Alberto Viegas was the intern at Imanuel Church when we came back to Timor in 2016. We worked together for 9 months before he went back to school in Indonesia. Alberto has been in Lospalos this month doing some research for his Master’s in Theology. His topic is the church and poverty. For his research, he’s interviewing church members about their lives, work, struggles, and faith. Since Alberto is Timorese, he’s familiar with what life is like here. But after studying theology for the past two years, his perspective has changed. He sees with new eyes. His questions are different. He’s more preoccupied with people’s suffering and the church’s response. He wonders how people interpret their world, their suffering, and their future. He wonders how Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God can kindle a new mission for IPTL’s ministry.
One morning I joined Alberto for a visit to a church member’s home. We went to Paulo’s house. Paulo and his wife have several grown children and small grandchildren living with them. Their home is a rusty, corrugated iron shack. The floor is uneven, hard-packed dirt. Broken plastic chairs surround a small table in the room where we sat.
For Alberto’s interview, Paulo sat on a bamboo bench. Morning sunlight shone through a small window. Paulo’s wife, a small thin woman, sat across from us. She wiped sweat from her face, having just come in from the garden. Alberto asked Paulo about his life. Immediately, Paulo sat upright. His face grimaced, revealing deep wrinkles and worn skin. He began to speak, softly: “I plant corn and it has no ears…I raise animals and they die…money disappears…we’re forced to borrow…I’ve got nothing to show for it…I’m ashamed.” Silence fell and we sat for what felt like a long time. Alberto inquired next about his health. Paulo grasped his stomach and squinted his eyes. He complained of vague, chronic pain. He shook his head, quietly uttering a “Sigh too deep for words,” of the kind St. Paul wrote about (Rom. 8:26). Alberto asked Paulo if he prayed. He said he did. Then Paulo asked why God didn’t answer his prayers. Alberto and I were silent.
Before we left we prayed for Paulo and his family. In his prayer Alberto addressed Jesus, calling on him as Lord and friend of the poor. He named Paulo’s suffering. He asked for consolation and prayed for Paulo’s faith. As we got up to leave Paulo smiled, thanking us for the visit. I sensed he meant it.
Over lunch, Alberto and I talked about Paulo’s life and his question about why God didn’t answer his prayers. “Perhaps it’s God’s way of drawing him closer,” Alberto suggested. He said that sometimes Timorese believe suffering is punishment. Whatever the case, Paulo’s honesty revealed an element of hope. In it, we heard a prayer of protest like those in the Psalms or the book of Job. The Bible, after all, doesn’t spend much time trying to explain suffering. Rather its writers answer suffering by speaking truth, poetic protest, and demanding justice. Such truth-telling often eventuates in newness, hope, and even praise (e.g. Ps. 13). None of us can answer the riddle of suffering. But I sleep better knowing Alberto and others like him will be here for the long haul. They won’t have all the answers, but their commitment to a ministry of presence and their prayers of protest will kindle newness and hope.
Tom and Monica Liddle serve with the Protestant Church of East Timor (IPTL). Mission Co-worker appointments are made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, and your special gifts.