When the sun sets in Thraimadu, Batticaloa, Sri Lanka its drop from the sky is so quick that a brief conversation beginning in broad daylight concludes in the blackness of night. It was this way for the small group of us seated in resin chairs having a discussion with recipients of tsunami houses on the eve of their possession day. The usual leadership faces were there: Dan Sheffield- Director of Global and Intercultural Ministries for the FMCiC; Pastor Sritharan Jeyarajah- Tamil Free Methodist Church, Mississauga, and Pastor Guna. Guna had been hired to simply oversee the project site, but within a few short months had grown a church of 80 people meeting in the supply shed.
Seated quietly in a line, bearing mixed expressions of eager anticipation and cautious hope bordering on disbelief were the four Sri Lankan women who, less than 24 hours later, would be symbolically planting trees and receiving prayers of blessing in their new homes. After some dialogue about the linguistic nuances of a letter of understanding which would serve as a legal deed until further due process could be attended to, the signing began.
As the pastor of just one of the many Canadian churches that had joined together in addressing the social need arising from the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December, 2004, I sat smiling in the February heat. What a wonderful thing I was permitted to be part of, if only as a witness.
Funny thing about being a witness. Legally, it often involves signing something.
Completely surprised and honoured by the invitation to place my own signature on the page, I fumbled with the pen, fearing some tragic inky blunder that would result in nullifying the first letter. Sometimes it takes great concentration just to sign one’s own name. However, in this case some confidence came with the realization that my illegible scrawl was really just a symbol – it was a mark made on behalf of every pastor of every Free Methodist church in Canada that had heard the troubling news back in that final week of 2004 and had sensed God’s invitation to help somehow.
That evening’s experience would leave me reflective and virtually speechless for hours. How had we found our way here, over five years and half a world away from the churches in Canada that had grappled with a sense of global responsibility amidst the barrage of images and sound-bytes that circulated so effortlessly throughout the global village during the week following the disaster?
What kind of response will we make to God’s justice agenda?
On December 26, 2004, a tsunami tore across the Indian Ocean, devastating everything on the shorelines of countries in its path… with virtually no warning, the coasts of Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka in particular were laid to waste by two massive waves in a period of about 37 seconds. Thousands upon thousands of lives were lost along with billions of dollars worth of property.
In Canada, I had been slated to preach on the Sunday that followed. I had a nice “New Year’s” message about something… the details of it are long gone now. As I was praying, God spoke.
Is this the best we’ve got right now? Is this the most important thing we have to say? Do you really want to deliver this message, or do you want to actually address the urgent?
I knew what this meant- we all knew what this meant. Pastors all around the world, in our movement and others, were having the same conversation with God. The urgent was the need that existed as a result of this incredible natural disaster. The urgent was something tangible. The urgent was something immediate.
And God moved. Even in the wake of Christmas, or perhaps in the true spirit of it, the people in these churches gave. In our smallish church, a fund was established and over the next while several thousand dollars were given to it. Probably not much in the larger scheme of things, but definitely an active participant in the larger scheme:
God’s justice agenda.
It was a great place to start. For me personally, it was my first step out of the land of ideas and into the real world. I think it was an early step for our church as well.
Four months later, God called our church back into the game. I was having breakfast with a friend who engages in global ministries work regularly. He asked me a simple question: ‘I know what we believe, but what do we actually do?’
The first answers were predictably “programmy.” However, with deeper prodding, I was bumped out of the place where I had lived my whole life, presuming that global ministry was someone else’s calling. Here, it appeared, was a call from God to get involved. God had packaged it in the words of my friend so that it would get in…
What I heard my friend say was: Until the leaders of our church do something other than Sunday morning, the people of the church will continue to hide behind them.
So, through an intense, multifaceted dialogue involving emails with many different people including both Dan Sheffield and my father, a pile of praying, and some really good late-night coffees, I came to understand that God was inviting an involvement deeper than simply establishing a temporary fund. God was inviting our church into relational engagement. I found myself joining a team headed to Sri Lanka, not sure where I was going, much less why, but knowing that it was of God and that it was to somehow involve our whole church, not just me.
“Why did God send the Tsunami?”
On this initial trip, two intense impressions were made regarding the impact of the Tsunami upon the people of Sri Lanka. The first was how far from the reality of this catastrophe we lived in North America. A young man shared how he had taken work placing bodies washed ashore onto wooden carts, ending up loading his best friend onto one. Another man, a pastor around my age, pressed me with questions I couldn’t answer: “What do I tell the people in my village when they ask ‘Why did God send the Tsunami?’” None of my tidy little theological defaults had any hope to offer this hurting people. I was still a well-intentioned outside observer.
