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