Theology helping in the tsunami

02 November 2006

One college applied its training methods and contacts to bring aid, says Stephanie Boucher

IN Sri Lanka, an ecumenical theological college has drawn on its unusual method of study to support victims of the Boxing Day tsunami, while continuing to train students. The Theological College of Lanka (TCL) has evolved a flexible field-education programme over two decades of ethnic conflict, which means it can respond to the country’s needs.

One ordinand, Nishanthan Kanapathipillai, was a student at TCL when the tsunami struck his home village of Komari, in the eastern Ampara district. After losing three members of his family, he was hoping for some support, but he little expected the college to respond by relocating temporarily to Komari. It made it possible for students to attend lectures in the morning and spend their evenings supporting the relief effort.

TCL is set in the Buddhist village of Pilimatalawa, near Kandy, in the lush foothills of the country’s mountainous heart. It has trained Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists for ordained ministry and lay pastoral work since 1963. It operates in a tough setting, spearheading a minority religion in a poor and ethnically divided country.

It is now nearly four years since an uneasy ceasefire was brokered between the ruling Buddhist Sinhala majority and the mainly Hindu Tamils. The human cost of the war was estimated at 66,000 lives, one million internal refugees, tens of thousands maimed, and 25 per cent of the population living below the poverty line.

TCL has carved out a place for itself in dealing with the spiritual and emotional effects of the war. The conflict disconnected two culturally divergent populations, who now know virtually nothing about one another. The barriers of language, religion, and geography are exacerbated by the "memory wounds" of wartime loss.

New theological models, aimed at overcoming objections to dialogue with people of other faiths, were needed, so that Christians could take their part in the effort to rebuild the country. Christianity also crosses ethnic boundaries: it has adherents among both Tamils and Sinhala. This and its colonial legacy, which is redolent of former privilege, has made Christians an object of suspicion.


Christian leaders have had to begin a process of indigenisation. The Revd Keerthisiri Fernando, an Anglican lecturer at TCL, explained: "God is a God of history, and one should be able to understand God in Sri Lankan history."

Using local languages to teach theology and create new forms of worship have been first steps. But the field-education programme has enabled TCL to create a synergy that is uniquely Sri Lankan. Students are put to work in the community in ever-widening circles as their four-year training progresses, on which they later reflect theologically.

Tamils and Sinhala each make up half of the student body of about 90. They each gain a working knowledge of the other’s language, as well as English, because many arrive without these tools. Hinduism and Buddhism are also taught. Thus equipped, students go to live for varying periods among people of a different culture, language, and religion from their own.

Suranga de Mel, who is Sinhalese, described a trip across military checkpoints to Jaffna in the Tamil north: "We were afraid no one would understand us, but people were welcoming. And I was so wrong about Jaffna: I thought it would be dusty and treeless, but it has magnificent nature."

People are coy when it comes to talking about their suffering. In a culture of peacemaking, they would rather not dwell on bitterness, but choose instead to focus on resolution. One student, Wasana Fernando, said: "When we are facing problems, we can talk them through."

Ms de Mel continued: "Talking and fighting about our memory wounds is not permitted to us as Christians. With both Sinhala and Tamils in our congregations, we should try to forgive and forget, to fulfil our goal for peace."

It is this approach that enabled the college to act effectively when the tsunami struck. Mr Fernando, the lecturer, said: "There are vast areas with remote population pockets, which the agencies didn’t even know existed. We heard of them through our church networks, and we were able to reach places that had become entirely cut off."

The principal of TCL is a Methodist, the Revd Dr Albert Jebanesan. He explained: "Komari is an insignificant village. There is no electricity or water supply: this means there are no government or private enterprises there. We moved in with these people to fight for their rights."

TCL did not just bring supplies, but also functioned as mediator between the people and the authorities when important decisions about rebuilding were being made.


Dr Jebanesan continued: "We felt the need for volunteers who would sit with the victims and listen to their experiences. We heard statements like: ‘Why did God allow this to happen? We don’t want such a God in our life,’ and ‘I have lost all my family — why should I live alone in this world?’ We could not speak about faith or hope, only identify ourselves with their grief."

One year on, TCL is training counsellors to work in the long term with the victims, many of whom are still in refugee camps.

Dr Jebanesan concluded: "The college is not a relief organisation, but we felt that there was human suffering that required our response. Ministerial formation is not only a classroom exercise: theological discourse should arise from the life, needs, and aspirations of the people.

"Nor can we provide a political solution to the present ethnic struggle. But we are working at grass-roots level to create peace."

Stephanie Boucher is a writer on environmental and scientific issues.

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