Activist nun defies odds in helping rebuild East Timor
It was 1989 and East Timor was still being ravaged by Indonesia’s bloody occupation of the former Portuguese colony when 27-year-old Maria de Lourdes Martins Cruz, fresh from her Jesuit catechetic studies in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, decided to establish a congregation to assist victims of the conflict.
Cruz, fondly called Mana Lou, said she was considered “louco,” Portuguese for crazy, for establishing the secular Christian congregation of men and women.
“You are a woman, what will the future of those people be under you? Maybe something is not right with you,” she recalled one of her mentors, Father Domingo, as telling her.
But Mana Lou, compelled by Christ’s teachings to help the poor, persevered despite having virtually no funds and manpower.
Decades later, her Instituto Seculare Maun Alin Iha Kristo, or Ismaik, not only helped victims of the 1975-1999 Indonesian occupation but also uplifted impoverished Timorese to become productive citizens of one of the world’s newest states that gained independence in 2002.
‘Education for liberation’
Her programs in healthcare, education and livelihood are part of what she called “education for liberation”—freeing a post-conflict East Timor not just from its colonizers but from poverty and ignorance.
Now, the louco activist nun’s lifelong humanitarian work and her role as a woman of faith in pursuing social justice and peace has earned her this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s highest honor.
The award cites Cruz for, among other things, “her pure humanitarianism” in uplifting the poor in her country and her “courageous pursuit of social justice and peace.”
Born in 1962 to a well-to-do coffee planter, much of her youth was marked by fighting between Indonesian troops and Timorese freedom fighters.
A 2005 UN report estimated that up to 102,000 civilians were killed during the Indonesian occupation in numerous massacres and attacks on villages suspected of supporting the resistance to the annexation of East Timor by Indonesia.
Cruz was somehow insulated from the violence by the convent walls of the Canossian Daughters of Charity where she was studying as a novice before she took up theology in Java.
Faith in Gospel
She said keeping faith in the Gospel sustained her and her countrymen amid immense suffering.
For Mana Lou, Christ’s teaching shaped her lifelong mission: to help lay the foundation for a new East Timor.
“(People) always said my expectations were too high,” she told the Inquirer in Portuguese. “They thought I was a crazy woman. But our country is young. Someone has to set those standards for them to be realized.”
Since 1989, her lay institute that provides self-help programs for her countrymen, have built nine shelters, which she calls “schools of life” where ordinary Timorese learn animal husbandry, gardening and construction, and where they develop spiritual formation.
Genuine liberation, after all, is not only about unseating a despot or defeating an invader, she said. “We want to bring back the dignity of the people. We want to educate them so they can lead better lives.”
Driven by a desire for peace, Cruz advocated a nonviolent struggle against the Indonesian occupation of East Timor, daring to cross into battle zones to spread the Gospel message of peace where she believes she was saved from potentially deadly encounters by her faith.
In 1999, as she was being escorted by Indonesian police and military to bring food to a village, pro-Indonesia militiamen stopped her convoy and seized her supplies.
The gunmen wanted to kill her and her security escorts refused to give her protection.
She got out of the vehicle, crying. Desperate, she called out Christ’s name three times. Then she kissed and embraced the gunmen, who left her alone and unharmed.
In a visit in 2001 to refugee camps in West Timor all she had was a microphone to sing as she walked the streets, trying to uplift the people’s spirits.
Gunmen on motorcycles surrounded her, chanting, “Kill her, kill her!”
But the refugees stood by her. “We only have Mana Lou. If you kill her, what’s the future for us?” she recalled hearing them telling the armed men. She said she still doesn’t know how she was saved that day.
Ismaik continues to help bring up self-reliant citizens.
Cruz works closely with the government to preserve the languages and music of the Timorese to rebuild their national identity. She also established Bairo-Ata, East Timor’s largest provider for tuberculosis treatment, which serves 300 patients daily.
The long road to genuine freedom is a high ideal, she said. So for Mana Lou, now 56, the bigger challenge is to pass on the torch to the youth, most of them volunteers who work with her.
Her volunteers come from different faith denominations but all are united in their mission to serve East Timor’s most marginalized.
“I’m like a mother to them, a motivation,” she said. “I do all the thinking, but they are the ones who do the hard work to build a good society.”
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