Grace Bunker - Sri Lanka
I believe it was in 1998 or 1999 that Rev. T.S. Joshua first encountered the village of Chulipuram in the Jaffna Peninsula in northern Sri Lanka. What he saw moved his heart and he determined to bring God's light and healing to these people. This is a village set apart; the people are shunned, as in Biblical times, by the communities around them because some of their members have Hansen's Disease, better know as leprosy.
During the ethnic conflict, they had been evicted from their oceanfront land by the Sri Lankan Navy and were living in crowded, squalid, thatched huts. They were moved far enough from the shore that their fishing livelihood became very difficult to pursue, and were severely limited in access to their boats and nets because their land was now in the high security zone; thus fishing was not bringing in enough income. No one wanted to hire a person who might carry the dreaded and much misunderstood disease of leprosy, so the men did what day labor jobs they could find. The children became undernourished and, in a few cases, were showing signs of starvation. This "temporary" village they were living in was on low land so that in the rainy season the village filled with water. When they tried to drain the water out of the village, their neighbors filled in their drains because the water from the leper village would contaminate the higher cast communities around them. There was some government health care available, but it was minimal and required taking a bus trip into Jaffna, requiring them to expose their condition to the public which shunned and ridiculed them. They were loath to be exposed to that, so they didn't go regularly for medical treatment.
This was what Joshua saw. He soon set about changing things, but first he had to find the courage to continue to take help to Chulipuram even though he was threatened by people from the surrounding communities with violent treatment if he continued. He did continue and was unharmed. He had to battle the prejudice of some of his own church administrators, but he prevailed. Joshua found funds to begin a mobile clinic, but that lasted only a few months and when the money ran out he had to stop. That's when I came onto the scene in 2003. He told me about the needs of Chulipuram and I was able to find funds from a UCC church to restart the mobile clinic. In the meantime Joshua had started a daycare center, an after school tuition center, and a vocational training center for young women in a building across the road from Chulipuram. The building owned by a man who was willing for the children to use the yard and the verandas, but not the inside rooms of the building. (He has subsequently given over the use of the whole building to Joshua.) That is where the mobile clinic was held once a week.
A few months later, a woman arrived on the scene that was going to make an enormous difference in the lives of these people as she developed a wonderfully congenial and effective partnership with Joshua. This is Mrs. Beverly Watson, an Australian missionary from the United Church of Australia. She is a nurse and a very effective fundraiser. She started by accompanying the mobile clinic. Then with funds from Australia, and a Disciples church in Florida, she and Joshua started a daily nutritional supplement program of milk and fruit for the children. Within weeks she could see improvement in the health of the worst affected children, and the energy level of all the children increased. Recently they have found the funds to give one full meal a day to the children.
Then the Indian Ocean Tsunami hit Sri Lanka. At first we on the JDCSI Tsunami Relief Committee (TRC) thought the people located along the shore of Chulipuram had not been affected because of being on the northern shore, which we thought had not received the waves. It was, of course, Joshua who discovered that the people of Chulipuram had lost all their boats and nets, though no life or other property was lost. This happened because the men live away from where their boats and nets are stored in a shed on the shore of their land. Because it is in the high security zone, they could not get there to save their equipment. Since the JDCSI already had been working with this community for a number of years the TRC chose to give first priority to channeling funds to these people. Over a period of weeks, Joshua was able to find and buy the boats, motors, nets, and floats they needed. Five families would share the boat units, at least at first. So far, the happiest day of 2005 for me was the day Bishop Jebanesan and the TRC went to the fishermen's land with the villagers (all but the fishermen themselves were there for the first time in 15 years) because Joshua had talked the Navy into giving special permission for the ceremony to take place right there on the village's land. It was a glorious day in February and there was hope, joy, and optimism in the smiles of the community. We even got to go for a ride in the boats before we departed.
Over the next eight weeks we were able to supply all their fishing needs, but the irony is that the Tamil Tigers would not allow them to use their equipment and fish until all the communities around them had been supplied as well. On Monday, May 23, the men finally went fishing!
On April 28 a representative of the relief arm of the WCC, ACT International, and I had the privilege of giving away the last of the supplies, three outboard motors. As with every one of the small ceremonies of "giving away," the whole community gathered and by now I knew many of the faces. We were greeted quietly, but with warm smiles and bright eyes. We were in a different place, not in their village. It was beautiful! It was open to the air with palm trees and scrub growth all around, and no other intruding communities. After the ceremony I asked what this place was and the answer thrilled me so much that I almost wept. The villagers had been saving their "pennies" for a long time and had now purchased this land and a few had already built their humble homes on the land. The loving help and support of Joshua over six or seven years, Beverly for two years, and then the TRC had encouraged them, to believe in the future! They have taken the initiative to do something substantial to help themselves, and have bought this land! Thank God!
And there is more good news. Thanks to the efforts of Joshua, Beverly, Dr. Preman Jeyaratnam, and quite a few others, an international leprosy foundation is expected to build real, honest-to-goodness houses, provide health care by training nurses, health education to the families, and shoes for all because it is through the soles of the feet, walking on the contaminated ground, that most leprosy is contracted. Leprosy is a fully curable disease when caught early and treated correctly. There is great hope for these beautiful people whose faces now are permanently imprinted on my mind and heart.
This is surely God's Gift! And there is Enough to Share
Yours in Christ,Grace Bunker
Common Global Ministry Missionary in Jaffna, Sri Lanka
Grace is a missionary who serves with Jaffna Diocese (Sri Lanka) of the Church of South India. She teaches English at Jaffna College and also works with the Uduvil Girls' School, where she works in the women's training programs, which includes teaching English & tutoring women and working with women's empowerment groups.