From Despair to Hope
Diane Faires – Sri Lanka
Eight months ago, at home in Tennessee for the Christmas holidays, I watched the news in disbelief as the tsunami ravaged Sri Lanka. This past week I listened to the news of a similarly devastating disaster in the U.S., from my room here in Sri Lanka. Two vastly different places that are dear to me, now connected by this thread of tragedy.
What seems even more tragic than the sudden loss of many lives is the confrontational way some people responded to these disasters, after both the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. I felt a mix of grief, anger, and embarrassment when I heard about people in Louisiana hijacking rescue boats, and relief workers prevented from doing their jobs by gunfire.
In Sri Lanka, also, it didn’t take long after the waves receded for the ethnic divisions that plague this country to resurface. The Tamil rebels in the north accused the Sinhelese-run government of withholding aid from Tamil victims. The government claimed that the rebels were preventing aid from passing through their territory. Rumors spread of political parties and religious groups using relief supplies to further their own agenda. An attempted agreement to put aside differences and distribute aid jointly was derailed by distrust and petty politics. Touring some of the worst-hit areas on the east coast four months after the disaster, I saw Muslim victims stuck in small, dingy tents, while literally ten feet away their neighbors at least had sturdy temporary sheds.
I am saddened to think that in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, too, the receding flood waters may leave behind existing problems and tensions. There is an alternative. There is the possibility for transformation. There are also stories of hope here in Sri Lanka. Instead of rebuilding what was lost, some people are following a vision of creating a more just community than existed before.
Global Ministries’ local church partner in Sri Lanka, the JDCSI (Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India), has a vision of empowering those who were in need even before their lives were uprooted by the tsunami. Many women here are dependent on their husbands or parents for their livelihood and have little economic independence. After losing these loved ones in the disaster, they needed a way to support themselves and their children. Vocational training provided by the JDCSI has given them the skills they need to be self-sufficient, and now a plan is underway to establish a Women’s Empowerment Center, where they can sell their products and earn an income. The new center will help the women find contracts and outlets for their goods, so that their new skills are put to productive use. Childcare and prepared meals will be available at the center, to free the women from the time-consuming tasks of marketing and cooking.
Another such transformation is happening in Chulipuram, a village on the northeast corner of the Jaffna Peninsula, where many fisherman lost their small wooden catamarans to the tsunami. Their homes are much father from the coast, so no lives were lost, but they were no longer able to earn even the mere $3 they averaged from their daily catch. With this income, they were barely able to meet the basic needs of their families. Many in this community are also afflicted with Hanson’s Disease (better known as leprosy). Only recently, with the help of a local JDCSI pastor, they had begun to work towards buying land and building decent, permanent homes to replace their palm leaf and mud huts, which face severe flooding during the rainy season. With the loss of their livelihood, this simple goal seemed out of reach. However, through the generosity of tsunami aid donors, and by working together through their fishermen’s cooperative society, they received new fiberglass boats with motors. The new boats are shared among three families. Each day, the teams of fisherman go to sea together, sharing the day’s catch. Thanks to the upgraded equipment, they are able to fish in deeper waters and make bigger catches. Their average daily income has doubled. They now put one-third of their earnings into savings, one-third into the fishermen’s cooperative, and one-third is used to meet expenses. They are pooling their resources to help one another buy the land for their new homes more quickly. They have found healing and strength by coming together as a community in the face of disaster. Since the tsunami, their future seems brighter and more hopeful.
That is my prayer for the people of the Gulf Coast. That the suffering caused by Katrina may open doors of transformation for them. That the water may wash away some of the injustices and poverty that previously existed. I pray that those who generously step forward to help come not with the intention of rebuilding homes, churches, and schools, but of building transformed communities of justice and hope. Then God’s healing can begin.
Diane serves as a Global Mission Intern by the Common Global Ministries Board of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ. She teaches English and participates in community- based work.