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Day after day, Methodist pastor assists fellow Sri Lankans

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Photo by Callie Long, ACT International

A new fishing boat is a boon for Sri Lankans Devaram (right) and Thayany Theivasangan, pictured with daughter Thanushian.
Dec. 19, 2005

By Jan-Åke Thorell*

MATARA, Sri Lanka (UMNS) — A year ago, the Rev. Anil Silva of the Methodist Church in Matara in the south of Sri Lanka could not have imagined what lay ahead for him and his congregation.

Nearly a year after the tsunami hit his country, he has been faced with long queues of people outside the church. And still people line up. Every day.

Silva has often had to field the questions: “Why are you doing this? Why are you working for us, day after day?”

His reply is constant: “It is my duty as a Christian.”

Even if “the gate to the church building is closed,” Silva says, “the work is going on. The body is in action.”

People are surprised that the church assists people without exception and that those receiving help are not asked to be or become a member of the church.

Silva is quite explicit when fielding these questions, by telling those who seek assistance from his church that it does not mean they now have to attend church or that they need to be or become members of the church. There is respect for all religions, and Silva does not impose his religion on those of different faiths.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
Photo by Jan-Åke Thorell, ACT International

A destroyed house is one of many signs of the tsunami along the main highway out of Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo.
Since right after the tsunami struck, he and the members of the church have assisted people with as much as they could — mostly with small items, such as scales for the vendors in the markets, carpentry kits and water containers.

It was soon clear to everyone in this community that no one had fully understood at first just how huge the disaster had been, or how long it would take for people to rebuild their lives, even with assistance.

And still people turn to the church for assistance. And still the small congregation does what it can. The requests now are not so much for the smaller items to help people get by day to day but for the bigger items: boats for the fisher folk, houses and land.

Many people had suffered huge losses, such as a schoolteacher in town who had built his own house only a few months before the tsunami. All that remains of his home today is his mortgage. The bank wants the loan repaid monthly, and the teacher does not know what to do. He went to Silva for advice.

But as so often in the case of huge disasters, the needs of people outstrip the ability of those responding to fully meet these needs. “I have no answers to give,” the pastor explains. “I gave him a cupboard and a table for his temporary house. That’s all I could do.”

Silva, who is scheduled to leave soon for another congregation in different area, estimates that about 300 families still live in the six refugee camps in the Matara area. Although the conditions in the camps are not the best, he says they are relatively well organized by the different community committees.

People’s daily needs are seen to, and there have been no outbreaks of diseases. But, although many of the people who were displaced by the tsunami have gone back to work, there are still people who are unemployed.

To help people in re-establishing their lives, the Methodist Church, which is a member of the National Christian Council in Sri Lanka, has started a small workshop program on its property. Here, people learn to make furniture for their homes in the camps. They have even made small chairs for their nursery school.

But the truth is that people need their own homes.

This is the reason why the church has requested funds to buy land for 15 families. The church would also like to finance a self-help scheme, which would allow people to build their own houses. However, as in many other places affected by the tsunami in Sri Lanka, land for housing is a problem in Matara.

“The problem is that before the tsunami, several families stayed in one house. The owner may now get a new house from the government or an NGO (nongovernmental organization), but the other families who had shared the home get nothing,” Silva explains.

This is why self-employment and income generating projects are so essential for people now.

*Thorell was on assignment in Sri Lanka for the Church of Sweden, a member of ACT International. This story was distributed by ACT International.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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