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.
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.
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.