Update from Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

by Darshan Ambalavanar

Today was the 3rd Sunday after Easter. St. John's had Sunday services each week although the security forces have advised against it. Today we had the largest gathering since Easter including a number of children.

Rev. Rohaan preached on an appropriate but very challenging text. "If you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you?... But love your enemies, do good to them..." (Luke 6:33,35)

The challenge in living that out was made all the more clear by the increased number of security forces personnel stationed inside the church premises. Apparently, they had been instructed to search and give heightened security to churches this Sunday. Deeply unsettling times, unsettling challenges... posing questions to all of us about our faith and values and our collective willingness to live them out.

The general tenor of the town is of quiet, there is much less activity in shops, and movement on the street. The nature of these attacks and perhaps the state's response has got a lot of people scared. During the worst of the war years, children still went to school. Whereas today large numbers are not going to school. Some safety and security measures may be inadvertently heightening the fears. Schools here have asked all children to have a blood test to identify their blood type to have on record. This, of course, reinforces the sense of fear and alarm to children.

As I wrote earlier, unlike in the war years the nature of this threat is hard to measure and take precautions against, even when we know that churches are a target. Because one does not know if the threat has passed or remains for some months, year/s? So the challenge for adults and civic leaders has to be to, without being cavalier, carry on with normal tasks and work that we have to do.

The work of civic peacebuilding is going to be hard and laborious. A common attitude of many seems to be something along the lines of, "Let them (whoever 'them' is) take the first step, or prove themselves, then we will respond." This is also stated by religious leaders. Whereas, the call today is precisely to love and to do good, to even those who you may perceive to be your enemies.

Rev. Rohaan, is continuing with initiatives to connect with and build an ecumenical and inter-faith group to work on peacebuilding, and in turn to connect these to secular organizations' and activists' work. In the previous weeks, he had hosted gatherings of Muslim and Hindu leaders at St. John's. And when one meeting ran long, handed over the church hall for the Muslim participants to observe evening prayers.

On Friday I went with him to Thirukondiamadu, on the road to Polonnaruwa, where we have a pre-school where both Muslim and Tamil children attend. We had called a parents' meeting to have an opportunity to hear their concerns and assure them of our support. It was assuring to see that they were not only comfortable with each other but already have local lines of communication, with the Temple Trustee and a local Muslim community leader, readily talking to each other to address any concerns that come up. They are also going to work together to do shramadana (voluntary work day) to clean the grounds together over the next weeks. It was encouraging to see that, while there are places of tension, there are communities not only with good relations but determined to keep them.

On a personal note, I did have to restrain a smile when we asked them for feedback about the work of the teachers there. The temple trustee replied that he is the one who often takes some of the kids to the pre-school and that when he asked them where they study, they say proudly at "Aayar Ambalavanar mun palli." (meaning Bishop Ambalavanar Pre-school).

Darshan Ambalavanar is the Director of Diaconal Ministries with the Church of the American Ceylon Mission (CACM) in Batticola, Sri Lanka.


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