Recalling the bishop's dedication to an oppressed island people

June 1, 2003

SHORTLY AFTER HE retired as Episcopal bishop of New York, Paul Moore Jr. visited the island territory of East Timor in October 1989. Impressed by the vitality of its young people struggling for freedom from Indonesia's illegal occupation against overwhelming obstacles, and by the courage of Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo (who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996), Moore championed the cause of East Timor for the rest of his life.

He showed great determination, exerting his influence in Washington with Democratic as well as Republican administrations and members of Congress, and with the news media, human rights organizations, the religious community and anyone else who would listen.

The fact that he was willing to take this on said a good deal about Moore. No one of his stature in the United States ever devoted such consistent day-to-day work to the plight of East Timor, one of the world's poorest nations.

East Timor is a beautiful, rugged, mountainous island nation about the size of New Jersey, where more than one-third of our original population of fewer than 700,000 perished from 1975 through 1999 from the combined effects of the Indonesian invasion and occupation. Torture, sexual abuse of women and other crimes against humanity by the Indonesian military rulers were widespread.

Few knew or cared

The country has became better known after the awarding of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize and the media coverage of the conflagration in 1999 that resulted in one of the world's bloodiest conflicts in recent memory, during which Indonesian forces killed church leaders and tried to terrorize villagers into opposing independence.

At the time Moore first went there, however, few in the United States knew or cared about the place, no matter how sad its circumstances. But, never afraid to use his influence for a good reason, Moore was willing to champion unpopular or unknown causes far removed from his origins.

His final visit in 2001, after East Timor had achieved its independence, was the development of links between his alma mater, Yale University, and East Timor.

As Bishop Belo affirmed in a message of condolence, Moore "crossed religious and cultural boundaries and more than 10,000 miles in physical distance from New York to extend the hand of friendship. But without the efforts of Bishop Moore and others like him, my people may have faced annihilation. For this reason and many, many others, Bishop Moore should be remembered, and honored, forever."
East Timor reminded Paul Moore of the Solomon Islands, where he served with distinction as an officer in one of the pivotal battles of the Second World War at Guadalcanal and where he made great humanitarian contributions over the years. Many years after the war, he quietly worked to build the George Mead School in memory of a friend and fellow U.S. Marine who had died at Guadalcanal at age 24. (Although he was not averse to public recognition, Moore had no qualms about doing without it.)

Without fanfare, he worked to provide assistance to American veterans of Guadalcanal who had fallen on hard times. And only last year, Moore visited the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and Congress, eloquently stressing that the United States should do more to support the Solomon Islanders. He reminded officials of America's moral debt, citing the historic but nearly forgotten fact that without the crucial help our forces had received from local people at Guadalcanal in 1942, the United States might have lost that watershed battle, and perhaps the war itself.

He was planning a follow-up visit to Washington to reiterate these points; Paul Moore was not a man who forgot.

A man of grace

As fate would have it, I arrived at the bishop's home a half-hour after he had received his fatal diagnosis in January. He showed remarkable grace. He had had a good life, he said serenely, and he wanted to continue doing what he had been doing for as long as possible.

Then, to my astonishment, he insisted on being briefed on projects in which we were involved. Later, a few weeks before his death, he posed many questions about the future of East Timor and what could be done about the problems ahead. He said he might not live long and wanted to know how things might fare in this faraway place that he had come to love. All the while, he smiled and had a twinkle in his eye, as if he were gathering information to slip to St. Peter as he passed through the Pearly Gates, or to enlist others in Heaven in the righteous fight.

One can trace Moore's keen sense of mission, from Jersey City to Washington, D.C., to New York to East Timor, and find a common thread. What he did exemplified his devotion to universal human rights and improving the conditions in which real people live.

He would have scoffed at the notion that he was particularly heroic, like his friend Bishop Belo in East Timor. And like Belo, he knew he had flaws. But also like his East Timorese friend, he was motivated by a profound desire to provide substantial help to his fellow human beings, and, ultimately, to help them achieve justice. That is his legacy.

In 1999, Bishop Paul Moore helped found the Global Priorities Campaign, an international inter-religious initiative to change budget priorities. He believed that building inter-religious alliances to change global budget priorities became even more necessary in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, with the growing danger of excessive military spending crowding out urgent human needs both at home and abroad. 
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Donations in the bishop's memory can be made to The Paul Moore Clinic in East Timor, c/o The Humanitarian Project, Inc., P.O. Box 32307, Washington, D.C. 20007;; or to Episcopal Social Services, where he chaired the board of the Episcopal Mission Society from 1972-85, at 305 Seventh Ave., New York, N.Y. 10001.

Arnold S. Kohen is a former investigative reporter at NBC News and has written for many publications, including the Boston Globe, New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. He is the author of "From the Place of the Dead: The Epic Struggles of Bishop Belo of East Timor" (St. Martin's Griffin, $16.95). He lives near Washington, D.C.

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