Sabbatical leads to new school in impoverished new nation
Written by W. Evan Golder
February - March 2008

The Rev. Jim Moos (r) next to Global Ministries Area Executive for Southern Asia the Rev. James Vijayakumar, with residents of Lisa Dila outside the new vocational school.
He came, he saw, he organized

This was the good news the Rev. Jim Moos brought back from his trip to East Timor in July.

"There were still some demonstrations and it was still fairly tense," he adds. "Some houses were burned, but there was no widespread violence."

This was the fifth trip to East Timor for Moos, pastor of Bismarck (N.D.) UCC. His purpose was to take part in last minute preparations for the opening of a new school in the village of Lisa Dila, about four hours south of Dili, the capital. The school would never have been conceived and constructed without the passion and zeal with which Moos tackled this opportunity, says Jan Aerie of the UCC's Wider Church Ministries.

In 2002, Moos volunteered his sabbatical time to Wider Church Ministries. "Where can I be useful?" he asked. The answer: East Timor, the first new nation of the 21st century and one of the poorest on the globe.

Moos was assigned to work with the Protestant Church in East Timor, a partner church of Global Ministries, the common mission effort of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the UCC. His trip to East Timor was his first Third World experience.

"My first impression was of the poverty," he says. "Immediately upon getting off the plane, it's so ‘in your face.' Everywhere I looked, signs of the 1999 cataclysm were still very, very fresh. Rebuilding had barely gotten started."
 
East Timor's troubles

The new school in Lisa Dila, East Timor.
East Timor is a Connecticut-sized, half-island nation of 1 million people near the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago. The country has had a bleak history. It endured more than 400 years as a Portuguese colony and 24 years of Indonesian occupation (1975-1999).

By many accounts, Indonesian soldiers were brutal and undisciplined during the occupation. Up to 200,000 East Timorese died, many from starvation, sickness, and disease, as well as from the fighting. During the occupation, many East Timorese took to the hills to hide in safety. Among them was the Rev. Francisco de Vasconcelos, moderator of the Protestant Church in East Timor.

Finally, on Aug. 20, 1999, 98 percent of eligible voters participated in a UN-sponsored referendum, with 78.5 percent voting for independence. But as Indonesian soldiers withdrew, they and the Indonesian-backed militia began systematic raping, looting, burning and killing.

It took more than two weeks for UN peacekeepers to arrive. In that time, some 1,500 East Timorese were murdered, Dili was burned, and its infrastructure destroyed. An estimated 300,000 people fled for safety to West Timor, still part of Indonesia.
 
Working to earn trust

Most of the three months of Moos's East Timor sabbatical in 2002 was devoted to getting acquainted with the situation and the people and working to earn some trust.

"Only in our last two weeks there were we able to really get down to making some plans," he says. That's when de Vasconcelos took Moos and his wife, Sharon, to Sunday worship in the village of Lisa Dila. "After the service," says Moos, "there was a meeting of the parishioners and the villagers and we got to talking about ways that we might begin to work together, and they asked if we could help with a new school.

"The nearest school was about 40 miles away and there's no transportation. So we agreed to help."

Once back home, Moos worked with the Rev. James Vijayakumar, Global Ministries Area Executive for Southern Asia, to determine how best to help. Since funding was crucial, they established an independent, not-for-profit foundation, the East Timor Education Foundation. This 501(c)(3) foundation is a partner ministry of Global Ministries and independently funds the new school.

Then it was back to East Timor.

"One of the things I learned very quickly is that very often the people most affected by development projects are never asked what they think," says Moos. "That's why I keep going down every year, because you can't do business like this with a fax and an e-mail. You do business face-to-face to build a relationship of trust."

In for the long haul

One of his first questions was, "What kind of a school do you want?" Since the country's main occupation is subsistence farming, the villagers asked for agricultural subjects. Close behind were construction and basic health and nutrition. They also included programs for girls, since, says Moos, "That's a big problem in a patriarchal society."

Once plans were underway, the villagers donated 10 acres of land, cleared it and built a fence around it. Next came the school itself (30 x 90 feet), built of masonry with a sheet metal roof and divided into three classrooms.

Construction costs were about $42,000. Staff housing claimed another $22,000. A solar electricity system cost about $8,000, basic start-up equipment another $5,000. Moos expects annual operating costs to run about $15,000.

Moos's congregation in Bismarck, N.D., is a major supporter of the Foundation, as is the Northern Plains Conference, many Northern Plains individuals and congregations, and several ecumenical churches and individuals.

After five years of Moos' dogged determination and impassioned vision, school opened last year on Aug. 30. Tuition is free for the 40 sixth- through eighth-grade boys and girls.

"This is a long term project," says Moos. "The Timorese are learning to build an institution, because things like by-laws and management principles are absolutely foreign to them.

"Now we're thankful that the children are participating in the learning through the classroom as well."

The Rev. W. Evan Golder is Editor Emeritus of United Church News. He visited East Timor in 2005.

Learn more

East Timor Education Foundation
221 West Avenue F, Bismarck, ND 58501
phone 701/223-2915 

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CONTACT INFO

Rev. J. Bennett Guess
Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3801
guessb@ucc.org