimonies of the ways ancient people perceived the Word of God to bealive and active in the world.  But the Bible is a hard read.  It is complex and often contradictory in its testimony about God.  Scripture therefore resists easy formulations, doctrinal certitudes or direct links to contemporary events.  But perhaps that is partly the point.  The Bible testifies to the vitality and versatilityof the Word in the world.  It suggests that the Word is always on the move, inviting us to become awake and aware yet evading our best attempts to domesticate it.

The story of the Exodus is a story that testifies to the presence of the Word of God in and through a particular struggle for freedom.  The story therefore invites us to ponder how that same Word may be alive and active through other struggles for freedom from oppression.  In this study we will consider the well-known story of the call of Moses through the lens of the history of Timor-Leste.

A Revelation of God

The story of Moses begins at the beginning of the book of Exodus, when we are told, “…a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (1:8).  This subtle line anticipates the upcoming conflict between an oppressive king and the God of freedom.  In fact, Moses’ own life begins in the shadow of this king’s edict to kill the male Hebrew children because he fears they pose a threat to his exploitative regime which values power and profit above all else (1:16, 22).

Good theological questions are often the simplest ones.  One we might ask of this story is simply: “How do we come to know God?”  With that question in mind, let us dive into this familiar story.

At the beginning of chapter 3, Moses is at his daily task of keeping sheep.  It’s there, in the uninhabited wilderness, that God is revealed to Moses in the form of a burning bush.  The burning bush is ordinary in that nothing could be more common than a bush. But it’s extraordinary in that it’s on fire, but not burning up!  This familiar tale thus points up the fact that God’s Word dwells in the world and is available for those who, like Moses, “…turn aside and look” (3:3).  This act of discernment allows Moses to hear God addressing him directly and personally.  In the encounter, God’s identity is revealed:

“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.  Indeed I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites.  The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them”(Ex. 3:6-9).

The above narrative is given to us as the direct speech of God.  It presents us with a very particular picture of God.  Who is this God?  In this speech we learn that God is one who is intimately involved in the suffering of this people.  God has heardthe cries and seen the misery.  But it’s more passionate than that.  This God knowsthe sufferings.  The God who speaks in this text isn’t a God removed from earthly realities.  God is one who is affected by what’s happening to these people.  God sees, hears and knows about it.

The popular conception of God as one above suffering, unaffected by the world and uninvolved in earthly struggle is foreign to the rhetoric of the Bible and is useless for people who are suffering.  The God revealed in this story is a God who’s passionately involved in history, one who suffers with people and one who takes sides with those who suffer.  The biblical story expresses this in many of its testimonies about the character of God, but most radically in its witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Let’s go back to our earlier question, “How do we come to know God?”  With the Exodus story, we can say that God is revealed in the historical process of liberation from oppression.That’s to say, the Israelites come to know God through God’s commitment to freeing them from slavery in Egypt and bringing them to freedom in a new land.  Here, we may say that the Word of God is revealed as a word of grace.  If we read further though, (Ex. 7-15) we learn that God’s Word is also revealed in this story as a word of judgment; a word of judgment against Pharaoh and what he represents: exploitative, oppressive regimes, ideologies and practices.

A Call to Action

We learned in verse 8 that God is truly affected by the Israelites plight under Egyptian oppression.  Due to that suffering, God is firmly on the Israelites side.  God says “I will come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.”  That language sounds as if we can expect unilateral action on God’s part.  But when we get to verse 10, surprise!  God says to Moses, “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh!”  God has been revealed in the process of liberation and now we learn that God’s call is a call to involvement in liberation. The combination of “I will deliver…you will go,” is one we need to ponder.  God has taken the side of the oppressed Israelites.  But Moses must go to Pharaoh and demand their freedom.

Moses is a complex character.  Although he’s an Israelite, he grows up in the house of Pharaoh.  When he comes of age, he realizes how oppressed his people are. Outraged, his first action on their behalf comes out of his passion rather than the call of God.  He kills an Egyptian, buries him in the sand and flees to a foreign land.

