From the Church of the American Ceylon Mission - Vanni Region
March 18th was the day I came to Sri Lanka from Chennai. On that day, the curfew was imposed. As many wrote, the curfew is not new for us but it is new for the present generation. The sudden curfew affects many people’s lives. Most of the people in Kilinochchi are day laborers and with someone depending on them for support. When curfew was imposed, we thought that it will be only last for a week. So, people were enjoying being at home and with family. Children were really happy to be out of school. The first ten days were happy for everyone but no longer is that the case. Curfew is the best way to fight COVID-19 but when the curfew was extended week by week, it presented challenges for each one. The Sri Lankan economy is too poor, and not mature enough, to sustain the costs associated with such a shutdown.
In Sri Lanka, six to seven million people are dependent on daily income to put food on their table. When the curfew was extended, the life of daily labors became challenging and there was a shortage in food. They felt hungry. There were some social workers, including churches, giving food items but that was not enough. No one has a clear plan for day laborers and for their lives. The danger of the coronavirus is real. As well, the daily hunger is extremely real. The Small Farmers are also affected as daily labors. They invested much but are now facing problems in getting food to market. I know of a farmer who planted watermelon. But he could not market it. He became sad and upset when he had to destroy nearly 5000 kg of watermelon. There is no smile on farmers’ faces. It will be a continuing story if this curfew continues.
On March 22nd all churches were closed. Those who have internet facilities were doing worship services in online. CACM also stopped all its programs and meetings in the Vanni region but the pastoral work continues to go on. CACM also did a relief work for day laborers. Up till April 12th the pastors were interested in doing online worship I have seen some independent churches do worship secretly at church. I think this is not a good idea. As a church, we have to support the fight against COVID-19. On Easter day, my church members called, wished, and said “it is so sad there is no Easter service and to see that the church is empty.” I have told them to “experience the risen Christ in seeing the empty church as disciples experienced by seeing the empty tomb. There is hope and faith in emptiness.
Sri Lanka has closed schools and universities to control the spread of the coronavirus. There is huge question on education. We don’t have online classes because of lack of internet facilities. Students have to study on their own commitment. In the beginning, children were so happy but now are getting bored. On the 27th of April, the O/L exam result was released (Exam was 2019 December). This year also, at the provincial level, the North province is ranked last and Kilinochchi is also ranked last is the district level. I don’t know what would have happened this year. There were many classes, and private tuition centers, but no space to study. Education became huge business here and it is dangerous for Tamil community.
Illicit liquor production has increased. Bars and restaurants are closed. So people has started to make their own liquor called “KASIPPU” which is consumed by low income laborers. It lacks supervision to ensure fitness for human consumption and poses another problems with which to be reckoned. It is most dangerous and unhealthy. Now, teenagers also have started to use it and there is worry that illegal activities will increase very soon.
Domestic violence has increased due to the lockdown in Sri Lanka. The chief nurse of the national hospital, Pushpa Zoysa, noted that while daily patient numbers have decreased since the COVID -19 outbreak from 250 to just 66, many of them had been wives assaulted by their husbands. Recently a private radio called Shakthi FM said that domestic violence in Kilinochchi is higher than other distracts. Due to this pandemic time, I am also spent much time in my village. My wife Jana and I listen to crying women every day because of domestic violence.
UNICEF and National Child Protection Agency (NCPA) have noted a rise in the proportion of child cruelty cases reported to the 1929 child helpline since the start of curfew. The total child protection complaints rose from 10 per cent to 40 per cent. This number is only counts the recorded complaints. There are many other cases in the village level. Here is a story from many: one day three children were running and crying in the lane which is by the side of my home. Those children were being chased by their father and he had a big stick in his hand. He is drunk from illicit liquor (Kasippu). Children were running and finally they jumped into my home. We kept them a few hours and sent them back home. Like this, there are many untold child abuses and it will affect the whole community in the post corona period.
There are many groups of people are doing relief, including churches. CACM has supported daily labors families and it was worthwhile and helpful. We are very keen and clear in selecting families. Some groups in Kilinochchi are doing relief not for needy people but for important people. I call it political-based relief. For example, I can tell another true story which happened in my family. Last week, the president of the Rural Development Society (RDS) suddenly came and said “pastor you have a food package, please come and take.” I told him “I am fine. I have enough and please give it to my in-laws” (my in-laws are at home without work since March 16). He said that they will be given next time. After 4 days later he came again in a truck and gave me another food package which is bigger than the previous. The man is interested to give me the package because he lost in the local government election last time. Now he wants to win again. So he thinks that as a pastor, Luke is more important than my in-laws. My in-laws are not given any single food package till now.
