In the month of July Fr Steve Curtin and Fr Phil Crotty spent a week in East Timor. Their plan was to visit all the projects that you, the friends of Jesuit Mission, support with your prayers and donations. However the recent unrest meant that the Jesuit houses where they stayed had become places of sanctuary for the people.
It was strange to wake up in a Jesuit house to the sound of babies crying and their mothers comforting them. Fr Steve Curtin and I were visiting East Timor. We’d planned the trip before all the troubles broke out. We hesitated when the situation spiraled out of control, but still wanted to go, hoping that the East Timorese Jesuits and all whom they care for, would welcome a visit at this time. On TV and in the papers we’d seen how thousands of refugees had fled the mobs on the street and the house burnings; and how they had sought refuge in the churches, convents, seminaries, any secure place they could find.
But the reality of meeting family after family, sleeping in the classrooms, the corridors, under the trees was overwhelming. I kept waking up at night to the sound of crying. During the day there were children everywhere, running along the corridors and charmingly greeting every Jesuit they could spot with “Bondia” (good morning). Their houses had been burnt to the ground, they’d been driven out of the area where they lived, they’d found sanctuary with the church, all in a matter of a few days, and still the meals had to be cooked, the clothes washed, the children looked after. I kept thinking that this is what war is really like, an incredible mix of the awful and the ordinary.
The enclosed courtyard of the Jesuit house at Taibesi is a place to feel safe. String was tied from pillar to pillar, mosquito nets were hung, the children’s clothes hung up to dry, tiny spaces marked out for each family, At night the families gathered in an open area and lit candles and sang and prayed beside tiny statues of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady of Fatima that they had rescued from their burning homes. Early each morning, amid all the mosquito nets and mattresses and washing, one of the Jesuits said mass in Tetum. It was deeply moving to stand there among the people knowing that the liturgy simply said, “God is among his people.” Out on the streets tanks rumbled by with helmeted Ozzie heads sticking up through the turrets.
The Jesuit house is close to the Taibesi market. The market was burned to the ground and along with it the houses of the Lorosa’e (those from the East). On that first day more than 800 people crowded into our house at Taibesi. Down the road the Jesuit high school received thousands. Further back towards the mountain that provides such a spectacular back drop to the port city of Dili, the seminary had more than 7,000 refugees. It is estimated that 20 per cent of the population of Dili fled their homes. In all that turmoil they knew that they would be safe, that they could find sanctuary in the Church.
There were heroic stories. Many spoke of the parish priest of Ermera, Fr Adriano, who drove through a mob to rescue some Lorosa’e police who were under siege from people of Loromonu (the West). He managed to get them into his jeep, but could not save two of them who were dragged from his vehicle while he was escaping with the rest. Then there was the picture of Fr Lebron that appeared in newspapers around the world. He is known to all the children of the neighbourhood as Amu Lalo. He went out on to the streets at night, moving from place to place to rescue families trapped in burning houses. There were tragedies too for the priests. At the major seminary the Rector had opened the house and the grounds to thousands. But at night when he was driving back to the seminary someone shot him through the car window. He was so badly injured that he had to be airlifted to Darwin.
Steve and I spent only eight days in East Timor, but managed to visit all the places where the Jesuits are working; the different houses in Dili, Railaco in the mountains west of Dili, Suai on the southern coast, which involves a journey across the mountainous spine of this tropical paradise. As we saw all the things that were happening, the health centre in Railaco, the recently opened high school, the new agricultural training centre in Suai, we were in awe of all the work that has been done and at the same time we could see why the Church had so easily become a place of sanctuary for the people. We saw this beautifully illustrated in a mountain village on the border of Railaco. It was evening when Fr Sammy Dijon took us up a steep mountain road to a village called Tocaluli. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, mountains, valleys, forests on every side. Fr Sammy said Mass in an open space in the centre of the village. Everyone from the village was there and everything was beautifully prepared. The choir sang different harmonies with the greatest of ease and Fr Sammy spoke gently to them about not being divided one against the other. After we’d had a meal in one of the houses and were driving back at night, Sammy told us how this little community had come together.
It was built on the model of the Basic Christian Communities. “Three leaders from the village became ‘Animadores’ (animators). They call the people together every week and get one of the young educated ones to read the Sunday readings to the group. Then they talk about what the gospel means to them. This is what they have told me, ‘It’s as though we’re an extended family. The problems of one family become the problems of the whole group, and together we look for solutions. It’s a chance to live out the Gospel, to share the word of God, to share bread, to feel part of a family.’
Jesus always walked with the poor, hand in hand. Jesus walks beside each of us, no matter who we are or where we come from, whether we are Lorosa’e or Loromonu (Easterners or Westerners). We’re very clear in the community that Jesus presents himself to us in the needy, in the vulnerable, in the one who suffers. We have him here with us every day.” When you go to the heart of the matter that’s why our churches and schools have become sanctuary to the people.
Phil Crotty SJ