One of our key Lenten reflections comes to mind as I consider what I have gained moving into another phase of life, returning to Australia after six years in Timor Leste.
This invitation has underpinned my missions to parishes in Melbourne, Adelaide, and Perth, working mainly among migrant families, and, internationally, with those in rural areas and city ‘pueblos jovenes’(low-income settlements)in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and Lima, Peru.
The encouragement from Congregational leaders to “move beyond boundaries”directed my personal response, and the learnings, joys and challenges of intercultural living have shaped me.
When I first arrived in Gari-Uai, Timor-Leste, I had limited language;however,I was captivated by the people’s wide-open smiles and their capacity to encourage me to use my small amount of Tetun, and, gradually, my lesser knowledge of Makassae. It thrilled the people to hear us ‘having a go.’ The happiness of families was tangible when they saw I wanted to spend time conversing with them and learn more. In Bolivia, we were told, “When you can dream in Spanish, you are well on the way to grasping the language”… this did not happen for me in Tetun. I failed to grasp the local use because I naturally fell into Spanish among the Portuguese borrowed words.In fact, I fared better in Dili where TetunPrasa was the formally taught language. This was my greatest challenge.
Another challenge was ‘Timor time’ while waiting for events to begin or appointments to be realised. Yet, I could easily equate it with ‘Kimberley time’ (sun-up/ sundown) and ‘Latin American time’ (mañana). Patience developed a new meaning for me – “Be ready for when the time is right.“
From the start, I loved being called “Avo Madre” (grandmother mother) – it made me part of their family, and I learned how generous Timorese are with visitors. In Peru, I was called ‘muchita’and reacted badly, thinking it was derogatoryuntil I learned it was a term of affection. Name-callingis something wedon’t rapidly warm to in our culture, but it is a true form of endearment in others. Some people in Timor even called me “Amu Madre” (priest madre)when I visited, and I delighted in it, wondering if this was ‘ordination by the laity’ when priests are scarce?!
My greatest joy was the welcome I received from the elderly villagers to their homes. Mostly I responded to family members or catechists asking me to bring Communion, but many I met along the way and offered to visit. The senior citizens never left their homes. Age seemed to demand you could never again see your brothers or sisters – so I often arranged meetings; you could not go to the doctor/hospital of your own volition – I regularly took a carload to the local clinic. Whileable, you could stillgrow vegetables and till the soil for the family; feed the pigs and chickens; carry water and wash your clothes. When this was no longer possible, or one became bedridden, life was much more difficult. Bringing Communion was indeed a special gift; I was always welcomed so beautifully.Often there were little children they were minding,or who were ‘minding avo’. This became a chance for early evangelisation of ‘littlies’, whom I have always found quite profound, or to set adults straight about marriage and other sacraments,such as”Madres cannot hear confessions”; as well as helping ‘avos’ and their families prepare for death. The latter is the most significant element of personal and communal life in East Timor, and the rituals are enormous.
Reflecting on my vast experiences, I have, in small ways, helped families to ‘choose life’. In my absence, may they continue to choose life courageously.
Author: Sr Margie Bourke ibvm
Feature Image: Sr Margie Bourke ibvm giving communion to the elderly in Timor-Leste.