In Sri Lanka, Christians constitute a small minority, about 7 per cent of the population. Living in an environment that is overwhelmingly non-Christian, both the Church and its followers must be very strong if they are to survive. Christians come from both of the two main language/ethnic groups: the Sinhalese majority, who are predominantly Buddhist, and the minority Tamils, who are mainly Hindus.
My Tamil family was deeply involved in an active, multicultural Methodist church in Colombo--choir, youth groups, Sunday school of 350 students and thirty-two teachers, community development. In this vibrant and harmonious atmosphere, we participated in a special evening service of thanksgiving on Sunday, July 23, 1983, a date I shall never forget. The text for the sermon was "How can I sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" I remember clearly being intrigued by this unusual choice. Little did I realize how significant those words would be in a few months time.
That same night, racial violence shattered our familiar world of peace and security. Mobs of Sinhalese attacked and set fire to thousands of Tamil homes. At two o'clock in the morning, my daughter burst into our room to say a neighbouring house was on fire. We fled in our nightclothes and sought refuge in our Sinhala Buddhist neighbour's home. We saw hate and destruction as never before. Cowering and shaking in shock and fear, hiding under beds, all we could do was hold hands and whisper prayers in the darkness. We could hear all around us the shouts of the mob and the crackle of flames. But in the midst of all of this horror we felt the comforting presence of God with us.
We dreaded the dawn when we feared we would be discovered. But morning brought a miracle instead. The news of the attack had spread like wildfire and our minister, a Sinhalese himself, and other Sinhalese church friends risked their lives to come to our rescue. For several days we hid in the home of Sinhalese Buddhist friends, while murder, rape and arson stalked the streets of our land. Though these Buddhist friends cared for us with love and concern, they were often even more frightened than we were, especially when the armed forces were around. They found comfort when we prayed and read our Bibles and they often pleaded with us to pray to our God for their safety too.
Realizing how God was using these dreadful circumstances for us to witness to our faith, we gained courage and inspiration. In our church's refugee camp, many Hindu Tamils were bitter and angry and felt utterly desolate and hopeless. Here the Christian Tamils had to uphold them with prayer and caring. Several Hindus told us that they were amazed that we were not bitter but lived in faith and hope.
Another miracle. My brother-in-law in Australia succeeded in sponsoring us as immigrants. I was experiencing great stress and anxiety over many concerns such as giving up my job as chief accountant of the Central Bank and looking for employment in a strange land at the age of fifty-three; providing there for family life and children's education; leaving behind aged parents and other family members. But even as doors closed behind us I saw the hand of God opening windows. The Ecumenical Development Cooperative Society was looking for a project development officer to open up the Asia-Pacific region and suddenly I had a job. I had always planned to devote myself to some voluntary work in community service in Sri Lanka after I retired at sixty. But now I realized that God was starting me much sooner and in a much larger region. I constantly felt wonder and gratitude as I recognized God's hand shaping my daily life. I not only had the privilege of earning my livelihood but also the job satisfaction of helping underprivileged people achieve self-reliance.
Australia, where I am now a citizen, welcomed us. Our friends, relatives and the church community made us feel wanted and accepted, which was so important after the brutal rejection we experienced in our own country.
Once at a church service, I was asked to share my experience, after which the rest of my family worshipped God by singing traditional Sri Lankan hymns of praise. We were literally fulfilling the prediction made in that fateful Sunday evening sermon, singing the Lord's song in a strange land.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld