They Call Her ‘Foreign Grandmother’

Reading Time: 5 minutes

A Maryknoll sister reaches people with disabilities in East Timor’s remote communities

At 51, Maryknoll Sister Hyunjung Kim is both youthful-looking and committed to religious life. Yet, in East Timor — a small nation on the island of Timor, north of Australia — people address Sister Hyunjung as a grandparent. “They call me Avo Malae,” she says. “Foreign Grandmother!”

A social worker by profession, Sister Hyunjung has served in community health in the mountainous region of Aileu since 2014. The Maryknoll Sisters were invited there by Bishop Carlos Belo of Dili in 1991, during the nation’s struggle for independence from Indonesia.

Finding few services in the poor, rugged countryside, Maryknoll Sisters Susan Gubbins and Dorothy McGowan sized up the challenge and set up a health clinic. “We envisioned the far-flung villages and knew that we needed a community-based approach,” Sister Gubbins wrote later. They trained local people as health promoters, known as “motivators,” in addition to building a center clinic.

“I benefit from the fruits of their work and mission,” Sister Hyunjung says. “I’m working in that clinic, which bears the name Uma Ita Nian, Our Home.”

The Uma Ita Nian clinic enlists a staff of 28 workers, including three government employees: a doctor, a midwife and a pharmacist.

Sister Hyunjung serves in various ministries through the clinic, which provides a wide range of services. She works particularly closely with its Community-Based Rehabilitation (CBR) team. CBR, which originated with the World Health Organization, is “a strategy that aims to enhance the quality of life for people with disabilities and their families, and ensure their inclusion and participation in the community.”

“Home visits are part of the CBR program,” explains Sister Hyunjung. “Two times a week, we visit people with disabilities in remote villages and offer them physical therapy, referrals, medical treatments, supplementary food, equipment, home adaptation aids, hygienic materials and counseling.

“They live in isolated mountain areas with insufficient food, water or clothing and little or no access to medical care, education or employment opportunities,” the missioner continues.

After World Mission Sunday Mass at St. Ferdinand Church, pastor Father Jason Torba and Cardinal Blase Cupich greet the congregation, including all those who do mission in Chicago. (Julie Jaidinger, Chicago Catholic/U.S.)

The Community-Based Rehabilitation motivators pose with Maryknoll Sister Hyunjung Kim (bottom row, third from left) outside the Uma Ita Nian (Our Home) clinic. (Courtesy of Hyunjung Kim/East Timor)

An essential part of the program is ongoing formation for the local people who work as motivators.

“Once a month, the CBR motivators come to the clinic for training. We have 18 motivators,” Sister Hyunjung says. “They help to identify potential CBR clients, facilitate services and communication between the clinic and the clients, and implement their training in the village where they are placed.”

Over the long, bumpy rides to remote villages, the clinic staff get to know one another better, exchanging food and stories. “I feel part of their lives,” the missioner says.

Sister Hyunjung’s mission of service to others started in her country of origin, South Korea. “[It] began … when I saw people’s hunger for hope, meaningful spirituality and a sense of human dignity,” she recalls. “I felt called to walk with them.”

She earned a degree in agricultural economics, but afterward began helping survivors of human trafficking and sexual abuse at Magdalena House, located in a red light district of Seoul. The home was a safe place for sex workers and other exploited women.

This experience, Sister Hyunjung says, motivated her to study a profession that would support people in need. She went back to school and graduated from Soongsil University with a bachelor’s degree in social work, then earned a master’s degree in social welfare from the Catholic University of Korea.

She returned to Magdalena House to work with its founder, Maryknoll Sister Jean Maloney. “I was inspired by her humble and joyful life-sharing with women who are survivors of violence such as sex abuse, domestic violence and human trafficking,” Sister Hyunjung says.

As Hyunjung met more Maryknoll sisters, she became interested in religious life — and curious about overseas mission. “As a Maryknoll sister, I can share my life and gifts to help create hope with people, and search together for meaning,” she says.

Maryknoll Sister Hyunjung Kim takes Rosalina home after a weekly program held at the clinic. The 11-year-old with a beautiful smile suffers from muscular dystrophy. (Courtesy of Hyunjung Kim/East Timor)

Maryknoll Sister Hyunjung Kim takes Rosalina home after a weekly program held at the clinic. The 11-year-old with a beautiful smile suffers from muscular dystrophy. (Courtesy of Hyunjung Kim/East Timor)

After completing the orientation program (novitiate) at the Sisters Center in New York, Sister Hyunjung professed first vows in 2011. She professed final vows in 2016, while already in her assignment to East Timor.

According to Oxfam, three quarters of East Timor’s people live in rural areas where they rely on subsistence farming. The small nation with 1.3 million inhabitants, also known as Timor-Leste, is one of the world’s poorest countries. Half of its children are undernourished and display stunted growth, states the United Nations Development Programme.

As young Hyunjung had done in South Korea — furthering her studies in order to better serve people in need — the missioner earned an assistant nursing license in 2020 to use in East Timor.

“I went back with better knowledge of health care,” she says, “knowledge that I can apply daily at work. That same year, our center clinic served over 7,000 people from 12 villages and our mobile clinic served over 6,000 from nine remote villages.”

True to her designation in the Tetum language as an honorary grandmother, Sister Hyunjung supports efforts to build a sense of family and community.

Visiting people in their homes, she says, fosters closeness. This can be challenging: “Although I like visiting and listening to their stories, often I felt heavy with worry and concern about where to find hope for them,” she says.

One day, she visited a boy with cerebral palsy and his family. “I sat with my silent worries and concerns, watching him receive physical therapy which was so painful for this little boy and his tiny body,” she recalls.

“Suddenly his little sister jumped on his bed with a funny monkey toy and played with him. She was comforting him, gently pressing her cheek to his and softly touching his hair, and making funny gestures to make him laugh. The boy’s cries transformed into a bright smile. We all laughed with joy and thankfulness.”

In her heart, Sister Hyunjung says, she knew God was there, present with those children and everyone in the room. “For these people,” she says, “family and home are a safe and nurturing place.”

Featured image: Maryknoll Sister Hyunjung Kim (holding newborn baby) is shown with the first guests of Uma Esperansa, House of Hope, a home to support safe births in East Timor, a country with high maternal and infant mortality rates. (Courtesy of Hyunjung Kim/East Timor) 


Magazine Past Issues

About the author

Mary Ellen Manz, M.M.

Maryknoll Sister Mary Ellen Manz of Jamaica, New York, entered the Maryknoll Sisters Congregation in 1950 after having graduated from the Mary Louis Academy. She served in Chile, South Sudan and in different positions at the Maryknoll Sisters Center. She is also the Sisters’ liaison to Maryknoll Magazine and has written many articles about the Sisters for the publication.