Gavin Purcell, putting faith into action in Timor-Leste

Gavin Purcell, putting faith into action in Timor-Leste

By Fiona Basile, Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne.
Feature image – Gavin out for a run in Ulmera, where he’s located in Timor Leste.

When Gavin Purcell ‘threw his hat in the ring’ to volunteer with Palms Australia last year, he wasn’t sure what the outcome would be, or where he might end up. Volunteering abroad was something he’d thought about for many years, but finally the timing and circumstances were right. Successful in his application, he recently departed for Timor-Leste, where he’ll spend the next year (possibly two) mentoring others in the finance team of a Jesuit-run teacher training college just outside the capital, Dili. Gavin hopes that through this opportunity to share his knowledge and expertise with the local staff of the college, he might be able to put his faith into action in a meaningful and concrete way.

View of Cristo Rei Beach, Dili

Gavin Purcell, 48, is used to the corporate world of institutional and investment banking, asset management and ‘the behemoth that is the Australian superannuation industry’. These professional fields have been his way of life in one way or another since completing a bachelor of commerce (with honours) from University College Dublin in Ireland. Originally from Tipperary, in the central southern part of Ireland, he travelled to Australia for work in 2005. Having spent 11 years in Sydney, he moved to Altona in Melbourne’s outer west almost seven years ago.

Despite enjoying the corporate lifestyle and salary, and all the associated comforts, Gavin had been feeling for some time that ‘something was missing’. While he’d thought about volunteering on and off for many years, the timing never seemed right. Last year, however, his circumstances changed. While at Mass one day at his local Altona parish, Mary Help of Christians, he picked up a Palms Australia volunteering pamphlet in the back of the church. It started him thinking again about volunteering. He also discussed the idea with parish priest and friend Fr Michael Kalka.

‘I was probably having a coffee with Fr Mike one Saturday or Sunday, and was talking to him about it, and he said, “You should have a look at it further and go for it.” So I did.’

Gavin applied to be a volunteer with Palms Australia, a small international development organisation that recruits, prepares and sends skilled Australians to overseas communities (usually in the Pacific, Asia and parts of Africa) that have requested people with particular skills. Following the initial interview, he had ‘a sense’ that he had a ‘good chance’ of being successful. So in October last year, with this in mind, he resigned from his corporate finance job managing banking services for a super fund to travel back to Ireland to visit his family.

Gavin (far right) with other volunteers at the orientation course in Bowral, NSW. From left: Giuseppe, Carolyn, Susan and Gavin.

When Palms Australia confirmed he’d been successful, and that he would be travelling to Timor-Leste, Gavin returned to Australia to begin his training, undergo medical checks, get his vaccinations and organise the relevant visas and paperwork. Having completed an eight-day Palms Australia Orientation Course in January, he was on a plane to Dili on 20 February, and on 26 February, he started his placement at the Instituto Sao Joao de Brito, a Jesuit institution of higher education located in Ulmera, just to the west of Dili.

Gavin with his certificate to acknowledge the completion of the orientation course.

Gavin will use his corporate finance and strategic-planning skills to mentor the local staff who already work in the finance department of the college. His official title is ‘accountant/financial planner’.

The college receives very little funding from the Timorese government and relies almost entirely on donations that come in from donors from across the world. ‘I’ll be focusing on all things related to the financial health, funding and the optimisation of the use of funds in the institution,’ says Gavin.

Gavin at his desk at the Instituto Sao Joao de Brito

‘I’ll be mentoring the staff in things such as financial planning, operations, governance and strategy to assist and ensure the long-term viability of the institution.’ Importantly, he says, his role is that of a mentor, not someone ‘coming in’ to take over the operations.

‘I’m conscious of not being another foreigner who comes in over the top of locals,’ he says. ‘It’s important that I don’t have any predisposition in thinking that I have all the answers.’