The second impression had to do with the need for relief rebuilding. As part of that trip, Pastor Jey, Alan Retzman and I joined Pastor Lazarus, the superintendent of the newly formed mission district of Sri Lanka on a mission to Batticaloa. This city on the east coast of Sri Lanka had been heavily affected by the Tsunami. I had seen pictures of the devastation, taken the previous February by my friend Bob Munshaw who was pastoring Saskatoon Free Methodist Church at the time. However, the Batticaloa we traveled to in August not only bore great evidence of the natural disaster that had befallen it, but also of the incredible tenacity of its survivors. An rn photographers, so far these bricks were all his own. Kind words and empty promises were of no encouragement here- displaced survivors, having lost everything and everyone they had once held dear were living in older man shared how his grandfather had built his home, his father had been raised in this home and now it fell upon him to rebuild it; and although many promises had been made by westetin shanties and refugee tents, enduring temperatures of +40 in the shade. And yet they persevered.
Poitu varam is the Tamil phrase for ‘go and return again soon.’ My friend Pastor Lazarus said this to me as I got into a van one night in Colombo, and was simply saying ‘We’ll see you tomorrow’. However, these words came to mean much more to me concerning the hope of one day returning to this place with others, ready to be used of God here in whatever way God ordained.
Over the weeks and months that followed, it became clear that a missional-partnership of sorts had been birthed between the work being done in Sri Lanka and my local church. Interest in the work taking place in Sri Lanka and the need to be met there grew almost immediately. Our lead pastor, Steve Lougheed joined Alan Retzman and Benedict Gomez in February 2006, while a team for that summer was being drawn together and prepared. There was much dialogue about the state of things in Sri Lanka and how the relief moneys given by the people in Canada could be best used. Alan, Dan, Pastor Jey, Ben, and others were in constant dialogue with the leaders of the mission district of Sri Lanka to discern the FMCiC’s ongoing role.
A dream for a whole community of houses emerges
The Ampara district is south of Batticaloa and was even more heavily affected by the disaster. Among Pastor Jey and others, a dream began to grow to build a city of God with more than a hundred houses and a community centre/church in the Ampara region using Free Methodist funds. The idea was that the Sri Lankan government would donate land and all of the moneys raised in Canada would go to constructing houses for the displaced. Without the cost of land, more houses could be built. It was a great plan. Plans were drawn up for housing while contacts and negotiations were made with the government to secure suitable land upon which to begin the project.
In August of 2006, I was able to return to Batticaloa as part of our larger trip. With me was my friend Matt Larson who was interning at our church. In the year that had passed since I had been there, much had changed. Much rebuilding had already taken place, certainly, but the presence of the army had also increased. There was, after all, a civil war going on which had to be factored into all of our plans. It was strange how, on my run through the streets every morning I would be greeted cheerfully by both Sinhala soldiers and Tamil shopkeepers who were otherwise locked in a stare-down with each other. It appeared as though God was willing to use our ‘otherness’ in a meaningful way to accomplish his will for those on both sides of this conflict.
It was especially apparent on the Batticaloa and Ampara portion of this trip how the very hand of God seemed to be extended over all that we participated in. Due to the escalating violence, particularly in the eastern and northern regions, all NGO’s (Non-Government-Organizations) had been told to leave the country. Yet because we were a church, we were free to move to and fro, gaining access to areas that were closed to others. Around us, incidents were on the rise, with a bridge being taken out by insurgents up the road from us one day or violence in the street ten minutes behind us the next. We experienced only freedom and safe passage, however, as we scouted land, met with government officials and sought further insight into what God intended to do through the FMCiC in this country.
Matt was being challenged daily in his personal and ministry journeys in ways that would become increasingly apparent over the coming months, even years. We prayed daily prayers of thanksgiving for the mercies seen in the day coming to an end and those unseen for the day ahead. It was a trip of wonders.
What was not wonderful, however, was how arduous the process to secure suitable land for development became. Some of the options that were inspected held promise while others, lacking fresh water or access to electricity, clearly held none. Even more frustrating was the sense that we probably wouldn’t actually get the go-ahead to develop in a suitable area before the war ended or Jesus returned. This golden gleam of the city of God dream was being increasingly inhibited by red tape while in the meantime there were still so many people sweating it out in refugee tents and living conditions that were deplorable.
