Easter is coming, and with it the promise…
John Campbell-Nelson – Indonesia
Greetings to you, and peace. Since most of my letters begin with the weather, I have resolved to say nothing about it this time, even though we are in the midst of a week of torrential rain that often accompanies the Chinese New Year. The fact that we celebrate it as a national holiday is a sign of progress since the days when Suharto outlawed the use of Chinese on the grounds that it could be used by the communists for secret communications. Today, best wishes for the Chinese New Year are posted all over town. Gong Xi Fa Cai, y’all.
We are beginning our 25th year since first arriving in Timor with our two-month-old daughter, Katie. She is now halfway through a graduate program in Plant and Soil Science at the University of Massachusetts. Her little brother Sam, who used to catch eels in the rice paddies and politely ask permission to stay out late hunting fruit bats, will graduate from Earlham College in May (majoring in biology, to no one’s surprise).
Much has changed here during that time, as of course it has everywhere else. Karen and I recently taught a course at the theological faculty called “Religion and Modernity.” On the final exam we asked students for their own definition of modernity. One refreshingly honest student simply wrote, “Things are a lot easier now. We used to have to walk or ride a horse to go anywhere, now we can just get on a motorcycle or send a message with our cell phones. We used to have to pump up a kerosene lamp for light, now we just turn on a switch. And we have lots of electronic stuff.” “Stuff” you can turn on and off with a switch is the easy part. The social part is harder. Those handy cell phones are used for spreading rumors (“A tsunami is coming on June 6th!” “The Jihadis are going to bomb Kupang on Christmas!”) and for conducting clandestine romances.
The shift from traditional communal land holding to “modern” surveyed and deeded titles is a constant source of social conflict. Too often the former tribal commons has been deeded to the local patriarch or his heirs as private property. Most recently, about 700 families near us are threatened with eviction from their homes because a court awarded ownership of the land to a different heir than the one from whom they had bought it. Of course the proud new owner had paved the way by giving parcels of land to judges and police. When he started evicting people, fighting broke out, women and children fled, and the men set up barricades to defend their neighborhoods. After the accidental shooting death of a young policeman there is a temporary quiet. Colleagues from the Synod office took the opportunity to visit the victims and see what can be done to keep the peace.
Measuring, mapping and registering land takes power away from local communities and hands it to the courts. Under the tribal system, land rights were determined by common memory and redistributed according to the changing needs of the community. Now that we are modern, rights are determined by lawyers, bureaucrats and judges (few of whom are known to the local community) and redistributed according to the ability to pay.
The hidden constant in this conflict is the role of personal relationships and social status. The new “owner” of the tribal lands simply figured out that relationships with traditional patriarchs were no longer very important, so he built up relationships with judges, police, and politicians. He also took care to appease the socially important members of the community (including church leaders), assuring them that they were immune from eviction before he began evicting the powerless.
In these Modern Times, one thing has remained the same: You are who you know, and who knows you. If you don’t know anybody, you are nobody. That realization has been haunting me lately, in the form of a dead baby.
Her name was Rita Norlina Selan, a name she was given only so that she wouldn’t have to be buried without one. Her mother had too many children already, too much work, and not enough food and rest. She never recovered from Rita’s birth and died when Rita was a few weeks old. Rita’s father is a farm laborer who would have no money until the rice crop is harvested in April or May. Unable to buy milk, he fed her rice water and sugared tea. She starved to death.
This sort of thing happens in the hills of Timor all too often. But in Rita’s case, it happened less than a mile from our house. The milk she needed was sitting on a shelf in our pantry. The car that could have taken her to the hospital (or her mother before her) was parked in our garage. So why didn’t she get the help she needed? Because her father didn’t know us, and we didn’t know him. When asked why he didn’t come to us for help, he said he was malu (translate that as a combination of shy, ashamed, and afraid). Of course he knew who we are and where we live, but he did not feel socially important enough to make requests of the Big White People. We didn’t go to him because we were busy with other things and nobody told us quite explicitly enough that there was a starving baby in our neighborhood.
I have done trainings for deacons all over Timor on their role as guardians of the welfare of their congregations, with a special calling to make sure that no one is forgotten or left out. Rita reminds me of what has been missing from those seminars. Social analysis of the causes of poverty and training on nutrition and public health issues is secondary. What is of first importance is being the kind of community where no one is nobody, and where differences in education, wealth, and social status (and race, in our case)are no more important than differences in height or hair color-because anonymity can be a death sentence, and hierarchy can kill. That’s the kind of community that Jesus worked to create, and it’s the kind of community we have yet to become.
Easter is coming, and with it the promise that God can always bring new life, even from death. We pray for that new life, for you, for us, and for the people of Timor.