The past few weeks I have spent my Monday afternoons visiting members of Immanuel Church in the Lospalos neighborhood of Natura. On these walks Mama Rosa, a long-time elder in Immanuel Church, has accompanied me. This is her neighborhood. When pastors visit members in Natura, she’s the guide. She knows where everyone lives; she knows their names and often a bit about their family history and personal story.
It’s the rainy season now, so on our walks we hop over puddles as we traverse the rocky, muddy paths that lead us to members homes. Some people here live in half-built concrete blockhouses; others in bamboo or corrugated iron shacks. As is true most everywhere in Timor, the sound of roosters crowing and kids playing is always audible. But in Natura, Bingo seems to be especially popular so when you’re passing through you also hear people calling out letters and numbers: “B – enam!” (6).
Lately, I’ve asked Mama Rosa to take me to the people who are too old or disabled to walk to church. This is personal pastoral work I enjoy very much. But I must admit, sometimes I feel awkward doing it. My thoughts run along these lines: “what right do I have to enter these people’s world? I’m a foreigner in a land that’s been brutalized by foreigners. On top of that, I come with an embarrassingly impractical message: ‘I’m here to visit you.’”
Recently I’ve been re-reading a theological classic: The Crucified God, by Jürgen Moltmann. In his introductory remarks, Moltmann writes about the complexity of faith:
“More radical Christian faith can only mean committing oneself without reserve to the ‘crucified God.’ This is dangerous. It does not promise the confirmation of one’s own conceptions, hopes and good intentions. It promises first of all the pain of repentance and fundamental change. It offers no recipe for success. But it brings a confrontation with the truth. It is not positive and constructive, but is in the first instance critical and destructive. It does not bring man into a better harmony with himself and his environment, but into contradiction with himself and his environment. It does not create a home for him and integrate him into society, but makes him ‘homeless’ and ‘rootless,’ and liberates him in following Christ who was ‘homeless’ and ‘rootless.’”
That passage, as the Quakers are known to say, “speaks to my condition.” In December, the Synod of the Protestant Church in Timor Leste (IPTL) assigned me as pastor in Immanuel Church, Lospalos and the 6 congregations in the surrounding region. Along with feeling humbled, honored and called to serve in this way, I’m also ambivalent about it. What does it mean for a white, middle class American man to minister in this context? Nevertheless, I view my sense of ambivalence as a good thing. Although it’s not comfortable, it keeps me awake, non-judgmental and helps me read between the lines (at least I hope it does!).
Last Monday Mama Rosa and I visited a very old widow with no children. When we arrived she wasn’t there, but the door to her house was open. The house is a rusty corrugated iron shack about 3 or 4 meters long and 2 meters wide. Inside it’s dark; there’s a rickety wooden bed in one corner and a little fire pit in the other. Above the bed a single light bulb dangles from a wire. Just as we were ready to leave, she walked up the muddy path to her house. Her shoulders were hunched over a bamboo cane held by a frail, crooked hand that looked like it had been broken and healed without a cast. She had a weathered face, white hair and a warm smile. A cross necklace hung around her neck with one arm of the cross broken off.
Just when she showed up, her younger sister, who lives next door, brought some chairs so we could sit down right outside the house. We sat down with the widow, her sister and another church member who lived near-by. The widow spoke Makassae and very little Tetun, so our visit was relatively short. But with Mama Rosa’s help translating, I introduced myself and let her know it was an honor to visit her. She smiled and thanked me. I said a brief prayer and we left.
I’ll be the first to admit that visitation can feel deficient in such a situation. After all, this old widow is literally bearing in her body the injustice of the world: ill health and terrible living conditions due to wrenching poverty in a country with a violent, traumatic history. Prayer it would seem does little to resolve such things in any immediate, practical sense. But I’ve come to believe that we should never dismiss prayer as a powerless endeavor in the face of suffering. Rather, we should recognize that in such a context, prayer is not our own but is in fact the hopeful ‘groaning and sighing’ of the Spirit bearing witness in us (Romans 8:18ff).
Visitation itself is a form of prayer. It is the willingness to become vulnerable to the suffering of ‘the other’ and in so doing to shatter boundaries that protect us from the world’s realities. Visitation also allows us to share some of the burden as an act of pastoral care. But visitation is also a form of protest. It is a prophetic critique of injustice because by prioritizing the plight of the poor and those who suffer, it proclaims the way God sees the world in protest against suffering:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh…” Luke 6:20-21