September 01, 2011, 6:32 AM
Greetings of love and peace from Sri Lanka.
I write in the waning light of the day with a drenching rain dancing on the roof and dripping off the leaves and fronds of the unspeakably green world of diverse vegetation that is Sri Lanka. With Ravi Kandage behind the wheel and Suchith Abeyewickreme (a 2011 URI Youth Ambassador who is a Project Manager for Sarvodaya and the Secretariat Coordinator for the Global Network of Religions for Children – South Asia) and Rasika Geethanga (Deputy Director of Shanti Sena) as companions, Abraham and I set off from this beautiful center at 6 AM this morning heading for the city of Galle in southern Sri Lanka.
At first, in the growing light of a new day we moved down narrow lanes – sometimes dirt, sometimes concrete – barely wide enough for one car, lined on each side by dense vegetation until in a moment we would wheel around a curve and a river would appear creating a wonderful sense of openness and motion. Though the lanes widened into roads, sometimes four lanes wide but mostly two, our day of travel passed in the midst of lush vegetation and water, at first rivers and then the ocean as we journeyed down the coast that not too long ago witnessed a horrific tsunami but now dazzles with its many blues and sometimes gently breaking sometimes crashing waves.
At one point we stopped beside a grove of tall coconut palms swaying in the morning sea breeze as the waves washed ashore next to us. High up the trees in this grove were connected by ropes that allowed a man to harvest coconut milk fermenting in buds thirty feet above the earth by moving from tree to tree like a tight rope walker rather than having to climb up and down for each new tree. When the man lowered his full bucket on a rope to his partner on the ground, we bought a bottle of this elixir of the Gods (Ravi and Abraham’s description) to be sampled later.
With the exception of the occasional shell of a house still standing in silent witness to the destructive force of the tsunami and the small shrines to people who lost their lives on that awful day, there was little evidence of the overwhelming destruction. The rebuilding seems complete and tourists have returned to this beautiful place, bringing a much needed boost to Sri Lanka’s economy; and the luxuries tourists experience are in stark contrast to the lives of ordinary Sri Lankans, who seem to work hard for little material reward. Though they lack many of the material trappings of the west, they seem to lead decent lives surrounded by great natural beauty.
About three and a half hours after we began our journey, we arrived in Galle and paid a brief visit to the Galle Fort, a monument to European colonizers – first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and then the British. In addition to massive walls and what was no doubt once a military site, the fort also contains what could pass for a small European village with cobblestone streets and tidy row houses. But a look at the vegetation and the first sighting of the sea make it clear this is not Europe. We also drove past the field where the Sri Lankan and Australian cricket teams were preparing for a 5-day match – a big deal for this island nation.
We arrived at a Sarvodaya home for children, which was the site of the Galle CC meeting. We were warmly welcomed by a mixture of Muslim and Buddhist religious leaders (something had come up at the last moment that prevented a Catholic priest from participating), as well as an impressive group of young adults.
A Buddhist leader, Venerable Kegalle U Pagnnarama Thero spoke of how the CC came together, with the religious leaders spending six months in training provided by Sarvodaya to help them be able to work together. Once they began, they have often been asked to help mediate conflicts and have also been engaged in proactive peacebuilding work, such as sponsoring a meditation for peace where the expected 3,000 participants turned out to be 6,000! He said the key to their work is the recognition that beyond their differences they are all human together.
One of the young adults, who evidently are the moving force behind many of the CC’s projects, an impressive young man named Roshan Samarawikrama, who participated in the Moral Imagination training, presented a slide show highlighting some of the CC’s projects since its founding in 2009. He began by thanking Abraham for his inspiration and saying that URI has changed his life! He said the CC’s activities are designed to change the attitudes of others; and the members seek to be role models to society. In a phrase I’ve often heard used by Fr. Patrick Hanjoul, director of Bond zonder Naam, URI’s largest CC, in Antwerp, Roshan said their attitude was – Just go for it.
The projects he highlighted included:
· Peace mediation
· A health program
· Leadership training
· A television program
· A youth corps meditation
· Car washes (to raise funds)
· Advocacy for children’s rights
· Participating in the MI training
· And much more.
After Abraham and I spoke about the global and regional URI, we heard more from the CC members, both religious leaders and youth. All expressed gratitude to URI, especially to Abraham, and to Sarvodaya. They acknowledged that it isn’t all easy and not all projects are successful, but they keep learning and growing. Financial resources are an issue. They spoke passionately about the plight of poor children who are used for farm labor. They are denied education because their employers believe, perhaps rightly, that if the children are educated the farmers will lose a cheap labor source. Some religious groups see this as an opportunity to win conversions by providing help. The CC members who spoke applauded the specific help that was being offered but objected to using a situation like this to convert people from one faith to another. Clearly, there is much potential for conflict here, as well as a compelling need to be met. CC members are committed to doing their best to be a positive force in this issue.
We left energized and inspired; and I believe our visit helped inspire the CC members and help them feel appropriately proud of their efforts and at least a little more part of URI’s global community.
On our way home, we stopped and visited a community bank set up in a Sarvodaya village in Mandakanda. Ravi explained that Sarvodaya has a presence in 15,000 of Sri Lanka’s 30,000 villages. Of those, 5,000 are fully committed members of the Sarvodaya Movement and 1,800 have community banks that provide a framework for people with little material wealth to save money, as well as providing loans for income generating projects, as well as for buying land and building homes. The bank’s manager is a woman whose name I didn’t get, but who exudes a warmth and competence that would reassure and engage anyone. She has helped the bank build deposits of 30,000,000 Sri Lankan rupees (about $340,000 USD). Their smallest loan is about 300 SLR ($34 USD), and their largest is about 30,000 SLR (about $340 USD).
The bank engages most of the community members as stakeholders, who participate in regular meetings; and invests some of the revenue it generates from interest payments on its loans on projects to enrich the community, including a small preschool program.
We reached home about 5:30 PM, nearly 12 hours after we’d left, and with just enough time to visit the peace tree Abraham and the MI participants planted during the training here (it’s a mango), the river (no crocodiles in sight) and to see a magnificent eagle which had flown by us this morning perched in a tree. Then the heavens opened and we retreated indoors where we listened to the joyous sound of driving rain as we peered out into the dimming greens through a curtain of water flowing off the roof – a blessed moment of stillness at the end of a busy day.
Tomorrow we drive inland, into the mountains, to visit another URI CC in Kandy. Stay tuned…