What does an air-conditioned room with power-point presentations in an urban center have in common with a rural, dirt-floor church and a circle of plastic chairs? The two are both venues for grassroots theological education in Timor-Leste.
In May the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) held a three-day “Ecumenical Enablers Training” for pastors in Dili. This was about helping Timorese pastors develop a holistic understanding of ministry in the modern Asian context, a context where religious pluralism clashes with fanaticism, materialism with poverty, and the lingering effects of colonial domination persist. In a three-day workshop there were sessions on contextual Bible reading, mission and evangelism, preaching and interfaith relations. Workshops like this increase knowledge and strengthen fellowship among pastors, but they need follow up in the local church in order to be effective.
The vast majority of IPTL’s congregations are in rural areas and most are made up of subsistence farmers that have little in the way of income to support a pastor. This means pastors have to be creative, committed, and holistic in their approach to ministry. Our task is to accompany our partner church in developing these kinds of leaders so that the church becomes a life-giving presence in every community.
It’s a daunting, long-term task but we’re working on it anyway! IPTL’s General Secretary Juliana Temparajah and I have initiated a program of monthly clergy gatherings in the 5 presbyteries of IPTL. We meet at the village level in local churches. Clergy gatherings are common fare in the U.S. where collegial support and feedback are an expected aspect of practicing ministry. But the concept is new in Timor-Leste and both opportunities and challenges abound. Imagine a 3-hour motorcycle ride over rough mountain roads to get to a monthly pastor’s gathering! Yet, this is a common reality in Timor-Leste. The flip side is that when pastors do gather despite the difficulties, there is a genuine sense of solidarity, friendship and support.
Much of this work I realize is about helping church leaders revive their imagination, dignity and self-confidence. When that happens, over time, they can in turn expand a congregation’s sense of God’s presence in their midst and new possibilities will emerge.
One of the toxic aspects of colonialism, which has been Timor-Leste’s history for the past 500 years, is the way it “infects” those who are colonized. Colonial ways of being are characterized by domination and hierarchy. These are ways of being that shut down rather than encourage dignity, creativity, and self-sufficiency. In that model only the “experts” have a voice and the goal is controlling others. Unfortunately, these ways of being and doing don’t just disappear when the formerly colonized gain freedom. Our meetings are thus an attempt at grassroots education where everyone has a voice and new possibilities for relating to one another and discerning God’s presence emerge. We share experiences, do Bible study, pray together, and plan ministry. In and through those conversations we hope to strengthen relationships, encourage creativity, develop self-confidence, and learn new things from each other.
Tom and Monica Liddle serve with the Protestant Church of East Timor.