When our story begins, Moses is thus a shepherd-murderer in exile.  That doesn’t stop God from calling him, however.  But when he learns that obedience to God will mean going to Pharaoh and demanding the Israelites’ freedom, he resists the call (vs. 11).  Thus, we learn that Moses isn’t a puppet and God isn’t a puppet master.  Moses is free to resist, and he does.  This is a real relationship with consequences for both Moses and God.  God has committed to freeing the Israelites but will do it through Moses, a fragile, flawed human agent.  This is a risk for God, yet this is what God does and will do throughout the story.  This means that relationships matter to God and that God is willing to risk failure for the sake of relationship.  “I will be with you” is God’s promise to Moses (vs. 12).  God doesn’t say, “I will do it for you,” or “you will succeed.”  God doesn’t even say, “Do not fear.”  God says simply: “I will be with you.”  But for Moses, that is enough.

Back to Timor-Leste

We learn from the Exodus narrative that God is revealed in the historical process of liberation from oppression.  That is, God is not revealed through an idea or a doctrine but through an action.  In fact, the very name of God in Hebrew, “YHWH,” is a verb. Nevertheless, God is a personal, relational agent as we learn from the interaction with Moses.  But God’s very name implies action, and that action is liberation from oppression.  To be sure, the story of the Exodus is a uniquely Israelite and Jewish story.  Theologians differ on whether the Exodus can be a script for modern liberation struggles.  But the Bible itself suggests that such Exoduses are a characteristic expression of God’s activity in the world so we shouldn’t be too hesitant to perceive God’s active presence in struggles for freedom.  For example:

“Are you not like the Ethiopians to me O people of Israel? Says the Lord.  Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7).

As Christians, we connect the story of the Exodus with the celebration of Holy Communion.  Jesus’ words at the last supper, “This cup is my blood of the covenant,” has the Passover story as its backdrop (Ex. 12).  Passover is the liturgical celebration of the Exodus from Egypt.  And that means that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection performs its own kind of “Exodus,” one that frees us from the menacing forces that are behind oppression of any kind: the forces of sin, death and evil.

With that in mind, when viewed through the eyes of faith, we can say that the same Word of God revealed in the Exodus story shows up again in liberation of the Timorese people.  From the Exodus story, we learn that God takes the side of the oppressed.  For the Timorese, liberation is a process that began with uprisings against Portuguese colonial rule and one that continued through resistance to the Indonesian military occupation.  And despite financial and military support of the United States and other Western powers, despite the sophistication of Indonesian propaganda and military force, despite the financial calculations and imperial aspirations, and against all expectations, the people of Timor-Leste won independence.  And today they are free from oppressive foreign rule.  Thanks be to God!


God of freedom, you are one who hears, sees and knows the suffering of the oppressed. We give you thanks that you did not despise the cry of the Timorese people but heard them when they called.  You joined them and sustained them through 25 years of struggle.  Be with them as they continue this process of liberation, freeing them from the oppression of poverty and all that threatens the life you bestow.  Open their eyes to discern how you are present in their midst.  In the name of your crucified and risen Son, Amen.

Questions for Reflection


  1. Do you think that God suffers? Why would this matter to oppressed people?
  2. People often identify with the Israelites in this story. What happens when we read this story as “Egyptians?”
  3. In the Exodus story, God sides with the oppressed. Do you find this comforting or disturbing?
  4. What would it mean to be involved in the process of liberation in your context?

Prayers of Protest

Alberto Viegas was the intern at Imanuel Church when we came back to Timor in 2016.  We worked together for 9 months before he went back to school in Indonesia.  Alberto has been in Lospalos this month doing some research for his Master’s in Theology. His topic is the church and poverty.  For his research, he’s interviewing church members about their lives, work, struggles and faith.  Since Alberto is Timorese, he’s familiar with what life is like here.  But having been studying theology for the past two years, his perspective has changed.  He sees with new eyes.  His questions are different.  He’s more preoccupied with people’s suffering and the church’s response.  He wonders how people interpret their world, their suffering, and their future.  He wonders how Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God can kindle a new mission for IPTL’s ministry.

One morning I joined Alberto for a visit to a church member’s home.  We went to Paulo’s house.  Paulo and his wife have several grown children and small grandchildren living with them.  Their home is a rusty, corrugated iron shack.  The floor is uneven, hard-packed dirt.  Broken plastic chairs surround a small table in the room where we sat.

