They call me “mama”: Parenting hostelites is part of my job

They call me mama
Rev See and her husband, Jin Hoe

After overcoming a battle with cancer, and then serving in Faith Methodist Church for three years, I was all set for a new season of service in my life. The Board of Ministry had assigned me to serve in Timor-Leste. But when my husband and I arrived in Timor- Leste in 2020, there was a change of plans.

It was not the right time to plant the church and there was a need for “house parents” in the newly established Dunamis Hostel. So that became our new assignment.

I was disoriented. The ministry required of us to parent 13 young adults! Who were these young adults calling me “mama” or “mommy”?

My new charges, aged between 19 and 26 years of age, were either studying in the local university or on a one-year vocational course or internship. All of them came from farming families. Some families lived in the mountains where they would need to trek four to five hours through the mountains to access public transport.

I wondered, would I know how to parent these young adults? I had two grown children of my own, but it did not mean l would know how to be a mother figure to these 13 young adults, who came from a different background and culture. There was a need to know them, understand their background, values, concerns and aspirations. Parenting them would involve walking with them in their personal journeys and pointing them towards God, our Father, the ultimate parent.

These are some of the “parenting” practices that we put in place.

Establishing structure and routine as a foundation for self-discipline

The farming culture is governed by seasons, but aside from that, the farming families work when they feel like it since they own the farm. Hence these young adults had no formal structure on time management and work. The concept of personal responsibility was also foreign to them.

At Dunamis, residents have to observe the structure and routine of hostel life. For example, all hostelites wake up by 6 a.m. and carry out their morning cleaning duties according to a roster, before breakfast at 7 a.m. Dinner is at 7 p.m. where all residents eat together.

Sitting down for a meal together at a fixed time—something we take for granted in Singapore—is a novel idea for the hostelites. Back in the village, food is cooked and left out for anyone to help themselves throughout the day at their own time, because either the adults are working on the farm or selling their produce by the roadside. Children are left very much to their own devices, playing and hanging out with others outside the house. Their absence from the home is not a cause for concern.

Modelling familial love and care

If hostelites are late for dinner because their classes have ended late, they send a text message to inform me, and I usually respond by saying, “Noted, will keep dinner for you, and do take care.” This is because public transport services end at 6 p.m. and they will have to walk home, passing through some stretches in the dark where there is no street lighting. On a few occasions, I have noted with a smile that fellow hostelites have responded likewise. Showing care for one another and being accountable is an important step in preparation for working life and adulthood.

Teaching them to fish

All the hostelites struggle to manage their finances because their families do not send them money regularly. Often, they have no money for transport to school, no money to print notes as required by lecturers, no money for project work … the list is endless.

It was for this reason I started a tuition ministry so that they could earn pocket money teaching younger children in the community. Through this tuition ministry they have learned to fish for themselves, instead of waiting for handouts. It gives them a way to earn their allowance and enables them to pay the monthly hostel fee of US$10, instead of relying on their parents.

They call me mama2
Dunamis hostelites participated in the MWS Empowerun in 2021

Parenting through discipleship and nurturing

Weekly Bible study and worship is built into our schedules. Each hostelite also takes turns to lead devotion. I have witnessed how the Word of God has changed and anchored the lives of these young adults. They now crave the Word of God.

In Timor-Leste, polygamy is common. No one bats an eyelid when the head of household has more than one wife, and shares children with each of them. Through the study of the Pauline epistles, the hostelites have decided that they will not embrace polygamy. They now take a serious stand against adultery, even though it is at odds with their culture, which accepts cohabitation and having children out of wedlock.

Encouraging them to aspire to a purpose driven life

One significant observation is the apparent lack of aspirations in these young adults. Despite taking courses at the university or vocational institute in the hope of securing a job in the city, they are aware that the chances of securing a reasonably well- paying job are slim. The reality in the Timor-Leste job market is that job seekers need to know someone already in the company or the organisation who can recommend them. This is especially so for government jobs. Without connections, it is hard to find an open door and therefore, there is little motivation to aspire to a better life.

But God has given us a vision and it has ignited hope and excitement in the hostelites. The vision is encompassed in this tagline, “Transforming Villages, Empowering Lives” (TVEL), where the hostelites, upon graduation, will return to the villages to help farmers to maximise the use of their land for agricultural use. The aim is to break out of the poverty cycle by creating jobs within the village. At the same time, it is meant to strengthen relationships at home, between spouses and between parents and children alike. The hostelites have been preparing themselves through discussions, research and training since 2020.

The TVEL Pilot Project with a small farm started in April 2023 and will last a year. God willing, we will officially launch TVEL next year in 2024.

Dunamis hostlities which included six interns from St Paul Methodist School
Dunamis hostelites, including six interns from St Paul Methodist School

Rev See Swee Fang is the MMS Missionary Pastor in Timor-Leste. She and her husband, See Jin Hoe, oversee the Dunamis Hostel ministry in Timor-Leste. / Photos courtesy of Rev See Swee Fang