A Christian, a Muslim and a Buddhist Walk Into a Hindu Temple …

September 2, 2012 § 7 Comments

Copyright World Vision, 2012. Photographed by Matthew Paul Turner.

He holds his son up, the proud father of 28 days. He wants us to see the boy before we leave, though the still-so-small baby seems only to want to go back to the nap he was clearly interrupted from. Like all the fathers in this village, his hope for his son is to get an education. But unlike so many of the fathers we’ve met, this father wants his son to have the life he’s had. Joffrey is the imam—the Muslim leader—of the village. Though only 26 and with so much of the boyish grin still left, he has big hopes for his people. Hopes that started when he was a young boy, attending the local child societies. It was there he first encountered children from other villages—and from other faiths. He tells us it was these child societies (a program of World Vision’s) where he first gained a heart for unity among the different faiths in the area: Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims coming together for the sake of the community and for the poorest of the poor.

“There were times we attended secretly as children, without our parent’s permission. We wanted this different life. Eventually, once the leaders saw what good work the child societies were doing, it wasn’t so difficult.”

The monk looks as if he was plucked directly from a movie set—his leathered hands clasped together, his bald head bobbing as he speaks. His is a face weathered with age and sun and “so many hard times.” He has lived in this village since the 60s. His family has always been in herbal medicine—his mother, his father, his brothers, his sisters. He was chosen for the temple, but medicine is still his ministry. He was treating a patient when we arrived. He tells us of a Catholic priest who lives just down the road. They have worked together for more than thirty years. They used to ride together on a bike into the village. Everyone called them “brothers.”

“Every religion has extremists that will pull you away from unity. But you have to respect the other religions. You have to have religious freedom.”

Sudesh walks barefoot into the Hindu temple. He bows deeply and accepts the ash mark on his forehead. He beckons for us to do the same. We are nervous—perhaps recalling all those warnings against yoga and of demons in the incense. We marvel at Sudesh’s respect for each of the faiths we have encountered today in these colorful closing ceremonies. For the respect he gives and the respect he receives. A minority Christian living and serving in an area that could so easily become hostile. A native Sri Lankan and the director of the Willuwa ADP, Sudesh has walked what I can only imagine is a knife’s edge in his work here. Respectful and accepting and yet forthcoming about his own faith.

“People will never respect you for the amount of resources you have. They might pretend to, but they don’t. To have a real relationship you have to respect their culture.”

Sri Lanka is the first place I have ever visited where Christianity is not the dominant religion. And yet religion is part of every single day here. The Buddha statues rise up out of every other field. The colorful Hindu temples sit side by side with the curving mosques. And Mother Mary, St Anthony and the Crucifix reside over their own bits of the villages. It’s an environment ripe for conflict and one in which Christian humanitarian aid seems particularly problematic. And it has been. It took several years for the Willuwa ADP to start, in part because of mistrust on both sides. Those in the area had seen Christian groups come in before and offer food and health care in exchange for promises of conversion. Christianity has so often been the white man’s religion, forced on them by outsiders—and often by oppressors.

The monk tells us he felt ignored and unwanted by World Vision in the beginning. But after a change in leadership of the ADP, he became a central figure in the work being done in his community. He points to the second floor of his clinic and tells us World Vision helped him build it. He says at one time he would re-use his water over and over again to wash his face, not using soap even because it meant an extra rinse. World Vision brought water to the village and he tells us that alone is enough to “get them into heaven.” Joffrey, the Imam, says he has World Vision to thank for teaching him to pursue unity and cooperation with the other religious leaders. He wants his own son to attend child societies, to nurture these cross-faith relationships. Sudesh says it is only with mutual respect and religious freedom that unity can come about.

But what of evangelism? I am thinking it and I know so many Christians back home would be too. Shouldn’t we still be seeking to share the Good News even as we respect other religions? Sudesh tells me he is sharing the Gospel … he is the hands and feet of Jesus. And if people convert because of this, it is their choice. He cannot and would not force it. Is it enough, I wonder? Would Jesus simply help or would he preach too?

I don’t have an answer. But I see so much beauty in Sudesh and in what is happening here. In a country with four religions, where Christianity is the smallest, he has gained the respect of everyone. Sudesh isn’t fighting territorial battles, but instead fighting for a better life for the poorest of the poor. He is not alienating, he is unifying. And when one or two or three convert to Christianity, no one is stopping them. But that’s not why he’s here. He is here for the dignity and development of his people. And he is winning this battle every single day. And I am cheering him on.

****Full disclosure: I’m honored to be a guest of World Vision’s this week in Sri Lanka, along with these very talented bloggersI have long been an advocate of child sponsorship and I will always tell you it’s one of the best ways to spend $35 a month. It really works. If you are interested in sponsoring a child in Sri Lanka, clichere.

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