The people of East Timor, the eastern half of an island southeast of Indonesia, are described by Tom and Monica Liddle as the "poorest of the poor." But there is something about this beautiful, remote, complicated place that the Liddles, members of Peace United Church of Christ in Duluth, Minn., developed a deep connection with, and drew them to serve as missionaries.
The Liddles just finished their three-year service as Global Ministries (Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ) Missionaries with the Protestant Church of East Timor, returning to the U.S. in early July. The couple shared their experiences during a luncheon at the UCC headquarters July 24.
"Our first trip there was for two months and we didn't want to leave," said Monica. "We just fell in love with the place."
As Tom and Monica explained, in East Timor, the level of formal education is very low, and the people lack adequate medical care and proper nutrition. The country's literacy rate is about 50 percent, and per capita income is less than $1 per day. Religious denominations are unorganized and disconnected, and many East Timorese, particularly those in rural villages, don't feel the church is a place they can trust to provide help, safety and love.
"A biblical reference to describe East Timor is 'The Wilderness Wandering,'" said Tom. "New leaders are coming back to a devastated church and wondering, 'Who are we?'"
During their time in East Timor, Monica served as a doctor in a Protestant Church of East Timor (IPTL) primary care clinic in the village of Lospalos. Tom served as an English teacher, as well as a facilitator of church programs for strengthening the congregations and continuing education for pastors. He also spent a year renovating the IPTL clinic in Lospalos. Together, Tom and Monica worked to fulfill the mission of Global Ministries, which is to establish a critical presence in the country that offers physical, emotional, spiritual and economic support. They also worked to help East Timorese see the connection between healthcare and ministry.
"We strived to establish a presence not by telling these people what to do, but by walking with them, listening to them and communicating our commitment to helping them," said Tom. "We suggested the ways the church can be involved in people's lives beyond just preaching, such as by providing access to, and information about, available medical care for treatable conditions like cleft palate."
The Liddles experienced many notable successes during their time in Lospalos and surrounding villages. Monica lead the development of malnutrition and prenatal care programs, educated East Timorese medical teams about Hepatitis B prevention techniques, and treated 1,200-1,500 people per month on a budget of about $1.50 per patient. Some of Tom's successes include the renovation of the Lospalos clinic, uniting rural village congregations, and working with the IPTL youth to teach nonviolence and healthy conflict resolution.
But arguably their greatest contribution was their ability to offer support and solidarity to East Timorese ministers and citizens alike during the country's discouraging time. While it wasn't always easy, Tom and Monica feel they were able to make a lasting difference on a place and a people they hold dearly in their hearts. "During our time there, we waded into problems that weren't even on our radar screen," Tom said. "But our goal was to revitalize the purpose of ministry by reaching out to these people. You can't always sit around and wait for the people to come to you."