Easter in Timor

Easter in Timor

Writing to you feels like the last step in a return to “normal” life here in Timor. We returned from five months of home assignment in the U.S. in early February, just in time for the start of a new semester at Artha Wacana Christian University (UKAW), where Karen and I have been asked to join the theological faculty as full-time staff.

For me, this represents a return to my earlier work after nearly ten years in the Synod office of GMIT (the Protestant Church of Timor).  For Karen, it is a return to appointment with the Common Global Ministries Board after nearly ten years of working with international human rights organizations.  Most members of the theological faculty are former students of ours, so there is a familial/collegial atmosphere that is most welcome.

At any rate, the need to start teaching immediately, almost before we had unpacked our bags, has meant that we have been out of touch with the rest of the world.  As we come up for air during the Easter break, we send you our greetings.  Following is a reflection from Karen on her experience of Easter in our local congregation.

Disturbing Easter Morning

Despite the fact that John and I made a joint decision to spend Easter with our extended Timorese family in the hills of South Central Timor (John was asked to preach at the Easter service), I bailed at the last minute.  Classes for UKAW’s undergraduate theology program have been underway for more than a month, but the new master’s program begins this week, the week of Easter.  Overwhelmed by my workload—syllabuses, lesson plans, a journal article, terms of reference for a public hearing—too many of them in the “urgent, do yesterday” pile; I debated about what to do, then bailed. I sent John off with greetings: “Give my love to all in Lelobatan.”

Staying home meant a large number of worship services to attend (or not). Following Thursday’s pre-communion “get yourself right with the Lord” service and Good Friday’s service, followed by communion in the afternoon, was a service on Saturday of pre-dedication for those whose babies were to be baptized on “Second Easter”, then a predawn “parade” around the neighborhood followed by the Easter sunrise service, and another service later in the afternoon for children and youth. Fourteen babies were baptized during Monday morning’s second Easter service, this followed by blessing services at their individual homes. I do not bear gladly some aspects of 19th century Dutch Reformed tradition that die so hard. Sitting in my third worship service in as many days I wondered how I might justify staying home to tackle my workload. Then news arrived that the first of Kobus and Antonia’s twins, born two weeks ago, had died. She was tiny, weak, and jaundiced, her father without enough money to buy the prescribed meds. The wake would commence second Easter, Monday night, when the baby was brought home to bury in the back yard.

But something extraordinary and discomfiting happened in the midst of all this worship, communion, grief and praise. Once past it seemed, perhaps, a test of faith. The Good Friday communion service had been packed. Members of the congregation were seated, and then served, at a long row of tables in the shape of a cross—this year; ten rounds of about 40 members each were served in this way. Yet the Easter sunrise service was sparsely attended, and mostly by young people. The message seemed to be Good Friday was for adults, Easter for children and youth. Indeed this year, high school students had prepared a drama that they performed following the sermon—a litany of regrets by individuals who had known, loved, betrayed Jesus, addressed to an empty cross that was shrouded in purple. My congregation is not wealthy, yet the set and costumes were believable in their simplicity. Those approaching the cross included the women who had found the tomb empty, their heads covered by white dish towels; Judas and Peter stood barefoot, in shorts, t-shirts, and thin curtains draped toga-like across their chests; Roman soldiers hefting bamboo spears and protected by incredibly realistic cardboard-box chest armor. Each regret was followed by a soliloquy of confession, self-inspection, or hope, the supplicant facing the congregation.

Yet even before this drama began, while the pastor still spoke Easter words of renewed life from the pulpit, rumblings from someone in the congregation could be heard. As the sermon progressed, the sounds became louder and more disruptive. It was soon evident that a member of the congregation was not well. When the man’s words, sometimes shouts, were comprehensible, he seemed to beseech God to grant salvation—“Keselamatan! Keselamatan!”—his gestures evoking the style of worshippers in the Pentecostal church just down the road from us. I heard the woman sitting behind whisper to her neighbor, “Mungkin mabuk.” [“Probably drunk.”]. The man sat midway across the aisle, one pew in front of me. Even so, it initially took awhile for me to locate him—this before the occasional flare of his hands in the air, head raised heavenward. Like me, the pastor in the pulpit did not quickly realize what was happening, his view of the man blocked by the life-sized cross on the chancel steps.  By the time the youth had begun their drama, the man was in full form, often seemingly engaged in dialogue with the befuddled actors as they bravely delivered their lines. To the Roman soldiers he nearly shouted, “So why did you murder him? Salvation! Salvation!”  The man’s unconventional behavior made all in the church uncomfortable; it also, initially, put us all at a loss.

There I sat among others; there we sat as a congregation. What to do? How to respond? My experience followed a trajectory from confusion, fear, and anger to reflection, inner debate and hesitation, and finally to a modicum of resolution. This compressed journey of faith early Easter morning left me with a fair share of self-doubt about split-second decisions (were they sins of omission?), attempts at self-justification, and the dynamics of mass psychology. Collectively confronted by a disturbed and disturbing man on Easter morning, I had done nothing, while others, all men save for one woman (whom, I later learned, was his wife) did act.

