USPG’s International Programme Manager Davidson Solanki reflects on his recent trip to Sri Lanka to observe the work of the Church of Ceylon
The Church of Ceylon in Sri Lanka is punching above its weight. The Anglican Church in Sri Lanka is a minority within a minority – the country is approximately 70.2 per cent Buddhist, 12.6 per cent Hindu and 9.7 per cent Muslim (according to the 2011 census), with 7.4 per cent Christians, of which 6.1 per cent are Roman Catholics.
So Anglicans are numbered among the country’s tiny 1.3 per cent non-Catholic Christian population. But Sri Lanka’s Anglicans do not let their small numbers prevent them from working hard to support the neglected and marginalised.
In particular, I was impressed by their strong focus on working with communities still suffering in the aftermath of Sri Lanka’s 26 year civil war. Though the conflict ended in 2009, there are poor communities that have received little help in terms of rehabilitation and many people are still missing.
The Church is standing alongside these people and speaking out on their behalf. The message is that every life matters so society needs to hear the voices of these marginalised communities. The Church has limited resources, but this has not stopped the Church’s Peace and Reconciliation Desk taking on the role of advocate, praying and offering consolation.
The Church is providing an open space for dialogue among all groups in the hope of making progress. The Church especially wants to provide education, employment opportunities and counselling for young people.
This is a brave stance for the Church to take, but it is committed to following the example of Jesus who took the side of the poor and the marginalised. For the Church, this act of solidarity is an expression of God’s love – and it was a personal challenge to me in my faith journey, prompting me to ask myself ‘Have I become too comfortable?,’ ‘Have I taken freedom for granted?’ The Church of Ceylon has helped me to better understand what it means to carry the cross of Jesus Christ in real life.
Most of my time in Sri Lanka was spent visiting and observing a USPG-funded programme that supports tea plantation communities. The Church of Ceylon’s Estate Community Development Mission (ECDM) has a particular focus on providing the children of plantation workers with an education and hope for the future.
I visited some of ECDM’s preschools and after-schools. Young children learn spelling and arithmetic and there is an emphasis on teaching children – and their families – about the importance of a healthy diet.
In addition, teenagers are offered pastoral support and scholarships to help them gain a higher education. Abishna, now 26, grew up on the Sheen tea estate, where both her parents worked. Abishna received ECDM scholarships to support her through her GCSEs and A Levels and a university degree.
She is now working for the government as an Education Department Management Assistant, for which she earns £153 per month – a huge amount compared with tea plantation wages.
There is something wonderful about this: a young woman who worked her way out of the poverty cycle is now working in education to help others from her community. She told me: “ECDM changed my life. Now I want to give back. I want more young people to gain an education.” She hopes to become an Education Service Officer, which would mean she could visit the plantations to directly help the tea plantation children.
Sri Lanka’s tea industry is enormously important to the country – with tea exports being one of the main pillars of Sri Lanka’s economy. But the plantation workers live in poverty, and sometimes in appalling conditions. Tea estate owners and the government help these communities but what they do is not sufficient.
Sadly, rather than protesting about their lack of rights, the plantation workers appear to have largely accepted their fate. So the Church is trying to help the people to escape this mindset of bondage and unlock their potential.
Nithya is very familiar with this mindset having grown up in a tea plantation community. She admitted: “Growing up, I disliked the people of the estates. I hated the way they spoke, dressed and behaved. I hated their lack of willingness to change.” After successfully completing her GCSEs and A Levels, Nithya was appointed by ECDM as a community coordinator and now she is working to support plantation families. She said:
“The Church changed how I thought. It gave me hope and confidence. I received God’s blessing and now I’m happy for God to use me as a blessing for others. Since working with ECDM I’m now able to understand and relate to the people I used to dislike. I now give them my fullest support to help them to improve their situation so that, most importantly, they can also experience God’s love for them.”
I asked Nithya if she would consider leaving her community to migrate in search of a better life. “Never,” she told me. “I love my work. It has helped me to understand the problems my community face, especially a lack of education, which means they don’t understand how to be pro-active in life. I grew up in this community and now I want to give back.”
Abishna and Nithya are vibrant role models who demonstrate that it’s possible to work through difficult situations.
They are an example of how the Church is helping people to find confidence and dignity. Just because they are born into this situation, it doesn’t mean they have to accept the status quo.
I heard this confidence many times while visiting the ECDM pre-schools on the tea estates where I talked to many children. One child told me he wanted to be a police officer, another said a nurse, and another wanted to be a teacher.
I asked them where they had got these ideas from and they said from their teachers – which I found extremely encouraging. My visit to Sri Lanka was really challenging. Here in the UK, I live a very comfortable life, but I came to realise that I don’t want to be satisfied with this. Rather, I want to be a blessing to others, and I have discovered that this is a twoway process: Christ gave us his love but he also seeks to be loved by us – and this is our model. In my job for USPG, I work hard to support others but in doing so I find I receive encouragement and love – this is the two-way process.
Indeed, in many ways, the people I met in Sri Lanka, who opened their homes and their hearts to me, gave me far more than I was able to give.
Find out more about the work of USPG at www.uspg.org.uk