2012 Fall: Monica Liddle, medical missionary in East Timor

2012 Fall: Monica Liddle, medical missionary in East Timor

 In 2002 East Timor, known officially as the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste, celebrated independence from foreign rule. An island about 400 miles north of Australia, Timor was originally colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century.  East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in 1975, only days after the Portuguese government withdrew.  The people then endured 25 years of brutal occupation during which more than 100,000 people were killed.

Women in International Mission
An interview with Monica Liddle, medical missionary in East Timor

Monica & Tom Liddle, members of Peace United Church of Christ, Duluth, Minnesota, serve with the Protestant Church of East Timor (IPTL). Monica works as a Naturopathic Doctor (ND) in Immanuel Clinic Lospalos, which is run by the FUSONA, the relief and development wing of the IPTL. Monica’s appointment is supported 100% by One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS).

Monica Liddle serves Global Ministries in East Timor where she lives with her husband, Tom, and two children: Hannah, 8, and Simon, 2 (both born on 15 February!). She brings a healing hand and a loving heart to her medical ministry.  Her inspiring story can remind each of us of the amazing twists and turns through which life can take us, and how faithfully God accompanies us along the way.  May the words of her favourite hymn, “Brother, Sister let me serve you,” guide you through the chapters of her life.

When we sing to God in heaven, we shall find such harmony,
born of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony.

Monica was born to her Midwestern parents in Columbus, Indiana in the early 1970’s. She describes an unusual religious upbringing, a mixture of harmony and agony.

Monica:  My mom was raised, and still is, a devout Catholic. My dad comes from a family of devout Christian Scientists. Though my dad converted to Catholicism when my parents were married, my paternal grandparents’ faith had lasting impressions on me and has shaped my choice of professional endeavor.  Of their faith, their austerity despite their financial success stands out (my grandfather was a successful pattern maker at General Motors).  Also, their faith in the healing power of God shared openly with me during childhood, and adult, visits.  They both lived well into their 90s despite chronic health issues with practically no medical intervention until end of life issues arose.  Then family strife occurred because, according to my grandparents’ faith, they wanted no part in conventional medical care while their children felt discomfort as they watched them suffering.

            I was raised Catholic, went to Catholic school until 9th grade.  My family rarely missed a Sunday Mass.  We prayed together before eating dinner every evening. (“Bless us oh Lord and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty, through Christ our Lord Amen”….said fast and  without pause, but said every night nonetheless).   I was baptized as a baby, made the sacrament of communion in 2nd grade and the sacrament of reconciliation in 5th grade. 

            By the time I got to my junior year of high school, I told my parents I was not going to take Confirmation class.  I just didn’t feel committed to my faith to take that step.  I was 16 and had too many questions about faith to simply follow the scheduled program for all the Catholic kids.  Reluctantly, my parents agreed, feeling they could not force me to do something I was strongly taking a stand against doing. My Catholic maternal grandmother was certainly likewise disappointed at this decision. 

We are pilgrims on a journey,

Monica’s life journey joins threads of expressive arts, Naturopathic Medicine and international intrigue.   After graduating from the University of Arizona with a degree combining Women’s Studies and Creative Writing she was introduced to Naturopathic Medicine. 

Monica: I was immediately struck with the sense of:   HERE IT IS! THIS IS WHAT YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO DO WITH YOUR LIFE, MONICA!  As a child, I was intrigued with medicine, health and the body.  My mom tells me that when I was about seven, she found me reading a First Aid Handbook and I said to her, “Mom, this is the neatest book ever!”  I had a conversation with my family physician, at age twelve, where he [suggested I would go to] medical school.  I studied naturopathic medicine at Bastyr College in Seattle.  It was intense, satisfying, overwhelming, and eye-opening.

We are trav’lers on the road.

International experiences influenced Monica from a young age, and her sense of adventure was sparked.  Tales from her father’s Peace Corps experience in Tanzania in the 1960’s blend with her first-hand experiences in India.

Monica:  As a child, our house was decorated with animal skin drums, wooden statues and masks my dad had brought back from Africa.  For fun, on weekends my family would get out the projector and watch slides of my dad’s life building bridges (literally) in an African village.  I was fascinated.  As I grew up, people would compare me to my dad, saying I had the same sense of adventure and a similar relaxed demeanor.  I was always in awe, still am, that he left for Africa at the age of 23.

To give myself a reality check, or to try to enjoy life a bit, or because God planned it  this way, my long-time boyfriend, Tom, and I made a plan to spend 3 months in India  in 1999.  I took time off my studies, and with a Lonely Planet guidebook, small backpacks and each other, Tom and I set off to see the world.

It blew me away.  The sights, the smells, the people, oh so many people.  I thought I was going there to see the world, to learn a bit about Ayurvedic medicine, (traditional Indian Medicine), but I was 28, and  the most shocking thing to be confronted with was  …..myself.  I was in a foreign place, and I could never get comfortable.  And then, the metaphor of it all hit me.  “Who am I?  Who am I trying to be?”  Did I get an answer? Well, I got a little closer to my truth, I can honestly say that. 

