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Listening: In Sri Lanka, Colombo diocese leads way in tsunami recovery, opens its doors to all

By Matthew Davies
3/17/2006
[Episcopal News Service]  The Diocese of Colombo has long been at the vanguard of community outreach in Sri Lanka and the past 15 months have been no exception. In partnership with Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD), the diocese's response to the December 26, 2004 tsunami has revealed a church in action -- dedicated to rebuilding people's lives and livelihoods.

Bringing greetings from Bishop Duleep de Chickera of Colombo and expressing gratitude to ERD for its partnership and support, diocesan relief worker Nagulan Nesiah introduced the Revs. Chandran Crispus and Upul Fernando as they shared their ministries and experiences at a March 16 presentation at the Episcopal Church Center in New York City.

Crispus, rector of St. Andrew's Church in Batticoloa for eight years, says the church's primary role is being an advocate for the people and a voice for the voiceless. "We are working to empower the poor," he said. "And that gives us strength."

For Fernando, issues of poverty have been a high priority in his ministry as rector of Christ Church in Hambantota on the Southern Coast of Sri Lanka. He has handled a wealth of projects for the poorest populations in the country, including livelihood grants, bicycle distributions and innovative housing programs.

Throughout its 160-year history, the diocese has been committed to peacemaking and addressing poverty and "our church and clergy have really played a leadership role in these areas," Nesiah explained.

"As a post-colonial church we opened our doors to everybody," Fernando explained.

Now the church is being approached by different faiths and ethnic groups for assistance.

"We've had Buddhist monks ask us to help rebuild their temple; Muslims asking us to help them build boats," Nesiah added. "It has opened our eyes to the role the church plays in the wider community. We have built bridges and made friends with people we didn't know before. It has expanded our bonds with the greater church."

Sri Lanka has been fraught with civil strife since 1983, when tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists erupted into a war that has claimed thousands of lives.

Despite a 2002 ceasefire brokered between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the situation is still very fragile and outbreaks of violence are not uncommon, particularly in Crispus's community on the Eastern Coast of Sri Lanka, where Tamil Hindus are a majority.

Crispus described how the tensions in his region had segregated Muslims and Tamil Hindus, but on the day of the tsunami, "everyone came together," he said. "Everyone was involved in rescuing people and what they had, they shared with others. It was a wonderful thing."

ERD describes Crispus's experience and well-established relationship with the local community as "a blessing for our tsunami work," and Fernando's "never-ending determination" to provide long-term relief to the affected people as "an inspiration to all of us performing similar work."

Two-thirds of the Sri Lankan coastline was directly hit by the tsunami. Homes, crops and fishing boats were destroyed and at least 35,000 people are dead or missing. ERD reports that one million people lost their homes and 80 percent of the fishing industry was destroyed, affecting 530,000 people.

Among its many accomplishments since the tsunami, the Diocese of Colombo has completed housing repair and construction projects, established boat and canoe yards, provided livelihood support grants for various vocations, distributed bicycles for men, women and children, helped finance education for children and families unable to fund their own studies, facilitated short-term and long-term trauma counseling workshops and donated equipment to medical institutions.

The diocese has also been involved in many advocacy programs.

Kirsten Laursen, ERD's senior program director for Asia and new initiatives, described the Diocese of Colombo's approach to its relief work as extremely humble, but entirely community-based. "There is a real emphasis on ensuring that the resources are spread evenly among ethnic and faith-based communities," she said. "But it is the strength of the church that I have found so moving."

Fernando is the patron of the first diocesan canoe and boat yard, which has provided a model for additional boatyards in the North and East. So far, the yards have made a total of 155 canoes and 7 flat-bottom boats with many more on order.

"The yards are a successful centerpiece to our rehabilitation efforts towards the badly-destroyed fisheries sector," Laursen explained.

ERD's long-term commitment in Sri Lanka will continue through December 2008 with support for housing reconstruction, fishing livelihood recovery, child protection and orphan care, capacity building, health, water and sanitation, as well as interfaith collaboration.

Laursen explains that the feelings of mutual trust between Crispus and the community have enhanced the sensitivity and compassion in administering aid in the region.

ERD's partnership with the Diocese of Colombo "gave us strength when we were in need," Crispus said. "They have shared their concern and participated in our suffering."

[Founded in 1845, the Diocese of Colombo belongs to the Church of Ceylon, a minority church in a pluralistic society. Until 1970, the Church was part of the Church of India, Pakistan, Burma, and Ceylon. The first Anglican services were held in 1796, and missionaries began their work in 1818. The Church continues as extraprovincial under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury.]

Details about ERD's program with the Diocese of Colombo in Sri Lanka can be found online at: http://er-d.org/programs_62470_ENG_HTM.htm.