For Alberto’s interview Paulo sat on a bamboo bench.  Morning sunlight shone through a small window.  Paulo’s wife, a small thin woman, sat across from us.  She wiped sweat from her face, having just come in from the garden. Alberto asked Paulo about his life. Immediately, Paulo sat upright.  His face grimaced, revealing deep wrinkles and worn skin.  He began to speak, softly:  “I plant corn and it has no ears…I raise animals and they die…money disappears…we’re forced to borrow…I’ve got nothing to show for it…I’m ashamed.”  Silence fell and we sat for what felt like a long time. Alberto inquired next about his health. Paulo grasped his stomach and squinted his eyes.  He complained of vague, chronic pain.  He shook his head, quietly uttering a “Sigh too deep for words,” of the kind St. Paul wrote about (Rom. 8:26).  Alberto asked Paulo if he prayed.  He said he did.  Then Paulo asked why God didn’t answer his prayers.  Alberto and I were silent.

Before we left we prayed for Paulo and his family.  In his prayer Alberto addressed Jesus, calling on him as Lord and friend of the poor. He named Paulo’s suffering.  He asked for consolation and prayed for Paulo’s faith.  As we got up to leave Paulo smiled, thanking us for the visit; I sensed he meant it.

Over lunch, Alberto and I talked about Paulo’s life and his question about why God didn’t answer his prayers. “Perhaps it’s God’s way of drawing him closer,” Alberto suggested.  He said that sometimes Timorese believe suffering is punishment.  Whatever the case, Paulo’s honesty revealed an element of hope.  In it we heard a prayer of protest like those in the Psalms or the book of Job.  The Bible after all doesn’t spend much time trying to explain suffering.  Rather its writers answer suffering by speaking truth, poetic protest, and demanding justice.  Such truth telling often eventuates in newness, hope and even praise (e.g. Ps. 13).  None of us can answer the riddle of suffering.  But I sleep better knowing Alberto and others like him will be here for the long haul. They won’t have all the answers, but their commitment to a ministry of presence and their prayers of protest will kindle newness and hope.



The Duty of Awareness

This past week I took a trip to the mountain village of Aileu for a pastor’s gathering.  Aileu is about an hour’s drive from Timor-Leste’s capital city, Dili.  The road winds up through hamlets and forests with coffee growing in the shade of massive trees.  People sell potted flowers along the side of the road, making this a particularly pleasant drive – at least for the first part. For the upper half it’s the same mix of broken up asphalt and mud that characterizes most of Timor-Leste’s roads.  They force you to chug along slowly, alternating between gas and brake while rocking side-to-side over bumps and through potholes.

Our pastor’s gatherings are opportunities for sharing, reflection and learning.  My colleague started us out with prayer and a Bible study. Following lunch I led a discussion on the Bible and social analysis.  An article I’d recently read on Timor-Leste’s 2019 general budget prompted my topic.  Before we started our discussion I did a survey of the 5 pastors gathered.  How many in your congregation are farmers?  How many have access to clean water? How many have a toilet?  What I learned wasn’t a surprise.  Virtually 100% are farmers and almost no one has access to clean water or a toilet.  Following this I showed them a pie chart of the government’s budget for 2019.  There one can see plainly what the government’s priorities are — and aren’t.  Education, agriculture and healthcare together receive less than 20% of the total budget. Water and sanitation is 1%.


Why have a discussion like this?  The French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul is a thinker I’ve come to appreciate in recent years.  Ellul says that the first duty of a Christian is the duty of awareness, “…that is to say the duty of understanding the world and oneself, inseparably connected, in their reality.”  The first step in developing awareness is simply the refusal to accept appearances at face value.  In other words, we look at a situation in society and ask: “What’s going on here?” Another aspect of developing awareness according to Ellul is thinking concretely.  We can’t be abstract about “humanity” in general.  We must think concretely about our neighbor.  Why is she poor?  Why doesn’t she have access to clean water, a toilet or a market to sell her produce? And what about the children?  How are they doing?

I started our discussion in Aileu by quoting Karl Barth’s now cliché comment that pastors must think with “the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”  So in addition to looking at the budget — which was a shock and disappointment to all — we also looked at Ezekiel 34.  This is a prophetic text that berates Israel’s leaders for neglecting to care for the people.  In doing so it articulates God’s priorities for a just society.  Thinking with “Bible in one hand and newspaper in the other” may be cliché in some contexts but it’s new to my Timorese colleagues. Nevertheless, they understood it immediately.  Inevitably however the question arose: but what can we do about it?  We’re a powerless minority.  And we’re pastors, not politicians.

