TOMORROW, on 17 June, the Anglican Church of St John the Baptist, Koslanda, in Sri Lanka, celebrates its centenary.
Although the original church was consecrated in 1917, St John’s is only 16 years old. The old church and mission house were destroyed in a landslide, and construction proceeded on a new site in 2001. The Anglican mission agency USPG and the diocese of New York contributed to the costs.
Only one Sri Lankan in 15 is Christian, and most Sri Lankans are Roman Catholics. Yet the country is one of several in the world where Anglicans, although making up just a tiny proportion of the population, nevertheless have a long history and play an important part in society.
The first Anglican service was held in 1796, but it was from the early 19th century that the main Anglican missionary work got under way through the activities of several societies, including the SPG (now USPG), CMS, and the Tamil Church Mission (formally known as the Tamil Cooly Mission).
There are now two dioceses: Colombo which was founded in 1845, and Kurunegala, which dates from 1950. Sri Lanka is a former British colony, previously known as Ceylon, and the Anglican Church there is still known as the Church of Ceylon. Until 1970, it was part of the Church of India, Pakistan, Burma, and Ceylon, but it continues today as extra-provincial under the Archbishop of Canterbury. Services at Colombo Cathedral are in three languages: Tamil, Sinhalese, and English.
IT HAS been an eventful century in the country’s history since the establishment of St John’s, Koslanda. The congregation and clergy have seen and responded to multiple tragedies, arising from both human conflict and natural disaster.
The 25-year civil war involving the Tamil Tigers, which began in 1983, was long and bitter. It arose out of the ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese and the Tamil minority in the north-east. The conflict ended in May 2009, when government forces seized the last area controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels. By the time the conflict ended, it was estimated that up to 80,000 people had been killed. Sadly, recriminations by both sides continue.
In the context of the conflict and the social tensions, the Archdeacon of Nuwara Eliya, the Ven. Keerthisiri Fernando, says that the congregation of St John’s is unique. “Sinhala and Tamil people have been living in harmony, not only accepting and respecting each other, but also marrying each other from these generally isolated ethic communities. The church has given a fertile ground for them to grow, in both Sinhala and Tamil cultures, by going beyond the barriers created within these communities.
“Today, this community can be considered as a model community, where Sinhala people and so-called Indian Tamils live in symbiosis by eliminating xenophobia, to live as human beings created in the image of God, the ultimate reality.”
MANY Tamils came from India during the era of British colonialism in the mid-19th century to work in the rapidly expanding tea plantations. British entrepreneurs had discovered that the climate and terrain of the central highlands provided ideal growing conditions for a crop for which there was a rapidly growing demand back at home. Sri Lanka’s tea-pickers are still mostly of Indian Tamil descent
“Often, the descendants of the Tamils who were brought by the British live in communities isolated from the traditional Sinhala villages of those areas,” Archdeacon Fernando says. His area of responsibility covers Koslanda and the tea-plantation region about 120 miles east of Colombo. “At times, this isolation has created tension in those communities, creating misunderstandings and disharmony.”
GEOLOGISTS have also suggested that the bad management of tea estates and the neglect of drainage are partly to blame for exacerbating the ongoing problem of landslides in the area. In a region of steep hills, with an annual rainfall of more than 2000mm, land-slips are a common occurrence — and, indeed, one of them led to the demise of the original church building at Koslanda. One of the worst was in October 2014, when a mudslide hit the Meeriyabedda tea plantation, near Haldummulla (News, 7 November 2014). It was described as the worst natural disaster to hit the country since the tsunami of 1994.
“Rescuers have been searching for survivors since the incident happened,” the Anglican Communion News Service reported at the time. “But officials already believe there is little chance to find anybody alive. It is thought the ground had been made unstable by recent heavy monsoon rains.” Hundreds of people, including children, were buried alive. The Church of Ceylon was involved in post-disaster rehabilitation with survivors and victims’ families.
SRI LANKA is still one of the world’s main tea-growing countries. More than 200,000 people are employed on the tea plantations, and much of the toughest work is done by women. Families are often split when the men go off to find work in the cities, or abroad in the Middle East.
“Tea-pickers are considered the lowest of the low, despite being the backbone of the Sri Lankan economy,’’ the programmes co-ordinator for USPG, Anne Bonger, says. Earlier this year, she visited Sri Lanka, where the organisation is involved in educational projects for the children of the tea-estate workers. “They live in poor accommodation on the estates, and work in all weathers, on steep plantation slopes, in bare feet, at risk of being bitten by insects and snakes. Needless to say, it is very hard work. They are paid a minimum wage by the kilo picked.”
Today, plantation workers are still regarded by many in Sri Lanka as foreigners and second-class citizens, Ms Bonger says. In the 1960s, more than 300,000 of them were forcibly repatriated to India. Accordingly, they have few rights, and have to fight to get identity cards.
“The plantation workers have few medical facilities. If someone is unwell, and takes time off to visit a clinic, their wages, which are already low, will be reduced. So people often go without treatment, which means they suffer more. Their homes are tiny, and might house as many as eight people, with no electricity for lights or cooking. Essentially, it is what you might call indentured, or bonded, labour. And government provision for schooling tea-plantation children is not comprehensive; so plantation children often fall behind in their studies.”
USPG and the Church of Ceylon are facilitating the work of the Estate Community Development Mission (ECDM). This is one of the aid programmes that Anglican Churches in Britain and Ireland are invited to support through the USPG’s Partners in Mission scheme.
ECDM runs nursery schools for plantation children, irrespective of their religion, so that they do not fall behind when they reach primary school; these nurseries are often staffed by people from the plantation community, who are, in turn, equipped with language and IT training. It also offers bursaries to help young people to maintain their studies and enter university. It also engages in advocacy work with plantation communities to seek legal rights for the workers and their families.
To find out more about the USPG Partners in Mission scheme, visit www.uspg.org.uk/pim.