From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Interview with East Timor Church Leader
CAROL_FOUKE.firstname.lastname@example.org (CAROL FOUKE)
19 Sep 1997 10:50:18
Interview with East Timorese Church Leader
National Council of the Churches of Christ in the
Internet: c/o email@example.com
Contact: Wendy S. McDowell, NCC, 212-870-2227
NCC9/19/97 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
EAST TIMORESE CHURCH LEADER STRUGGLES WITH IDENTITY
OF PROTESTANT CHURCH IN DIFFICULT POLITICAL
NEW YORK, Sept. 19 ---- The Rev. Arlindo
Marcal, Moderator of the Christian Church of East
Timor, shared personal struggles that reflect the
tensions in his country during a recent visit with
leaders from the National Council of Churches (NCC).
Among the most important issues he faces, he
said, are how "to keep the Protestant churches
united" in East Timor while maintaining "a prophetic
voice concerned with human rights and justice."
Given the difficult political context, these are
seemingly impossible tasks, yet impossible tasks are
not new to Rev. Marcal.
Arlindo Marcal was born and raised in East
Timor. Like many other East Timorese, he spent
years hiding in the mountains after the Indonesian
invasion of his country in 1975. He was arrested
and threatened with imminent execution, but after
months in detention, he was finally released.
Upon his release, he studied for four years at
the Theological Faculty in Kupang, West Timor then
transferred to Duta Wacana Christian University in
Jogyakarta where he became the first East Timorese
to graduate from an Indonesian Protestant seminary.
"I had not had a formal education in
Indonesian, so the language was extremely difficult
for me," he said. "I had to study very hard." He
eventually became so immersed in his studies and so
used to speaking Indonesian, that when he returned
to East Timor years later, he found it difficult to
use his own native tongue. "I had to learn again to
speak my local language," he said.
Rev. Marcal did learn to communicate again to
the local people and became the Moderator of the
Christian Church in East Timor when still in his
early 30's. In 1996 he was reelected to another
term of office.
His difficulties and identity struggles make
Rev. Marcal especially suited to head up the
Protestant churches in East Timor, to which both
East Timorese and Indonesian people belong. In many
ways, this one man and the organization he leads
embody the tensions of the country as a whole.
"For years, the Protestant church has been
viewed as the church of the colonialists," explained
the Rev. Larry Tankersley, Director of the NCC's
Southern Asia Office. "Currently, members of the
Indonesian government and military are members of
Protestant churches as well as native East Timorese.
In a country with political oppression of one group
by the other, that makes for a difficult identity
The image of the Protestant church in East
Timor as an outsider church was exacerbated by the
fact that for years, the Communion of Churches in
Indonesia (PGI) spoke on its behalf. However, Rev.
Marcal changed that when he spoke out publicly at
the December 1995 Consultation on East Timor, a
joint meeting of the World Council of Churches and
Christian Conference of Asia, held in Hong Kong..
At that meeting, Rev. Marcal formally requested an
East Timor independent voice. The Christian Church
of East Timor became a member of the World Council
of Churches and has recently received a WCC
delegation to formalize their membership status.
Rev. Marcal noted that although Protestants are
only a small minority in the predominantly Roman
Catholic country, numbering 35,000, "there has been
a Protestant church presence in East Timor since
1953." His own church, in the Reform tradition, was
not formed through mission activity but entered via
a charismatic East Timorese man who had been
baptized by an English missionary. Because of these
realities, Rev. Marcal has been trying hard to get
people to recognize the Protestant church as East
Yet it is a difficult balance, because if Rev.
Marcal emphasizes the Protestant church as a native
East Timorese church, Indonesian members threaten to
split off. Rev. Marcal does not want that to
happen, saying, "I would be very unhappy if the
church split while I am moderator."
"At the same time, if we do not expose the
identity of the Protestant church as East Timorese,
we lose the support of the local people," he said.
"So it is a dilemma - how to witness in our local
context - how to live, understand and behave as East
Timorese - while keeping the church united."
This question is complicated by a political
situation in which native East Timorese are denied
their human rights. "I try to make people in my
congregations understand that justice is an integral
part of the mission of the church," he said. "The
church will be irrelevant if it only preaches about
heaven. It also has to address the concrete
problems of peoples' lives."
Rev. Marcal said he has found a way to live
with these tensions and to answer the question "What
is the identity of the Christian Church of East
Timor?" He now responds, "The identity of the
Christian Church of East Timor is an ecumenical
church. As such, the identity is not yet found but
is still in the process of becoming."
Rev. Marcal's faith allows him to answer this,
because "faith is not simply about the political or
the cultural. Jesus calls us to be united," he
explained, "and in order to do that, sometimes we
have to lose our identity."
He said that the support from churches and
ecumenical organizations outside of East Timor and
Indonesia are very important, including a recent
visit from an NCC delegation. "These visits
strengthen us and empower us," he said. "U.S.
ecumenical teams are especially helpful because they
model how people from different denominational and
cultural groups can work together."
The NCC initiated relief and rehabilitation
programs in East Timor starting in 1975, when
Indonesia's invasion and occupation of East Timor
caused the deaths of about 200,000 people, fully a
third of the population. Since 1991, the NCC has
advocated for the full participation of the East
Timorese people in the political resolution of the
East Timor issue.
Rev. Marcal's visit with the NCC is part of a
several week journey in which he has been paying
visits to church leaders in Europe and the United
States. The discussions go far beyond material aid.
"I am interested in a partnership, where we can sit
and share together and learn from each other," he
Rev. Marcal has made some interesting
observations in his travels. He said he has seen a
tendency for European and North American people "to
believe they can solve everything by knowledge,
science and law."
Rev. Marcal said that in his experience of
life, he has found there needs to be a balance in
all things, including between the material and the
spiritual. Rev. Marcal said that he has only been
able to face all the material problems that are
bigger than himself because of the spiritual
strength that comes from God.
"Sometimes I feel so alone. I always ask God,
`Why, God, have you allowed me to serve the church
for a second term? There are other people who might
be better at it.' But then I realize that God saves
me and loves me not because of my goodness but
because of God's mercy."
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