Pastor is CORONA
Government declared that the coronavirus was spread in Jaffna by a Pastor who came from Switzerland and had a healing meeting on March 15th. Thus, religious extremists started to blame Christians and created many stories and news against Christians. People have started to suspect all pastors including myself. My friends and myself avoid wearing cassocks in public. Even though I was in quarantined, I was being called from three different police stations every morning and evening for one week and checked where I am. There are two other true stories: One day after seeing paddy land of CACM, I was invited by a church member to have lunch. When I entered into his gate, I saw there some boys and girls (his neighbors) playing carom board. When they saw me, they shouted “Hey Pastor is coming. Run!!! Run!!!” They all ran out. Another story, I went to the bank with cassock to transfer cooks’ salary. After I finished my work, when I was coming out, some boys who were standing outside of the bank shouted “CORONA!!! CORONA!!! CORONA is going.”
What Next? What is our plan in Post-COVID 19
During this COVID-19 outbreak, we support our people by giving relief. I am so grateful to the people who support it. But I have a question. How long will we support this relief or how long we are going to do relief work. How long can we expect support from western countries as well as from our partners? We always face disaster. At the end of this year, there will be floods. So, again are we going to do relief or are we going to ask money from outside? We should stand on our own.
In Vanni, most people own at least a small piece of land. It is a fertile land. Vanni is another Galilee in Sri Lanka and it is like Galilee which was the most naturally fertile agricultural region in Palestine. Richard Horsley argues that Galilee was a land of peasants. Yes, Vanni is also an agriculture region. Whatever we plant, it gives fruits. People who are living in Vanni are resilient. Even though we faced various disasters, we have come up. We never give up. I never say “we don’t have anything” but “WE HAVE ENOUGH.” But, WE DON’T HAVE MONEY.
- Land: we have enough land both under church and church members. We should encourage our church members to utilize their own land. During the curfew time, when curfew was removed for one day, I saw people were interested in buying seeds. There was a queue in front of the seed shop as well the grocery shop. Those people did not do home gardens before COVID-19 but now they are all gardening. We should encourage them. I feel there is a green revolution at this time. Now, everyone is talking about the importance of home gardens. During the curfew, my family and myself spent time in doing a home garden (see video clip). We are highly supported by our home garden and we supported others too. If we guide church families in sustainability programs, they will stand in their own, and they will contribute to the church too. Let’s covert day laborers into farmers.
How to do this?
- Create a group of farmers or home gardeners
- Start a farmer’s dialogue
- Encourage each and every one to do organic home gardening
- Distributing good seed
- Give them proper training on farming
- Build a farmer-cooperative society
- Church Land: It is an inevitability that the church in Vanni region be a green church or agro-church. The church also has many acres of land. Only a few acers are used but most of the acres are not maintained. We should utilize all lands and change them to produce income. Land price is being increased day by day. Most lands are bought by diaspora Tamils to farm. According to my knowledge, if we utilize our land in the right way, we can earn nearly 30 to 50 million per year. This amount is only from Vanni. The LordGod took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it (Gen2:15). Let’s till and keep Vanni.
- Fence should be built
- Land must be cleared
- We have enough land to do fresh water fishing
- Plant coconut trees
- We can do integrated farming
- We have enough manpower
- Diaconal Ministry: Most of the diaconal ministry centers are located on good land and soil. We have come out with an idea for a project of diaconal ministry. According to Mark1:13, I understand that diaconal ministry is serving not earning. Mark is the first one who introduce the word διακονέω. It can be translated as “I wait at table” not to eat but to clean. Luke use this word to mean “contributing or providing”. As well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided (διακονέω) for them out of their resources (Luke8:2-3). How much shall we contribute to diaconal ministry? Therefore, even though we get support from outside to run diaconal ministry, we must provide and serve from what we have.
How to do this?
- Encourage parents to create school gardens
- Involve children to take care gardens
- Train teachers and parents
- Each child can have a home garden at his/her home for school
To do this sustainability program, the church must train people who are interested in this field. The church must declare and mandate that hindering the land is SIN. In the future, we can ask support from our partners to do sustainability programs. If we move forward with the above idea, we can create support from our own and we can contribute to our partners too.
As I wrote in the beginning, Vanni is another Galilee in Sri Lanka and we are resilient ochlos (people). Please support us to utilize our land. Ochlos can bring change in the world.
Rev. Mani Lukejohn
Church of the American Ceylon Mission