The life of the capital “C” Church is bright and active! I was given that opportunity to experience the living out of Christ’s call for the Church through the efforts of the Church of the American Ceylon Mission (CACM) as a short-term volunteer with Global Ministries.
Throughout my time in Sri Lanka, God revealed Herself in not only the efforts of this community of believers, but always in each person I encountered. The CACM has a lot going on, as they allow God to continually speak through their work. There are about six different programs that the church is operating in the region that I am accompanying as a short-term volunteer with the Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples). We just launched the Southern Asia Initiative at General Synod 2019, which “invites us to walk together in hope with partners in the Southern Asia region as we discover what it means to live faithfully.” I am glad to be a part of a church that believes in the united church working to together as we seek to be the full body of Christ active here on earth. As I reflect on our commitments of the Southern Asia Initiative, these three are pressing in my time in Sri Lanka; affirming human dignity, upholding freedom of religion as a human right, and urging churches to be open just and inclusive communities. I engaged those I encountered with these commitments in mind.
There are four areas that our partner commissioned me to focus on with serving, which are:
- Sharing about the Black experience and Liberation Movement in the USA allowing the young people to connect their own history to find similarities, a building hope, and practice of resiliency.
- Facilitate Theatre of the Oppressed Workshops to rehearse solutions to some challenges the young people are facing.
- Teach English.
- Group Counseling (Spiritual and Emotional) and teach tools to youth leaders to engage in this work.
With this commission, I was able to enter sacred spaced and learn so much from everyone involved in programming. Since I cannot tell you about my whole experience in this writing I will pick two stories that transformed me in some way.
The youth at Ralodai was very shy at first, some even ran from me, but they started to open up after I built some rapport. We started our time off with some games from Theatre of the Oppressed, went over some pronunciations of some English words, and then we played a game called “A What.” The youth loved this game! I prepared items that have one syllable in its name, such as cord, key, pen and so on. Then the leader would start by saying “this is a cord”, the person who is being spoken to would say “a what”, the leader would respond “a cord”, and the person would say, “Ahhh a Cord”. Then the person would take on the leader's role with that item to the next person, as the leader picks up the next item and start with that item after person one has finished passing their item to person two. This goes on and on continue all the items are passed to everyone present. This game was a hit.
The youth in this rural area called Ralodai are so spirit-filled and their joy is radiant. At first, they were so shy, but after a few minutes, they all became so bright with laugher and commitment to learning. They really showed me what it means to be among the children of God! The unity that was displayed in them made me wonder what is missing in my community. What is it that these youth have that the youth in my community don’t have? Both my community and their community have experienced great trauma and dealing with the aftereffect of it all. Both communities are oppressed and suppressed to believe that they are not anything and can’t be anything great - only what society deems for them to be. I can see the difference in the youth of Ralodai and the youth back home! The Ralodai youth are not prideful people to the point where they would dim their light because of the culture of humility. The youth back home are very prideful in their situation of the complicity of violence and being stuck where they are. Both are struck and both do not see many ways out. All of this has taught me that there is something in common with all oppressed people. If we find that commonality and unite, what kind of world would we live in?
Time went on and more sessions happened, in which topics started to surface. One major topic was the “hate” formed against Muslims because of this year’s Easter bomb attacks. Playing games, practicing exercises, and rehearsing solutions through Theatre of the Oppressed, these youth explored where the hate came from, wrestled with the realities of both sides, and opened their hearts to be empathic to those Muslims who did not commit such heinous acts. I saw God in the interaction of these young people - for after God flooded the earth, God transformed. Genesis 8:12, “… I will not curse the fertile land anymore because of human beings since the ideas of the human mind are evil from their youth. I will never again destroy every living thing as I have done.” How are you rethinking a thing in your living?
For one week, I was camp Director for the youth camp that happens every summer. Well, this was my favorite time because I LOVE CAMP! So in planning many of the young adults helping stated that there was too much fun in my schedule. I did not understand this because that is what camp was for me - FUN and REFLECTION. What I learned was that none of the young people experienced camp in the way I have. This was a great opportunity to share a bit of American camp culture while keeping a sense of what camp is in Sri Lanka culture. So for a week we had day school, sung camp songs, played a lot of games, went on two trips to the beach, made s’mores, and reflected on challenges in our lives through Theatre of the Oppressed.
Once again the young people shared the sacred texts of their lives with me through skits that formed through the games and exercises of Theatre of the Oppressed. The stories that were shared were tough and hard to watch at times. Many brought tears to my eyes, but when we started to explore a solution to the challenges brought up, the Holy Spirit in all her creativeness was displayed in these young people. I remember this one young girl who did not want to be involved at first, but kept getting up to explore a solution. Her ideas were amazing and taught the others to be comforted in the space that is not always created for them to give voice to their ideas. She took on leadership roles to get others involved, which helped build skills that I saw many lacking because of fear. Most of the youth involved in the camp left without the same fears that they came in with.
My last night, we made s’mores again and many of the young people said kind words to me and many cried. As I write this and remember their kind words I tear up myself. Many of them told me how my time with them changed their life and the way they view the world. Some told me that now they know that their voice matters and that others really want to hear what they have to say. Others stated that they really did not have space to wrestle with some of their challenges in the way we did, which gave them tools to use within their everyday life. The most impactful thing that was said was, “I know you don’t think we were listening to you when you talked about the self-hate you saw in us, but I did. I know that I am beautiful now. Yes, I have to practice and believe it, but at least I know it now.” None of this would have been done without the commitment of the UCC and Disciples to the global mission of the CHURCH. Let us continue to be the Church that is concerned with all of the Body of Christ.
D'Angelo Smith serves with the Church of the American Ceylon Mission, Sri Lanka. His appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, and your special gifts.