Building a global partnership
Leaving Ampara, we joined the rest of our team (comprised of members from Northview in Regina and Wesley Chapel in Scarborough) for the work that we were slated to do together. There was still a nagging sense that the tsunami housing project was very tentative and in all of this, it was very difficult to be patient and faithful. With our western minds and western worldviews, the challenge was to serve within the existing systems and structures rather than to start trying to supercede them in a flourish of well-intentioned ethnocentricity.
Upon returning home, the team from Regina, consisting of Matt and myself, along with Rick and Jaylynne Fox (formerly of Saskatoon Free Methodist and having experienced a stirring within their hearts upon hearing of Sri Lanka a couple years earlier from their pastor at the time, Bob Munshaw) shared their respective stories and impressions readily, accepting opportunities to speak at churches and camps throughout the year that followed.
The missional partnership of our local church with the movement in Sri Lanka had continued to deepen with more of our people connecting with the churches there. The people in the seats back home actually knew where Sri Lanka was, and were growing accustomed to sights, stories, faces and names from the trips taken thus far. There was, however, always an awkward pause whenever team members were asked about tsunami relief. In our small way, we had participated in the raising of funds and awareness, yet felt a little lost as to what progress we could actually report. It was a time of diplomacy and faith-stretching.
Sometime during that second trip, the idea for Encounter Sri Lanka, a denominational global ministries experience for young adults was conceived. The guinea pigs of the ESL pilot in August ‘07 would be my family, along with two others from our church who had expressed interest and one from Wesley Chapel. Also from Wesley Chapel would be Sheryl Murray and Onika Brown, two educators who had been part of the team in 2006 and were returning to provide pedagogical training to Sri Lankan Christian education leaders. Of inestimable value to the project as interpreters were Ben Gomez and Jackie Jeyarajah – Pastor Jey’s daughter.
The focus of the ESL’07 trip was on the programming offered, not tsunami relief. Pastor Jey stayed behind as he often did, while the ESL team headed back to Canada. He was still hard at work exploring options to see relief plans come to fruition. During this time, it had become apparent to Pastor Jey and others that as long as we were waiting for land to be handed over by the government of Sri Lanka, the project would be in limbo. Negotiations had begun for the purchase of land suitable to build houses and a community centre on. In the time that had passed since the disaster, economics had changed and the price of usable land in the tsunami-affected areas had skyrocketed, largely due to demand by NGO’s and churches seeking property to develop with relief housing.
To purchase land now would be to drastically reduce the amount of houses we could afford to erect, but at least the project would once again move more tangibly forward. The Theraimadu land just outside of Batticaloa was purchased and Pastor Jey and Dan got to work securing Sri Lankan architects, contractors and skilled workers to construct ten houses, with plans for a church, community centre and market to follow. The land purchased was at the centre of a relief housing community that had been built by Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision donations. There would be many neighbours.
Listening for God’s direction
Back in Regina, we were dealing with some changes of our own. Having gone through a time of transition, we were settling into a new rhythm as I moved into the lead pastor role and tried to figure it all out. However, there was something else going on. In my global ministries involvements of the previous three summers, I had diligently sought answers from God as to whether this or that trip was mine to take and in each case I had received the green light. I never wanted to just presume that involvement in Sri Lanka was a given and in the summer of 2008, God tested me on this one. He simply said ‘No.’
It was the first time that I received this word but it was so clear and so different in articulation and feeling from the previous GO-codes, that I knew the only faithful response was obedience. Part of the challenge was to sort out whether this was our church’s gig, or just something that the pastor was passionate about. See, on my other trips, I was serving under the auspices of another’s leadership, and was therefore a delegate. Somehow, it felt different with my new role in the church, and I didn’t want to be guilty of conveniently making my interests coincide with the interests of the church. Regardless of what your leadership role, submission to someone is a necessary and meaningful form of accountability. Everyone answers to someone.
I shared my conviction with our board and we dialogued at length over how involvement across the ocean was in keeping with our core values and was an expression of our collective mission as a church. In the end, our board decided that the preexisting relationship between this little church and the exciting work that God was doing in Sri Lanka should continue into this new era. One of the things that came up was the possibility of my taking a trip in February ‘09, and this being a springboard for a plan to send an ESL team the following August. There were still young people from the church coming forward, expressing giftings and desires conducive to this kind of service. And so it came to be that I would be participating in the February trip, while my friend Matt would return to Sri Lanka August with his wife and a full ESL team.
