Hello from Sri Lanka, in a small town in the Jaffna district, way up north on Sri Lanka, 20 minutes by train from the Indian Ocean. This is one of the areas where the Tamil people live, and it’s the area to which the early missionaries from New England came almost two centuries ago – anniversary celebrations have already started! We’ve been here only since October 2, and we are settled – temporarily – at the Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) of the Church of the American Ceylon Mission (CACM), our partner agency.
We go to church, like itinerant preachers, in a different place every Sunday. I preach – with an interpreter – and Lindley sings with the children after the service. We borrow bikes and carry robe and guitar in various packs and bags, hoping that it doesn’t rain – a faint hope at this time of year. We also share responsibility for morning devotions with the acting head of the seminary, Lindley playing back-up for hymns from an old hymnal in their library, and I preaching several times a week.
We both teach a variety of subjects. Lindley, after a career in elementary education and middle/high school math, is teaching English, math and keyboard, a talent acquired from many years of serving many churches as organist and choir director.
One of the CACM priorities is to prepare women for ministry in a country and church with a tradition of patriarchy. (When we arrived I doubled the number of active ordained women in the denomination.) Growing pains in a world that is changing too rapidly for many of us are taking a toll in the CACM and on women who have a call to ministry. Most of the leadership are supportive of women in ministry, but old comfortable habits are dying hard for some of the CACM leaders and members.
I’m working with four women who are in a M.Div. program, a partnership between here and a South Indian seminary. These women work in social services, with differently-abled children and adults, poor children in day care and after-school programs, war widows, and families in rural and resettlement areas who lost homes and land during the Tamil rebellion of recent years. After their studies they will be prepared for leadership positions throughout the church and may or may not seek ordination.
We are delighted by the cooperation among religious groups in Sri Lanka. About 70% of the population are Buddhist (the official religion). Another 12+% are Hindu, 10% Muslim, 6% Roman Catholic and other Christian just over 1%. This could be an invitation to conflict, but we find there is respect and friendship among people. There is a big Hindu festival today to which we are welcome – everyone will be. Historic Christian mission schools in the area have Hindu students, and on days of celebration – like the recent awards day that was also the 199th anniversary of the school’s founding by missionaries – there are songs and dances from both backgrounds and cultures, and everyone feels a part of it all.
While we’d like Sri Lankan patriarchal walls to fall, we’d love to have the religious tolerance that we’ve found become the pattern for other parts of the world. Perhaps the secret is that each group is made up of people who let their faith use them rather than letting themselves use their faith.
We expect to be transferred to another seminary in Batticaloa, a town on the east coast of the island, another Tamil area still recovering from the effects of the Tamil Tiger rebellion. We surely will miss the friends we’ve made – and our growing knowledge of how to get to a church and where to buy our daily supplies, but we are confident that we will find as much enjoyment in the people, places and work there as we have found here.
Andy Jepson and Lindley Kinerk serve as long-term volunteers with the Church of American Ceylon Mission. Andy provides chaplain services and Lindley serves as a teacher at the Christian Theological Seminary and Jaffna College.