East Timor gripped by COVID-19 anxiety, say missionaries

Missionary activities curtailed, but "we can speak of God who is our refuge"

By Stephen Cauchi

May 4 2020Chris and Grace Adams and their children Micah and Emily. Chris is holding a copy of David Helm’s The Big Picture Story Bible which the couple translated into the local language, Tetun. 


East Timor has been gripped by fear, anxiety and uncertainty as the coronavirus pandemic finds a foothold in the country, according to two Anglican missionaries from St Jude’s Anglican Church.  

CMS Australia missionaries Chris and Grace Adams told TMA a state of emergency was declared when the first coronavirus case was announced on 21 March, with the usual pandemic restrictions: enforced handwashing, social distancing, suspension of public transport, community and religious events, school closures, border closures, enforced quarantine for returning travellers, police check points on the road. 

“There is a high level of fear and anxiety in the community,” said Mr Adams. “Many expats have left Timor-Leste [East Timor] due to limited medical care in the country, flight cancellations affecting medical evacuation options and border closure issues.”   

“We feel desperate at the moment in great need of clinging to God alone,” added Ms Adams. 

At the time of publication there were 24 cases but there were grave fears that that would increase, said the couple. 

“Streets and shops are empty. Even visiting family and friends is restricted,” said Mr Adams. “There is an anticipation of an outbreak of COVID-19 in Timor-Leste but it hasn’t happened yet. There is an anticipation that there will be shortage of essential supplies like food but it hasn’t happened yet. There is a sense of uncertainty.”  

Toilet paper, one of the more common pandemic shortages, “is not commonly used here by the Timorese,” he said. 

“The lack of resources is quite confronting in terms of the scarcity of trained nurses and doctors and number of ventilators.” 

Fortunately, East Timor had just received help to be able to test for the virus in the country – previously samples had to be sent to Darwin. 

“The government has responded actively and there are medical workers and public health working hard to prepare the nation for the trouble ahead,” said Ms Adams. 

Basic medical facilities, communal living arrangements and the prevalence of tuberculosis and lung/chest diseases make communities in the country particularly vulnerable to the impact of a COVID-19 outbreak. 

“The communal living and cultural practices like funerals combined with lack of awareness make social distancing hard,” said Ms Adams. 

A recent flood in Dili that destroyed or damaged more than a thousand homes has worsened matters. 

Church and missionary activity has also been affected, with not even the option of Zoom to soften the blow. 

“In the last three weeks, all of our regular church ministries and activities have been suspended, including Sunday services and pastoral visits,” said Mr Adams. “Due to poor internet, online meetings is not an option here.” 

However, “we try to stay connected with our Timorese friends by phone calls and messaging apps”, he said. 

“We have also begun to experiment with recording a short Bible talk and posting it on YouTube. While general internet use is limited in Timor-Leste, use of social media is a rising force. Videos can be shared on Facebook or Whatsapp, and viewed in these lower data formats. 

“All of church giving is done through physical offertory so no meeting means zero income for the churches affecting the pastors’ income.”   

The couple said their missionary activities had been curtailed because of the lockdown as they hadn’t been able to meet people and engage in their regular ministry activities. 

“However, we believe that this is the time when people need to hear the true hope and security that can be found in Jesus Christ,” said Mr Adams. “While circumstances are changing rapidly and fear and anxiety dominate, we can speak of God who is our refuge (Psalm 90), God who is still in control (Psalm 46) and God who is faithful (Lamentation 3:21-26). 

“Our decision is to stay in Timor-Leste with our community here through this storm. We sense that we are at the right place at the right time with the right people.”  

Ms Adams said that lockdown had meant not only missing friends and staying at home, but other survival challenges. “Power and water cuts, poor internet and battle with mosquitoes seem more prominent in our daily life. More people have died this month from dengue than coronavirus so dengue is always a constant threat to us.  

“We are used to death from sickness as a common experience for many in Timor-Leste.” 

The couple are working in partnership with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Timor Leste (the country is mostly Protestant). “Our mission is to bring true hope to the Timorese people in Christ through equipping leaders and developing resources for Bible engagement,” said Ms Adams.  

“Chris now serves as part of the Dili church leadership as well as an advisor to the Synod. His role involves Bible studies with church leaders, preaching and teaching at conferences. He travels to remote rural churches to teach the Bible.” 

Ms Adams is also passionate about empowering Timorese Christians for gospel ministry. She has been facilitating children’s ministry at the Dili church and assisting East Timor’s fledgling Scripture Union.  

To fill in the time while in self-isolation, the couple have been working on Bible study materials. The couple speak the local language Tetun – a very valuable skill given that the Bible has not been translated into that language. With Scripture Union Timor-Leste, they have written a series of devotions called God’s Word at times like these.  

Mr Adams has also been working on the Bible guide on the Sermon of the Mount, which is a follow-up from the first Bible guide published, Introducing Jesus, based on the Gospel of Mark. Ms Adams, meanwhile, has been working on a school curriculum based on a recently published children’s Bible. 

The couple met in 2005 in Melbourne at a young adults event at Wycliffe Bible Translators. Both had already attended Bible Colleges and in the following years they studied a Masters of Divinity at Ridley College.     

They worshipped at St Jude’s Carlton from 2005-2011, and then at St Jude’s Parkville in 2012. St Jude’s is one of the mission partner churches that, through the Church Missionary Society, supports their work in East Timor. 

The couple moved to East Timor in mid-2013 to begin their life as missionaries and they plan to stay there for the foreseeable future. 

Mr Adams said he felt God was calling him into missionary work. “Then I began exploring more specifically cross-cultural ministry. When I was studying at Sydney Missionary and Bible College I found myself drawn to the international students who were also studying there, a number from Cambodia and South Korea mostly. 

“I found myself really enjoying engaging with people from other cultural backgrounds.” 

Mr Adams said the couple’s next missionary destination was “probably in Asia” but they weren’t sure on the exact country.  

“We had the opportunity to visit and live short-term in a couple of places in Asia and found whilst there were many gospel needs in each of these places there was a significant number of other missionaries already doing good gospel work there.  

“When we visited Timor-Leste we did not find this to be the case. We found a country that was and still is physical resource poor and gospel resources poor – including gospel workers and resources to engage with the gospel of Jesus Christ. To me the difference was stark and it became clear that Timor-Leste was the place for us.” 

It’s a decision they don’t regret. “Every year since, I have found God confirming and reconfirming that choice. I am now more certain than ever that God has good work for us to do here in Timor-Leste.”     

Ms Adams said that prayer, coupled with a love of linguistics and Bible translation, indirectly led her to East Timor as a destination.  

“While being trained in Bible translation, I went to see a project coordinator to enquire about possible location for service without any preference. I prayed that God would help find a suitable location where I can be of use.  

“The next morning, I got up with an image that dominated my mind, pitch dark background with words ‘East Timor’ bright and bold. This led to prayers for Timor-Leste and eventually serving in Timor-Leste.”