            I remember grabbing Tom’s little Bible and reading it.  I was grabbing at the familiar.  I was seeking solace from the source of my childhood faith tradition, as people do in times of crisis.  Those twelve long weeks in India were a crisis for me.  With Tom’s support and reassurance, I started to examine my fears, beliefs, and dreams in ways I had never done before.  I started being able to look at myself and make positive changes in my life, to become more the person I authentically am.

            In India, I learned about myself.  I also learned about poverty, health, kindness from strangers, and trust.  I learned that people in poverty can be relatively healthy and happy.  I learned that some people in the world don’t think it strange to invite a random foreigner home to dinner.  I learned that amidst the pollution and overcrowding and chaos, I believe there is God watching over us all.  And, I realized that my privilege to go to medical school and to be able to travel the world meant that I had much to give back when the time came.

We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.

Monica:  After India, I was forever changed.  Eyes opened.  In 2003, at the end of my training at Bastyr, I found an opportunity to spend time in Dili, East Timor, the capital city of a new country which had only just found independence after centuries of oppression by other nations.  Until that time I hadn’t really considered overseas work.  My reason for going then was to complete birth training, as I was going to be providing at-home birth services in my practice. I spent just 9 weeks in Dili, but it took only a few days for me to fall in love with East Timor.  Though I knew only a little of the language, Tetum, my connection with the place and with the people was immediate. My final week, three people asked me to come back to Timor and start a women’s clinic.  The dream is still out there for me, even now.

I had a private practice in Naturopathic Medicine and midwifery for six years in Duluth, Minnesota prior to my mission assignment with Global Ministries.  I provided nutritional counseling and complementary medical care for my general practice patients and complete maternity care and delivery services to the wider community.  I also trained aspiring midwives, taught community childbirth education classes and guest-lectured at local college and university.

Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you?

Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

Monica returned to East Timor in 2009 when Global Ministries hired her to be the doctor in a church-run village clinic.  Her responsibilities seem titan: as many as 80 consultations each day, providing antenatal care and mobile clinics, overseeing a feeding program for children, a lab for TB and malaria testing, clinic finances and training for the staff.   Tom assists pastors with developing rural visitation programs, worked on rehabilitating the clinic, and does much child care and cooking.

What does she find most rewarding?

Monica:  The five Timorese women on staff learning new skills, becoming competent and confident in their work, and their real desire to learn.

And most challenging? Three things stand out…

Monica:  Sick kids with “hopeless” situations here in Timor, such as congenital heart problems, that would readily be diagnosed and treated in the USA.   Language: my inability to communicate fully with my colleagues and patients. Cultural taboos.

What spiritual disciplines sustain her?

Monica: Each day at clinic we start our day with a group prayer.  Each week, Tom and I pray together for our life, our community, and our mission.  As I work, I am surrounded by much suffering, and to take hold of strength to keep working sometimes, I breathe and remember that God is helping me carry the load of comforting these people through medicine, compassion, and my advice to them.

I will hold the Christ-light for you in the night time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.

Monica’s favourite Bible verse, Exodus 1:15-21, reminds us of the heroic and noble role played by health care providers throughout history. 

Monica:  The midwives in this passage are the first civil disobedients in the Bible.  I love the story because it is about women, and because the midwives are bold to the point of standing up to the power of the king himself.  In light of my work here in East Timor, my appreciation of this story has expanded even more.

Exodus 1:15-21 (NRSV)

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, ‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.

Won’t you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

Note:  Monica and Tom returned to the USA in July 2012 for Tom to begin a Master of Divinity program.  They are living in St. Paul Minnesota, and hope to return to East Timor after Tom completes his studies.

Questions for reflection and discussion

  1. Have you ever had a moment of clarity, as Monica did, when she realized that she was called to Naturopathic Medicine?  When was it?  How did it affect your life?
  2. What have your travel experiences been?  Have you felt overwhelmed as Monica did in India?  Have you felt right at home in your travels, as she felt in East Timor?  What made the difference for you?
  3. What countries today live under oppressive regimes as East Timor did under Indonesia?  What can ordinary people do to make a difference?

Prayer Points

  • Our international partners in East Timor and other countries in the South Pacific region.
  • Monica, Tom, Hannah and Simon, and other missionary families serving Global Ministries.
  • The people of East Timor living into their new national identity as a free people.

Opportunities for Action

  • Identify a country or people currently occupied and oppressed by another.  Decide on at least one action to take to stand up  and speak out for liberty.  Global Ministries and Amnesty International may be able to provide suggestions.
  • Write a note of appreciation to Monica and her family for their ministry and witness in East Timor.  She and Tom have a blog at www.monicaliddle.com
  • Learn more about Global Ministries (the Join Ministry of Wider Church Ministries and Division of Overseas Ministries) and how your congregation can get involved as a Global Mission Church.

Currently living in London UK, Ana Gobledale serves as co-pastor, with her husband Tod, at St. Andrew’s United Reformed Church, Brockley.  They are Mission Associates with Global Ministries, having previously served in Australia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.