Seven youth from Lospalos recently spent two days traveling to a spring youth event that was attended by 70 youth of our partner church here, the Protestant Church in Timor-Leste. During the two nights spent in the village of Beasu, evil spirits struck all five of the Lospalos girls who went. Some had stomach pains, minor tremors and brief moments of dissociation. Two girls had hysterical outbursts and had to be physically restrained for up to two hours. Afterwards, the girls claimed to have no recollection of what had happened to them, what they said or did.
When we dug deeper to find out what had happened, we learned that on arrival to the youth event no obvious preparations had been made. There was no water in the bathrooms, no food prepared for the out of town guests, and an unswept church floor. No one had taken the reins to plan a schedule of activities, so everything happened on the spot.
When the evil spirits happened, some local participants told our youth that the church was built on an old graveyard, and that might be the problem. Others said it was because they were hungry and dehydrated which provided an opening for the spirits. Some others suggested to the girls that their faith in God was weak, and so they fell captive to the evil spirits.
In our home church, Peace UCC in Duluth, Minnesota, possession by evil spirits doesn’t come up all that much. Here, everyone believes it happens and many say they have experienced it personally.
Needless to say this experience has forced us to wrestle with a number of things. How do we reconcile our “modern” worldview which has largely dismissed or at least re-interpreted the notion of evil spirits with a world in which evil spirits, curses and the echoes of ancestors are part of the fabric of daily life? We could conclude, as some missionaries do, that our Timorese partners are still tethered to unhelpful beliefs that must be expunged by the light of the gospel. That may be partly true.
But we think it is most helpful to recognize that Timorese are deeply religious people who’s spiritual lives are a woven fabric of indigenous and Christian beliefs. The indigenous world they inhabit is an enchanted world infused with spiritual realities of all kinds.
As we debriefed the event with our youth we counseled them that their experience might be seen as a test of faith insofar as all of us must decide where our ultimate loyalties are. And in the end that means deciding what we will trust and what we will fear.
We recognize that Americans are no less subject to this test of faith than are Timorese. In Timor the test may be between trusting in the light of Christ vs. living in fear of menacing forces swirling about in the milieu of the culture. In America it may be a choice between risking the vulnerable way of Jesus vs. giving in to the consumer culture where an economy of greed and anxiety lead to a suspicion of the “other” that ultimately eventuates in violence.
To be sure, the New Testament world affirms the reality of evil spirits. And its central claim is that Christ defeats them. And therein may be the common ground between two seemingly disparate worlds. Whether or not evil spirits exist in a separate world, none of us would disagree that the world is wrought suffering and death-dealing realities that afflict on both the communal and individual level. The news of Easter is that in Christ these things are overcome and we can begin again.