He says, ‘The golden rule with Palms Australia is similar to the story … of teaching the man to fish, as opposed to doing the fishing for him. I might have all the expertise and put everything into place, but that’s no good if no one else can understand it.

‘Most importantly, my role is to share my knowledge with the staff who are already here so that they are empowered to carry the work forward.’

Gavin has been in Ulmera now for about six weeks, where he’s been acclimatising to the heat and humidity, the new cultures and rituals, and the local Tetum language. While becoming accustomed to the way the college finances and systems operate, he’s been taking some language classes. He’s also been able to assist others already by proofreading documents written in English.

Sunset on a local beach in Oecusse, Timor Leste

‘Even though my core role is mentoring in the college’s finances area, there is English-language-orientated work that can be done as well,’ he says. ‘One of the other staff members who teaches English asked me to come into the class to help him teach English, and I’m happy to do that. Any assistance I can offer has been met with so much gratitude.’

Gavin is ‘very cognisant’ that he doesn’t want to be in Timor-Leste unless he can ‘truly contribute’—a driving motivation for his volunteering role. He’s also conscious of the need to slowly and gently gain the trust and friendship of locals, and to build honest and authentic relationships with those whom he encounters.

‘I do hope that I’m able to contribute to the project in some small way, but that it’s been in the right way—giving the local staff additional information and tools to stand them in good stead in the development of the college going forward.

‘And critically, I hope I’ve gained the friendship, trust and respect of the locals,’ he says.

So far, Gavin has only been met with warm welcomes, enthusiasm and gratitude. He’d been in Timor-Leste only a short time when he attended a local Mass at the college and was adorned with traditional Timorese ‘tais’ scarves as a welcome gift. He’s quickly come to learn that Timor-Leste’s population is ‘deeply Catholic’ and that rituals and tradition play an important role in their culture. The recent Good Friday outdoor service that Gavin attended ran for six hours, for example.

‘I’d only been here a few days when the locals made a big deal over me coming to help them,’ he says. ‘They really are so appreciative of foreigners coming over to help them. I think this is an embedded Timorese psychology from the United Nations days,’ he says, ‘when they were present at the tail end of the conflict with Indonesia.’

Gavin is looking forward to the ‘adventure’ of being in Timor-Leste, this being his first visit to the country, and only his second time in Asia. But more importantly, he’s looking forward to the opportunity to put his own Christian faith into action.

We need to ask the deeper questions: What am I actually doing in my life to contribute? What am I concretely doing to give back, and to help people? What commitment am I making?’

‘I’ve always grown up going to Mass, and it’s been an important part of my life. But part of my thinking is, you try to live a good life during the week and then you go to Mass every Sunday, but that could perhaps be construed as “token Christianity” in my book. We need to ask the deeper questions: What am I actually doing in my life to contribute? What am I concretely doing to give back, and to help people? What commitment am I making?’

Gavin hopes his commitment to volunteer as a mentor at the college in Timor-Leste over the coming months, and perhaps years, will be a concrete sign of his desire to contribute positively to the lives of others.

He can see the poverty around him, with Timor-Leste still recovering from years of war and the destruction it caused to local infrastructure, and depletion of professionals, particularly within the education sector.

He has also witnessed firsthand the warmth and hope of the people. ‘There is a simplicity of life here,’ he says. ‘And although the people are very poor and have very little, they are super nice and polite and happy. So if I can contribute in some small way, whether it be to the financial project at the college, or helping in English-language related projects, then that’s a good thing.

‘I’m also hoping that I’ll learn more about myself through this experience, and what makes me tick, and that I have a deeper understanding of what brings me satisfaction, in a non-material sense.’

While volunteering in Timor-Leste, Gavin has also been charged with an additional ‘important mission’ by his parish priest, Fr Michael. ‘Fr Michael is a mad stamp collector,’ says Gavin, ‘so after the interview I’m off to Dili via “Tum Tum” [an electric rickshaw] to find him some local stamps. Wish me luck!’