How do you describe 2 years of life in Sri Lanka as volunteer missionaries? A lifetime in American culture gave us assumptions and habits that make us as different to and from Sri Lankans as they and their culture are different to and from us. That was an ever-present lesson, one that made us constantly grateful for the patience of people who created a space of acceptance and love where we shared ‘citizenship.’ We all accepted that cultural differences challenged all of us.
As we began to feel at home in our new situation, we began to see how our different assumptions made us citizens in very different worlds. Often we were unsure of how our words and ideas would be received or understood, and our worry always became a lesson in the depth of God’s love growing through accepting and absorbing difference as a gift. We learned about the worlds that formed us as we lived daily. Our lives were shaped by the needs, tools and possibilities of their culture as well as ours. I’m sure their understanding was challenged by what we did to adapt our habits to new circumstances!
Old habits die fast when possibilities disappear. We began to use some Tamil (the language of the area where we lived) as we had the chance and necessity. Lindley learned enough Tamil to teach English and to help teach and supervise teachers. Andy learned much less because of needing to teach in English at the seminary where she taught part-time. Working in the church on whose grounds we lived gave Andy the chance to preach – with someone interpreting into Tamil, since few parishioners had enough English to understand ’specialized’ religious speech.
One of the realities with which we lived is the oppression of the Tamil people at the hands of the majority Sinhalese population. Tamils value education, and the early missionaries not only used knowledge to help people, they also taught Tamils the skills they brought so that they could educate their own people to be doctors and nurses, writers and editors - and they brought Protestant Christianity, leading to today’s Church of the American Ceylon Mission, our host denomination.
A high level of education gave Tamil people an advantage in high-salaried employment during colonial times and later with the arrival of western business and industry. The Ceylonese/Sri Lankan majority became increasingly resentful, and Tamils were increasingly oppressed. In the late 20th century, mutual resentment erupted in riots, increasing violence and finally civil war. In Tamil areas, there was warfare between the army and the Tamil Tigers who fought to establish a Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka.
The war was officially over in 2009, and some areas still are land-mined. Debris from bombed homes dots once-comfortable neighborhoods, once-comfortable families live in poverty, too many live with handicaps from war injuries, suspicion between ethnic groups lingers among neighbors, families emigrated if able. Perhaps the greatest damage of the war – other than death and distrust – is the seizure and destruction of papers proving property ownership. Non-Tamils took over once-Tamil property and the former Tamil owners still live in poverty, with no means of reclaiming what was theirs. Through government programs, Tamils now – or will – have new homes and some property again, but not what was theirs traditionally, and certainly not with the value of what was lost.
This was the reality we shared in our 2+ years in Sri Lanka. History and culture matter. Six thousand years of both, as well as the 200-year history of the Sri Lankan Tamils influenced by foreign explorers and missionaries, set the stage for the devastation of the recent war. Sri Lanka is again in the throes of adjusting to the several cultures that share the country and continue in shaping their modern realities and possibilities.
To be a part, even a very minor part, of a country that is coping with the mysteries of its future is challenge and blessing. Faith is an important part of the story, faith in God and in the good will of everyone involved and affected, however different they may be.
Sri Lanka is home to several of the world’s major religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam – each with many more adherents than Christianity. Although there are reports of violence now between two of the larger faiths in Sri Lanka, in our experience all faiths show respect for the others. Differences of belief are not exploited to push and pull people into one’s own “faith territory.” The mutual respect we saw is a deep expression of faith. Please pray for an end everywhere to treating difference as an excuse to despise another faith and its faithful as part of a “proper” expression of one’s own faith.
Andy Jepson serves was a long-term volunteer with the Church of the American Ceylon Mission. Her appointment was made possible by your gifts to Disciples' Mission Fund, Our Churches Wider Mission, and your special gifts.