The best houses, for the last
To our delight, we learned that the first of the houses being constructed at Theraimadu would be ready to be turned over to their owners- people who would, by that time, have been displaced and waiting over four years for a dwelling. The selection process had been conducted at arm’s length, with applications being made to and considered by a third party. Of the recipients, seven of the nine were families headed by women who had been widowed or otherwise abandoned during the catastrophe. There was tremendous satisfaction in sharing this with people outside of the church who had questions about our involvement in this tiny country that seemed to be increasingly in the news. Likewise, the response of non-churched people to the project, the selection process and the ultimate recipients was incredibly positive. It was as if those we knew drew inspiration to live more generously from news of the project. In many ways, I believe this excitement had to do with the fact that this was a justice initiative being carried out by a church, rather than an NGO. The church was doing what people felt the church should be doing.
My friend’s words from four years earlier played as back-story in the agreement evident on people’s faces as they heard us share of the work: “I know what we believe in, but what are we doing?”
And so I found myself representing both people I knew and people I didn’t know, seated in a resin chair on the other side of the world on a hot and humid night in February, 2009, fumbling with a pen.
The day had been inspiring. Moving through the Theraimadu relief housing project, it was easy to note the electricity in the air. Many of the houses were bustling with the final preparations for the handing over of keys the next day- a bit of sweat equity provided by the recipients. Floors and walls were being washed down, yards were being landscaped, one household was working to put in a cement walkway- two boys shoveling, two women carrying buckets of cement and a man from the community doing the troweling. I had never seen people dressed so well and smiling so broadly while loading cement in +40 temperatures. I believe in our part of the world this is called ‘pride of ownership.’
We met the families and interviewed a few of them. All the while, Pastor Guna translated, demonstrating a gift for language. He shared story after story with us of the people in this community, the hardships they had endured, and how the common feeling among them was that they had waited hopefully, thinking they had been passed by, only to receive what was, in their view, the best houses in the area.
The houses really were special. Because great attention had been paid to the details of living in eastern Sri Lanka as architectural plans were developed, the dwellings were positioned according to the regular wind currents with great ventilation for air flow and high ceilings which allowed the heat to be swept by the wind up out of the living space. Each house had a veranda because those designing them had noted that the newly erected relief houses in the area almost all featured ‘after market’ verandas that had been added on by their owners. The houses were also slightly larger than the others in the area, allowing for multiple-family dwelling. The fact that they were painted bright green was probably just a matter of aesthetic preference.
Pastor Guna had been brought in fresh out of Bible school to provide security at the project site. I had already heard rich stories about this man from Wade Fitzpatrick, pastor of the Moose Jaw church after his own trip in August of 2008. Our friend Guna was clearly a pastor, not a security guard. Within very little time he was providing pastoral care for the people in the surrounding community, and had set up a thriving church in the utility shed. During the week he had established a school, teaching English to the people of the area, and had been harassed by some who felt that his presence as an on-site spiritual father in the community was somehow in violation of an unspoken turf agreement. He had endured malicious rumours of gross misbehaviour and a conversion agenda, as well as physical threats to his person. Yet, he had persevered and the depth of his character was such that those whom he served had eventually stepped up to defend him as their pastor and friend.
We enjoyed some rich fellowship together on the evening of the signing and then left the project site, knowing that the following day would be an exciting one.
God’s “Big Happy”
Possession day was a beautiful day. Each of the houses had been decorated lavishly with bright colourful banners, welcoming streamers and such. Each had a ribbon across the doorway which would be ceremonially cut. As part of the celebration, there would be a prayer of blessing for the household, a snack served to the first guests, a family portrait taken and, of course, the planting of the first tree in the yard. Although there had been many dignitaries invited to participate in the day, unfortunately very few were able to attend and participate. However, many from the community, of course, came. In particular, those receiving homes were on hand to celebrate with their new neighbours. As we would see the following day, many were already attending Pastor Guna’s church together and were faith brothers and sisters. There was a rich sense of community- more like communitas actually.
One of the girls, I recognized from loading cement the day before, turned to me, beaming amidst all that was taking place, and articulated her perspective succinctly: “Big happy.”
That our little church could be part of God’s Big Happy here was the culmination of over five years traveling on this road out of the land of ideas, into the land of action.
Pastor Darryl Dozlaw, was a high school teacher in Regina when he first travelled to Sri Lanka in 2005. He now serves as the Lead Pastor of Northview Free Methodist Church in Regina.