Subject: TIMOR LESTE Former gang members form church choir

TIMOR LESTE Former gang members form church choir

April 22, 2009 | TL07074.1546

DILI (UCAN) -- Every police officer in the capital, and possibly in the whole of this majority-Catholic country, knows about the youth gangs who roam the Becusse area on the outskirts of Dili.

Recently, however, some members of a gang here called Triste ("sad" in Portuguese, an official language of Timor Leste), formed a choir and sang in church. The group sang for the first time at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church at Sunday Mass on April 19.

This turn of events came about after a parish catechist asked the youths to form a church choir a few weeks ago. After some hesitation, they agreed, and received training from the well-known Santa Cecilia choir of Balide parish in Dili.

Gang leader Joao Paulo da Silva, 25, said after Mass that he was happy to be in the choir. He recalled that in the past, he and his gang members would make a lot of noise singing and playing the guitar in the evenings, and disturbing the neighborhood. "It is better to sing at Mass," he admitted.

Da Silva also admitted he used to feel bored during Mass, but that this is no longer the case after being part of the choir and leaving the gang.

Another former gang member who joined the choir, Joao Diaz, 24, recalled how he and his friends used to get drunk in the evenings and cause trouble. Such behavior is in the past now, he said, as he now focuses on singing.

And parishioners are pleasantly surprised at the former gang members' decision.

Pedro da Cruz, 57, who lives in the neighborhood, said he was happy to see these "naughty boys" singing at Mass.

He recalled during the crisis in 2006, when violence wracked Dili and other parts of the country over a split in the military, how gangs roved the streets, burned houses and looted property. He noted that some of those gang members, now in the choir, "were arrested because they were suspected to be involved in the troubles."

"I hope they will stay this way," he remarked.

Maria Fatima, 18, another parishioner, said she is happy to see the young people's changed behavior. She also said she hopes these youths will rediscover their faith as a result of their newfound interest.

Last year, the parish priest prohibited the gang from building their own Nativity scene, a common activity here in homes and neighborhoods, because they would get drunk and dance around the crib instead of attending Christmas Mass.

Timor Leste, which became independent on May 20, 2002, after decades of Indonesian rule, has a population of about 1 million, 95 percent of whom are Catholics.

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