Methodist Church in Sri Lanka Grows Despite Civil Strife and Tsunami
by Christie R. House
Stamford, CT., Oct. 15, 2007 — The Methodist Church of Sri Lanka has a problem it welcomes: it is having trouble keeping up with its membership growth in a country of relatively few Christians.
In the past few years, it has added 5 new circuits with 25 new worshiping communities and expanded evangelism work into 32 new areas, according to the Rev. W.P. Ebenezer Joseph, president of the church.
Rev. Joseph spoke to directors of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, meeting in Stamford, on Oct. 9. He said that his church now has some 36,000 members, with 180 churches, 110 pastors, and 80 evangelists.
These achievements have happened despite a devastating tsunami that hit the country in December 2004 and recent violent breakdown in the 2002 cease fire between the government security forces and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), a rebel group in the northern and eastern provinces of the country that has fought for secession over the past 25 years.
Sri Lanka is an island nation situated off the southeastern coast of India. The majority of Sri Lankans (76 percent) are Buddhist and speak Sinhalese. Tamil residents of the northern and eastern provinces are Hindu (eight percent of the population), while Christians (seven percent) and Muslims (nine percent) are minority populations in the country. Despite their small numbers in a population of 25 million, Methodists a great reputation in the country because they "stand witness to God’s peace" in a country that is shattered by war, Joseph said.
Throughout the reconstruction and building and the peace work, Joseph says the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka keeps two fundamental ideas in mind, "A Methodist is a friend of all and an enemy of none, and Methodists all over the world belong to one family."
"Only the Christian community within Sri Lanka has both Tamil and Sinhalese people coming together," said Joseph. "Some of our families have members who work with the security forces, others are working with the Tamils." Since the 1970s, tension between the government and Tamil separatists has erupted into civil conflict every few years. Since the early 1980s, more than 65,000 have died and several presidents and other government officials have been assassinated. "One million have emigrated from the country," said Joseph, "and one out of every 14 people is internally displaced."
Disasters Human and Natural
In 2006, violence erupted with a series of rebel attacks and military and paramilitary retaliations. With the renewed fighting, 5000 have been killed and 675,000 have been displaced. Eight Methodist congregations have been forced to move with the displaced and four churches have been destroyed. Joseph said Methodists stand with the people, working for peace and integration in their communities. The church has credibility because it suffers with the people. Joseph thanked God for the sacrificial work of the church’s pastors and evangelists who cross borders, mediate conflicts, and hold fast in their commitment to God.
In December of 2004, the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka was hit hard by the tsunami. More than 31,000 died, 4000 were never found, and half a million people were displaced. Joseph reported that one Methodist church was destroyed by the surge in which 166 Methodists died, 22 of those were children who were playing out in the churchyard after the Sunday service, and 16 congregations were displaced. "We didn’t know what to do after that. In one sense, we were mad [crazy]," said Joseph. "We are so grateful for the people from UMCOR [the United Methodist Committee on Relief] who traveled on bikes and footpaths to be with us. Their presence gave us hope."
UMCOR enabled the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka to serve the country’s people in immediate and effective ways. In the first three months, the church provided 75,000 meals, cared for medical needs, and visited the tsunami refugee camps regularly. United Methodists became partners with Sri Lankan Methodists as UMCOR set up its nongovernmental (NGO) aid office with the following objectives: restore infrastructure and commence rebuilding, meet the needs of children, and build capacity in the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka to meet the needs of people on its own.
Joseph said the capacity-building aspect of UMCOR’s work has greatly enhanced the church’s ability to do ministry. Before any plans were laid, UMCOR discussed with church and community members what they thought the community needed. "The projects came from the people," noted Joseph, "and the people participated in the process, talking about personal and corporate evangelism and how to raise our own resources and use our own talents."
The church was particularly concerned about the well-being of children. At one time, from its British roots, the Sri Lankan Methodist Church opened and managed 146 schools all across the country. However, with independence from British rule in 1972, most of the Methodist schools were taken over by the state.
Today the church provides comprehensive child care services to 2000 children through a network of 20 children’s homes and 12 daycare centers, and in addition, directs 52 nurseries throughout the country.
The church has also worked with women to create income-generating projects so they can care for themselves and their children. A handloom center and two vocational training centers have enabled 2300 families to restore their livelihoods. The church has started 42 women’s self-empowerment groups, each with an average of 20 members, and enabled 800 widows to restore their livelihood with projects sponsored by the church.
UMCOR and Partnership
So far, working with UMCOR and other partners in the country, the church has helped to complete 775 new houses, with 536 more under construction and plans for 300 more (of these, 185 competed and 85 under construction were UMCOR houses). Repairs have been completed for 178 damaged houses and repairs for 85 more are underway.
Although rebuilding houses has been vital to the communities UMCOR serves, UMCOR has contributed much more in the area of repairing human relationships by forging a model for interfaith cooperation. In late July 2006, gunfire and mortars rained down on the people in the town of Mutur in Northeastern Sri Lanka. UMCOR and Muslim Aid, a British-based Muslim relief agency, had been working in the town independently after the tsunami when the civil war sprung back to life.
Some 57,000 people fled Mutur, traveling in columns: children, women, and men, wounded and traumatized. UMCOR and Muslim Aid workers set up a first aid station, provided clean drinking water, transported the wounded and sick to a hospital, and found places for the people to stay.
In June of 2007, UMCOR and Muslim Aid in London signed a partnership agreement that enables them to work together in other countries beyond Sri Lanka. Both groups acknowledge that religious barriers do exist, which in the past may have hindered relief efforts in communities that practiced a different faith from either organization. Now, with Muslims and Christians working in unison, that roadblock is overcome.
A Church of Peace
Although the Sri Lankan church does not mingle evangelism with social responsibility work, "we keep them separate," said Rev. Joseph, a growth in the church’s membership has corresponded to its expanding social programs. The church has set up an evangelism training institute to train short-term workers and put them in the field. In the next two years, church leadership has estimated that, at its present rate of growth, the church could expect 40 more new churches to develop.
"When we intervene in a community, we take a non-threatening approach," said Joseph. "We are with the community. We don’t hide our identity, we say we are Methodists and Christians. We work with all people in the community as a result of the love that we have."
Joseph says the collaboration with Muslim and other religious groups is challenging, with difficult lessons for the church. "We are all called by God to serve our people, to undertake projects that make God’s love transparent." The Sri Lankan Methodist Church is a member of three interfaith organizations in Sri Lanka.
"Peace," said Joseph, "is a kind of dirty word in Sri Lanka. It puts you on one side or the other. We struggle to find a space to work for peace. We campaign against violence and take up the issue from the point of view of shame rather than human rights."
In February of next year, the Sri Lankan Methodist Church is sponsoring an interfaith international peace conference. Key figures from other countries that have brokered a peace process, such as South Africa and Northern Ireland, are invited to speak at the conference. At the same time, through grassroots efforts, peace festivals will occur in various regions of the country to signal that "people are tired of war," said Joseph.
Date posted: Oct 16, 2007