East Timor, situated 800 kilometers off the north coast of Australia, was a Portuguese colony for more than 400 years before it was invaded by Indonesia in 1975. That invasion came with the tacit approval of the United States and Australia—President Ford and Henry Kissinger were in Jakarta the day before the invasion—and the U.S. and Britain continued to sell arms to the Indonesian occupiers.
During the occupation, it was Sister Lourdes who went into the most dangerous areas. When a massacre occurred in Liquiça and a humanitarian crisis developed, most village leaders fled. They passed Sister Lourdes on her way in, driving through militia roadblocks with food and medicines. Watched closely by the Indonesians and their militia, she restricted her speech to spiritual encouragement. According to Dr. Daniel Murphy, an American doctor in East Timor, her ability to communicate was extraordinary. Faced with row after row of militia roadblocks, he recalls, she would get out of her car and speak to the militia. "Within minutes she would have them laughing with her, then crying with her, and then on their knees praying with her."
For 24 years the people struggled for the right to self-determination, and the Roman Catholic Church was at the forefront of the cry for justice. In 1989 East Timor's Bishop Carlos Belo, who later received the Nobel Peace Prize, wrote to the U.N. Secretary-General. "We are dying as a people and a nation," he wrote. It was 10 years before he got a response.
In 1999, after the fall of Indonesia's longtime dictator Suharto, a referendum was finally held giving the East Timorese the opportunity to determine their future. Despite efforts by the Indonesian military to intimidate the Timorese into voting for autonomy within greater Indonesia, more than 80% chose independence. They paid a high price for it - within hours of the referendum vote, East Timor was plunged into yet more terror. In the weeks it took the U.N. to decide how to respond, thousands died, and hundreds of thousands were displaced at the hands of pro-Indonesian militias. Finally, an Australian-led peacekeeping force entered East Timor under U.N. mandate and restored order. Indonesia withdrew, a transitional government ruled for three years, and on May 20, 2002, East Timor became the world's newest nation—and Asia's poorest.
In 1989 East Timor's Bishop Carlos Belo wrote to the U.N. Secretary-General. "We are dying as a people and a nation," he wrote. It was 10 years before he got a response.
Sister Lourdes, founder of the Institute of Brothers and Sisters in Christ, is now focused on empowering the poor to become truly "independent" by developing cottage industries, handicrafts, and agriculture, as well as spiritual growth. Her mission is to reach the areas other groups do not reach, and to demonstrate Christ's love. She tells of miracles that occur on an almost daily basis.
During the worst violence immediately following the referendum, an estimated 15,000 people fled Dili and sought refuge in the forest around her house in the mountains above the city. She told me that she and the members of her Institute looked after the people. "All 15,000?" I asked. Yes, she said. "God worked a miracle. We did not have enough food for even 15 people, let alone 15,000. But each day I got up, I prayed, and then I started cooking rice—and the barrel of rice never ran out for three weeks. The day it ran out was the day the international peacekeepers came."
Even after the United Nations had come to East Timor, Sister Lourdes' work with the militia and the refugees was not complete. Thousands of East Timorese were still being held by militia in camps in Indonesian—held West Timor and so, in the spring of 2001, Sister Lourdes went there to try to persuade refugees to return home. She went also to help meet their basic physical needs and give them spiritual support.
The camps were still controlled by militia who, she said, wanted to kill her. Each time Sister Lourdes held a meeting with refugees to speak to them about the situation in East Timor and persuade them to return, bare-chested, menacing militia would ride their motorbikes right into the meeting. They would sit inches from her, revving their engines, attempting to intimidate her. She decided to confront the militiamen, but not with fear, anger, or hatred. She confronted them with faith.
As she shared the gospel with them, many of these militiamen broke down in tears and converted to Christianity.
"Will you come home?" she asked them. "Will you come home to the Father's house—to God?" As she shared the gospel with them, many of these militiamen—thugs who were guilty of horrific crimes—broke down in tears and converted to Christianity. Those who converted then joined her in her work encouraging the refugees to return home—the very refugees they had been holding hostage.
I had the privilege of attending the birth of this new nation on May 20, 2002. As the flag was raised for the first time at midnight, and the national anthem was played, I turned to the man next to me—the first East Timorese to be expelled from his country in 1975, Father Fransisco Fernandes. I asked Father Fernandes whether he had ever believed he would live to see his country become free. He smiled and said yes. "Throughout the Indonesian occupation, people all around the world said to me 'why do you bother? You are fighting a losing battle. Indonesia will never give your people freedom. Why do you carry on?' But we had one thing those people did not know about," he said. "We trusted God. This was a victory of faith."