The theologian Jürgen Moltmann once made a wise comment about that question. He said, “The temptation of the powerful is arrogance.  The temptation of the powerless is apathy.”  That strikes me as perfect for Timor-Leste.  Having lived through centuries of colonial domination and military occupation, the Timorese people are, sadly, used to suffering. People rarely ask “Why?” They just accept reality.  And so the temptation for them is apathy.  But that’s not the only option.  To be sure, the church here or anywhere isn’t called to save the world.  That’s God’s job.  But resurrection faith is the conviction, however shakey, that when God says, “I am making all things new,” (Rev. 21:5) we can trust it.  And if we trust that God is “making all things new,” then we are called to be witnesses to that world in the midst of this world.  That kind of witness takes many and diverse forms.  But it all starts with the duty of awareness.







GM Scholarship Students Thriving


Amena Cristovao is off on another adventure!  Some of you may recall Amena’s story.  She started working in Clinic Immanuel Lospalos as the lab assistant in 2009. Then, in 2012 when we went back to the States she came with us and studied for 4 years.  Global Ministries provided scholarship funds and our home congregation, Peace UCC Duluth, hosted, supported and encouraged her.  Amena lived with two different Peace Church families during her time in Duluth studying at Lake Superior Community College. In 2016 she came back to Timor with us. Since then she’s been working in the lab again and serving as the coordinator for community health promotion program at Clinic Immanuel.

You may not know this part, but while Amena was in the States those years she also fell in love. Joel Cooper moved to Timor in 2017 and they married.  Now the two are off to America again.  Amena hopes to finish her Bachelor’s in medical laboratory science (she earned her AAS from Lake Superior College).  It’s been a joy and privilege to get to know Amena and accompany her journey for the past 10 years.  We wish her the best in the States this time around and hope they come back to Timor before too long!


Amena’s last night in Timor before she left for America



In the summer of 2018 when we were in the States, we told many of you about an inspiring and deserving young woman, Leila Virna, who has aspirations to study midwifery.  Hannah has been friends with Leila since they were little kids.  Leila is the oldest of seven children and her family eeks out a living selling vegetables in Lospalos. Leila started her studies at the Institute of Health Sciences in Dili this January, and is doing very well.  Many thanks to folks in the States who’ve contributed to her scholarship! By doing that you’re helping plant seeds for the church’s future health care workers.


Hannah and Leila



Alberto Viegas was the pastoral intern when we got back to Timor in 2016.  Since August 2017, he’s been studying for his master’s in theology in Kupang, West Timor, Indonesia.  Alberto showed up in Lospalos this week to do the research for his thesis. His topic is the church and poverty. Over the next couple months he’ll be visiting congregation members, conducting interviews, and linking his research with perspectives of the various theologians he’s been studying. Exciting!  Tom is really looking forward to accompanying him the next couple months in his work here in Lospalos.


Youth picnic 2016.  Alberto is front right.


In 2011, a Global Ministries colleague asked me if I could recommend a young Timorese person for a program called the School of Peace. It was an initiative of the YMCA of Asia and the Mennonites.  The program was an inter-religious program in peace building that took place in India.  25-year-old Julio Martens went and loved it.  Over the next few years he participated in subsequent Schools of Peace in Vietnam and Indonesia, and he helped organize one here in Timor-Leste. The past few years Julio has been studying at Union Theological Seminary in Cavite City, Philippines.  He’s studying for an M.Div and doing great! This year he will be doing an internship, then he’ll have one more year before he comes back to Timor-Leste.


Immanuel Church youth, 2012.  Julio front and center


Last but most certainly not least is Akito Dias.  Akito has worked at Clinic Immanuel for 5 years.  He gained an interest in laboratory technology from Amena who taught him the basics before she left in 2012.  Last year Akito decided to go back to school and start a formal program in lab technology which is great because people with those skills are few and far between here. We are thankful to Global Ministries for his scholarship and glad that Akito plans to come back to Lospalos to work when he finishes his program.


Akito Dias

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.