Canon Dan O’Connor writes:
THE 1980s at USPG’s College of the Ascension, Selly Oak, were an interesting time. The flow of missionaries from home to abroad had declined to a dribble, and a wave of interesting mid-career men and women came to us for what Selly Oak could offer them.
There was Kosuke Koyama, author of Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai, Bishop Tengatenga from Malawi, more recently chair of the Anglican Consultative Council, Ian Ernest, now Bishop Ian of the Indian Ocean, Kirill, now Patriarch (Juliet O’Connor was his tutor), and Yohan, a quiet-spoken Sinhalese, cross-legged in the chapel, singing beautiful kirthanas from home, and wearing a lapel badge, “Support the Miners” (it was 1984-85).
Originally, this Yohan was John Cooray, born on 31 May 1928, son of a very wealthy upper-class and high-caste lawyer in what was then Ceylon. John went from school at the Royal College, Colombo, to Selwyn College, Cambridge, reading history, and graduating in 1951. Thereafter, he studied at Cuddesdon, before returning to Ceylon (later Sri Lanka), and to ordination, in the diocese of Kurunegala, deacon in 1953 and priest in 1954.
The exact route whereby, after returning to an assistant curacy, and then spending a few years as parish priest, in 1972 this wealthy and privileged young man changed his name and became an ashram leader (with an ashram that was, at one stage, a collective farm) is not entirely clear; but two influences were very clear in this regard.
The first was a strong radical element in the predominantly upper-class and upper-caste churches of the island, including the Methodists, and Roman Catholics represented by, for example, Bishop Leo Nanayakkara and Fr Rodrigo (shot at the altar by paramilitaries in 1987).
Among Anglicans, it was represented in a moderate way by Yohan’s then Bishop, the Bishop of Kurunegala, Lakdasa De Mel, and more boldly by his successor from 1962, Lakshman Wickremasinghe, remembered as a social activist and an adventurous theologian.
The other influence was that of the Asian expression of Christian asceticism embodied in the ashram movement, a notable pioneer being Jesudasan and Paton’s Christukula Ashram, founded in Tamil Nadu in 1921. Selvaratnam’s Christa Seva Ashram in Jaffna, from 1940, well known to Devananda, was a centre for dialogue and peace in the deepening Tamil-Sinhalese conflict of subsequent decades.
John Cooray’s return from England soon found him “sevak” (servant) Yohan Devananda, in sarong and cotton shirt, and finding congenial an ashramic contemplative spirituality that combined elements of inculturation, ecumenism, dialogue, and social activism. Under De Mel’s patronage, he established his first ashram at Hevadiwela, the site of his title parish, in the diocese of Kurunegala, in 1955, but moved to Devasarana (”Divine protection”) in 1960, his home, domestic and spiritual, until his death on 5 March this year. (For the first three years, he also served as Priest-in-Charge of St Andrew’s, Mitenwela, a few kilometres north.)
Through more than half a century of Sri Lanka’s often violent political turbulence, Yohan and Devasarana were always in the thick of things, championing the peasant farmers (and printing and distributing their newspaper), encouraging young people (mostly Buddhist and Marxist-influenced, but also church groups and the SCM), and helping victims of the civil war (saving “hundreds of lives”, one newspaper said).
For years, he worked closely with a socialist Buddhist monk, the Venerable Batapola Anomadassi, who was often at Devasarana. But, from 1985, he went from celibate to married life, marrying Malini Weerasinghe, an educationist and radical activist. Malini founded an indigenous women’s community, Meth Piyasa, was ordained in 2006, to Yohan’s delight, and died in 2010.
Yohan promoted his ideas in numerous pamphlets, articles, and letters to the press. His liturgical gifts were a particular strength — a friend, recalling the vast attendance at his May Day workers’ masses in the 1960s, wrote of his “glorious voice and passionate liturgical presence”. One aspect of this liturgical commitment was his New World Liturgy, which acknowledged Marx, Che Guevara, and Mao, and made Marxist and Buddhist alongside its Christian references, a text of the “Third Church” of the last century at its boldest and most visionary.
Yohan’s mortal remains were laid to rest at Devasarana. No one exemplified more strikingly a passionate beauty of faith and idealism in the Church in Sri Lanka in his time.