I later wondered at what had triggered the man’s distress that stabbed our Sunday morning worship routine like a thorn. What seemed to increase his confused emotion, spilling over into our “sacred space” was when the pastor referred in his sermon to the recent extrajudicial killing of several men from NTT, our province of Indonesia. These men had been arrested for stabbing to death a soldier at a café in central Java. Once arrested, the police transferred the four detainees to a prison in Yogyakarta (“Chief Warden not ok with detainees’ transfer”, Jakarta Post, March 23, 2013; http://www. thejakartapost.com/news/2013/03/ 23/chief-warden-not-ok-with-detainees-transfer.html). Masked gunmen invaded the prison, sought out the four detainees and gunned them down, terrifying communities of NTT students studying in Yogya who fled from their rented dwellings. The pastor was talking about the identity of the gunmen, suspected fellow soldiers, when the man’s disturbance peaked. I whispered to women sitting in front of me, “Does the man have family?” All they knew was his ethnicity—Sabunese.

Thobi, a teacher with whom I have served on the congregation’s Liturgical Celebrations Committee was sitting across the aisle from me. He moved from the end of his pew to sit directly behind the mumbling man.  When the man’s volume increased, Thobi would place his hands on the man’s back, seeking to calm him with physical contact.  I sat there thinking about ordination and laying on of hands and wondered if I should join Thobi.  But I didn’t.  After awhile, the lay leader of the church council whose members all sit on the chancel, came down and also sat with the man, one arm around his shoulder. The man turned and embraced Edu.  Edu returned to his chancel seat and then Yes, head of the church’s building committee, moved back from his front-row pew and sat next to the man’s wife, consulting with her in whispers, and then moved next to the man who hugged Yes dearly, as he had earlier hugged Edu. By this time the sermon had ended and the youth drama had begun. Various members of the congregation would snicker or grin as the man apparently interacted with the youth in their New Testament guises. Others would cluck, frowning at the man when he shouted. Another man in the row behind me stood up, disgust written on his face. He moved to sit next to Thobi who had by then returned to again place hands on the man’s back now and again.

And I? I sat.  After deciding a white woman’s proximity might exacerbate emotion, I then wondered if I should move closer to Thobi, a sign of support for him, when he still sat alone, offering comfort as best he could. But I sat some more. I sat and reflected from a safe distance, “Could this be a sign from God? Some kind of Easter morning wake-up call? A test? (‘Even as you do it to the least of these . . .’ ‘Blessed are the merciful . . .’).” I sat and observed as the congregation, collectively, seemed to go through a wave of discomfort, followed by a mixture of anger and humor. We watched the youth drama in fits and starts, distracted by the man’s unscripted lines. And as we in the congregation observed the male members of the church council take action and then return to their seats it seemed we had become signatories of a silent contract.  Space for disruption had been created and, once accepted; we managed to refocus our attention on the drama and the rest of the service, the man’s acts of verbal transgression becoming more a backdrop to the routine of Sunday worship.

The “deal” I struck with myself was if the man were to do something harmful, that would be crossing the line, and that would be the time to move, to do something. But I was also taking cues from those around me.  There was an elephant in our sanctuary, yet for the most part we stuck to the rules of convention.  Not once during the 40 or so minutes of this scene did anyone seek to use force with the man. And once the service was over and congregants drifted out the doors, I looked again where the man was now lying in a fetal position on his pew, apparently spent.

Post-service, which did not offer the post-resurrection “high” I may have sought, the man became more human to me. His name was Minggus Boenga, and his wife had been with him in church.  Thobi offered one explanation. A battle of spirits had been fighting for his soul. God may have chosen him to send a message, but some obstacle got in the way of it being delivered and the result had been the incident in church. Thobi firmly believed that the prayer group, well versed in addressing such issues, needed to have a special prayer, a kind of exorcism, as soon as possible. If not, the man may be lost to permanent mental illness. Another explanation I heard was more sociological. I learned that Minggus digs wells; when dug in the hills behind our house, wells may need to go quite deep. Because this can be dangerous work, it pays well. Some church members thought Minggus was getting his just desserts for not being more generous towards those in need. And yet a neighbor hinted that Minggus had brought it on himself, that his apparent suffering was related to some individual, unspeakable sin.

And I? I am left wondering what kept me from doing something, and then left wondering some more that perhaps doing nothing was the right choice. The rhythm of worship was disturbed and the spontaneous individual and collective responses were made with some compromise—we were able to finish our Easter service with disturbance, but without violence. Though I was proud that we had the social resources to handle Minggus in a humane way, still I was left with questions. In a country where soldiers can break into a prison and gun down prisoners; in a neighborhood with poverty where babies die for lack of medicine and proper health care; in a neighborhood church where we share communion and baptism and hugs, we are on journeys of faith. My prayer is they may also be journeys of hope that move us beyond where demons dwell.

God’s blessings and peace,

John and Karen Campbell-Nelson

John and Karen Campbell-Nelson serve with the Evangelical Church of West Timor. John serves as a staff support for the Synod’s Theological Commission and Synod programs. Karen serves as a Professor.