PORTSMOUTH — Serving one’s country doesn’t always mean picking up an M16 and charging into combat. Sometimes it means building bridges between the U.S. and another country. Sometimes that requires simple things like passing out Bibles in a country nearly 10,000 miles away. Father David G. Thurber Jr., chaplain and lieutenant colonel in the Rhode Island Air National Guard, was recently called upon for a two-week mission to the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, a small country in southeast Asia.
Located northeast of Australia, Timor-Leste occupies half of the island of Timor, part of the Indonesian Archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. A Portuguese colony until 1975, it fell under the influence of its larger neighbor, Indonesia after the Portuguese pulled out.
“Indonesia was very, very bad to the Timorese people,” Father Thurber stated sadly.
By the time the Indonesian government handed control of the country over to the United Nations in 1999 after a 25-year occupation, more than 100,000 Timorese people had died, including thousands from starvation and illness. Some organizations place those numbers closer to 200,000. However, establishing a democratic form of government in Timor-Leste has been rocky to say the least. Unrest, assassination attempts and failed governmental structures have plagued the country since the early 2000s. Poverty is also widespread.
The R.I. Air National Guard planned to send a contingent of military police for a two-week training exercise as part of the State Partnership Program, which began as a means of aiding Eastern Bloc countries after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Now, 100 nations worldwide participate in the program, with each state adopting a different country or two – Rhode Island’s being Timor-Leste and the Bahamas. For this trip, members from the 143rd Airlift Wing were tasked with teaching Timorese soldiers medical, land navigation and infantry skills. But they did not neglect the spiritual needs of the soldiers, either.
Due to years of Portuguese influence, Timor-Leste boasts an overwhelmingly Catholic population. Therefore, Father Thurber and his chaplain assistant Paul Santilli were asked to go along on the exercise.
“It’s such a Catholic country and it’s so important to them – the practice of the Catholic faith – so there was a specific request for a Roman Catholic chaplain to go along with the Americans to try to fill that gap between the American soldiers and the Timorese,” Father Thurber said.
When they arrived in the capital city of Dili, the two men met with Cardinal Virgilio do Carmo da Silva, to whom they presented a military themed stole. The cardinal showed them around the Catholic University of St. John Paul II, Timor-Leste’s first Catholic higher education institute, named for the pope who visited the country more than 30 years ago to support its people in the middle of their oppression.
Additionally, Father Thurber acted as a representative of Bishop Richard G. Henning, as he met with the newly ordained bishop of Baucau, Leandro Maria Alves. On behalf of the bishop and the Diocese of Providence, he presented Bishop Alves with a pectoral cross “symbolizing faith and guidance.”
While most people that Father Thurber encountered during his time in the country spoke the local languages, the Timorese soldiers maintain a goal of learning English. So, the contingent brought along English Bibles to give to the soldiers “that would not only help them learn English but also immerse themselves in the Word of God,” he continued. The soldiers were also excited that the Bibles were military-issued and therefore targeted specially toward them, even in the design of the covers.
Father Thurber considers himself blessed to be able to meet with the soldiers of Timor-Leste and their families.
“The heart of our mission was the concelebrated Mass held at the local base chapel in Baucau,” he said.
Alongside a priest of that diocese, he celebrated the eucharistic feast for 35 FFTDL (Forças de Defesa de Timor-Leste) soldiers and family members and seven U.S. soldiers, “gathered to worship, pray and share in fellowship. The service was a profound success, touching the hearts of those in attendance.”
Both this Mass and his interaction with the cardinal and bishop greatly demonstrated to him the universality of the Church. Though the language was unfamiliar, he could still recognize the various parts of the Mass and found himself amazed at the Timorese people’s exuberant singing throughout the Mass, filling the base chapel with their joyful voices.
While Father Thurber observed such immense poverty in the small nation, he also witnessed great joy and kindness. Children often greeted the American soldiers, taking pleasure in the simplest things, such as asking for the pens the soldiers often carried in their sleeve pockets. More than that, though, their devotion to the Catholic faith shined forth.
“Their unwavering faith played a pivotal role in nurturing their boundless happiness and resilience. In a country where resources are limited and many children have so little, their faith illuminated their lives with enduring joy and contentment,” he said.
Prior to this visit, Father Thurber had not been called to active-duty service on an overseas mission. He had been activated locally during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, during his time in Timor-Leste, he felt the full weight of the responsibility he had been tasked with in a foreign country – strengthening bonds with the Timorese.
At the end of the trip, Father Thurber was privileged to give the “first-ever invocation at the closing ceremony.” This, he stated, demonstrated the importance of the faith when it comes to reinforcing ties and creating unity with the people of Timor-Leste.
“My time in Timor-Leste will be remembered as a testament to the power of faith, compassion and service. The mission strengthened bonds between nations, brought communities together and demonstrated our unwavering commitment to making the world a better place. Through faith, we can bridge divides and create lasting friendships, no matter how distant the shores may be.”