Christmas in Timor
John Campbell-Nelson – Indonesia
I woke up from my Sunday afternoon nap and looked out the window at a pleasant rain coming down. The weight of the water and the ripening fruit had pulled a branch of the mulberry tree down to within view of the bedroom window. Time to make jam. Maybe the red of the berries reminded me of holly, because I decided to get up and write our Christmas letter.
The mulberries have a history, by the way. They were brought here about thirty years ago as part of a government scheme to start a silk industry. The farmers dutifully planted them, and they dutifully grew. But somebody forgot the silkworms, and the farmers shook their heads and went back to their corn and cassavas. Now the birds and the children are the sole beneficiaries of yet another development plan gone awry. We cut some stakes and planted about half a dozen in our yard, and the neighborhood kids stop by for a mouthful on their way home from school. This is all done in accordance with the traditional commandment regarding Thy Neighbor’s Fruit: You may eat of the fruit of your neighbor’s trees as long as you do it on the spot, and this shall be reckoned as hospitality. But you shall not fill your pockets and bring it home with you, for this shall be reckoned to you as theft.
One afternoon, about a month or so ago, one of these children surprised us by walking purposefully up to where we were sitting on the porch and asking, “Please, may I have a book to read?” The general myth is that Timorese village kids don’t like to read, and do only the minimal amount required for school, if that. My experience teaching in seminary seemed to bear that out, although I could never tell exactly what was behind it. It was equally true that there were very few good theological books in Indonesian, and the students didn’t have the money to buy them anyway. So it was hardly a fair test. But the sight of this little girl right out of Oliver Twist, asking not for more porridge but for a book to read went straight to my heart. Karen knew where we kept our small supply of Indonesian-language children’s books, and she took the girl over to pick one out.
The next day she was back along with five of her friends. By now the group has grown to at least two dozen, and they stop by the house every two or three days and exchange their books for ones they haven’t read. Some of them are remarkably good readers for elementary school children, others seem to mostly look at the pictures–but any kind of friendship with books is cause for thanks. Now all we have to do is keep their little minds supplied with new books.
Fortunately, Karen passed through Jakarta recently and found a good book sale and sent home a box of children’s books in Indonesian. She was on her way to Aceh where she is helping the Indonesian National Commission to Oppose Violence Against Women set up a program to monitor violence and discrimination against women in Aceh displaced by the tsunami or the armed conflict between the Indonesian military and the GAM independence movement. Many women were widowed by the tsunami, and some older daughters became head of household when both parents were killed. An additional factor that seriously limits women’s freedom of movement and association is the imposition of Islamic law in the territory. Karen is helping to train the monitors – all of them displaced women with varying levels of literacy – and set up the documentation system. It’s good work, but it’s a long way from Timor. She is back home for Christmas, though, along with our son Sam who is in his second year majoring in biology at Earlham College in Indiana. Katie won’t be with us. Having graduated from Earlham in May, she is now in Massachusetts looking for work in the field of sustainable agriculture. Right now she has a part-time job doing promotion and artwork for an organic farmer’s organization; she also paints houses to earn money and makes pottery for fun.
The Timor Leste Truth Commission report on which Karen worked for much of the past several years has now been handed over to the Timor Leste Parliament. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to know what to do with it. The report contains so much damning information on the Indonesian government and military that it is feared it will damage the fragile relationship between the two countries. It is a real dilemma: Timor Leste’s leadership knows it can’t rely on western powers to always protect it from its giant neighbor, and there seems to be little support for an international tribunal–so there is a danger the report will simply be buried along with the thousands of victims whose fate it documents. As is so often the case, justice is denied because the victims simply do not have the power to demand it.
I have been doing my usual smorgasbord: a case study workshop in Sulawesi, theological conversations in the presbyteries about GMIT’s proposed new confession of faith, discussions with deacons about preserving the environment as part of the church’s work, participating in a government-sponsored HIV/AIDS seminar, helping set up a scholarship program for the orphaned children of deceased pastors (in cooperation with CGMB’s child sponsorship program) and…well, stuff like that.
As some of you know, we also have a batch of Timorese children and young adults from the villages who live with us while they attend nearby schools: four are in college and two in high school, plus two recent college graduates. They keep the household running in return for tuition and board, in addition to being a very effective remedy for the empty nest syndrome now that our own two children are gone. They also have the unexpected benefit of keeping us better connected with our own neighborhood. Largely through them, we have become aware of how prevalent tuberculosis is in the area. Yuli, the mother of one of the students in our home, has been living with us for the past several months while undergoing treatment, and several other neighbors are undergoing treatment as well. The problem is that when people become ill around here, they usually just disappear. With transportation difficult and little money for doctors or medicine, they tend to just stay at home and wait to die or get better. That’s where the teenagers come in with their network of neighborhood informants. Once they have identified someone who needs treatment, our role is pretty simple: make our car available to get them to a doctor, get a diagnosis, and then link them up with the free government tuberculosis treatment program (which also means bracing ourselves to deal with corrupt hospital systems and lazy bureaucrats). On one hand it is rewarding to see how quickly people recover once they start taking the medicine, but on the other it is frightening to think how many die quietly at home just because they don’t know how to get help.
This evening we will have our family Christmas gathering. The household drew names for an exchange of gifts (the requirement was that the gift has to be something we make ourselves), and we have invited our immediate neighbors for worship and hymns and roast chicken. The child whose birth we celebrate became known as a teacher and a healer. In children learning to love books and in neighbors healing from tuberculosis we see the signs that his life is with us still.
John Campbell-Nelson is a missionary serving with the Evangelical Christian Church of Timor. John serves as a professor there.