Unification News for August - September 1999

Creating the Culture of Peace - RYS Sri Lanka

by Rev. R. Thillairajan, Mr. Ravi Galhena and Rev. John Gehring

To start the millennium with a new heart and attitude towards peace and peace building is an important goal of the Religious Youth Service (RYS). While many see the opportunities and great hope that the millennium brings, it is still an unfortunate reality that people in various parts of the world are genuinely crying out for peace and reconciliation.

In numerous villages in Sri Lanka, East Timor, Bosnia and elsewhere a disturbing pattern of violence exists. In these communities the decades, even centuries of friendship and cooperation which existed as the norm among neighbors of different ethnicity and religion has often been shattered as political, community or religious leaders turn one group against another, often for the most base and selfish reasons.

Violence and hatred are frequently the result. This pattern of misuse and abuse needs to be reversed if their is to be a different future for humanity. To build such a future requires many inputs including better education, training, economic and political opportunity, religious freedom and a vision of how a future of peace and cooperation can become a reality.

The RYS is a model of how ethnic, religious and even political differences can be bridged. The RYS program brings young adults from all races, cultures and faiths together for the purpose of living for the sake of the larger community. The RYS community is an environment in which participants remain faithful to their religious and cultural traditions while they are given the opportunity to share and learn from that of others. this experience expands the horizons of each participant. In the process, a relationship of trust is built between people of various faiths and cultures and the walls of isolation and mistrust that strangers construct are torn down in active actions of caring.

The exchange of goodwill, ideas and the substantial service offered by the RYS is an important antidote to communal mistrust. In a sense, the RYS becomes a way for people with long time grievances to see others in a new and refreshing light. Former enemies and aggressors undergo transformations so that they become simply neighbors and friends. The RYS is an antidote to a culture of fear and mistrust as it works to address historic and contemporary wrongs in ways the point people's hearts and minds to the road that is the pathway to a Culture of Peace.

As Friends Project

Sri Lanka's religious and ethnic grievances between parts of the Tami and Senhalese population have provided the fuel of a tragic civil war over the last two decades that has lead to thousands of deaths and massive destruction. Numerous areas of Sri Lanka are not safe to travel because of the threat of violence or kidnapping. It is also a fact that the island is full of deeply religious and kind people with a strong urge for peace.

RYS has the goal of building peace through interreligious dialogue and action and choose to have a project in Sri Lanka that would pull together youth from the warring communities as well as representatives from other Asian nations. On the week of the projects opening , travel in and out of the capital Colombo was stopped because of terrorist threats on the President (she lost her eye the month before in a bomb blast). The RYS hoped to show a better way to move towards the hope of justice for all.

The Sri Lanka Project:

From January 10-14 in the deep green mountain area of Bagahawatte, a part of the tea growing district of Nuwara-Eliya, nearly fifty youth and staff from six nations and all regions of Sri Lanka joined the RYS program. During the program all participants lived together and contributed their labor and services to the community while participating in a wide variety of cultural programs and discussions on issues relating to peace, faith, and development.

The RYS spent time researching communities that had educational needs and choose to work at the Bogahawatte Tea Estate in Pattana because of the need both working mother's and children had for a nursery school. The community was composed of tea workers and most of the women had spent most of their lives picking the green tea leaves and hauling them to the factory. To provide a life with better opportunities for their children they requested that we help build a nursery school. RYS also thought that the children should also have a fun playground to use during study breaks so we helped but that together.

Although the work included heavy shoveling and moving rocks, roots and soil the beauty of the scenery and the cooler mountain air provided extra stimulation for many who were used to the heat of the lowlands. Each person had various jobs to do and as the school building got closer to completion the feelings of accomplishment grew.

The RYS program:

Prior to the work portion of the RYS program the International Director, Rev. John Gehring arrived to guide the education program and the staff orientation and training. Among the staff were a number of RYS alumni and they were trained on how to guide the participants through the RYS experience.

The two senior staff leaders that took the most responsibility to put the project together in Sri Lanka belong to the ethnic groups that are in conflict. The Project Director, Rev. R. Thillairajan (Tamil) and the Project Co-ordinator, Ravi Galhena (Sinhalese) created a strong bond of unity and cooperation that was critical for the success of the project. As participants observed their cooperation many commented on how it provided a model for establishing a solution for ethnic, cultural and religious issues in a multi-racial community.

During the orientation participants were taken through a learning process that is designed to help create team solidarity from a religiously and cultural diverse group. Participants develop team vision statements and design posters that depict their vision of RYS. Through brainstorming and other team activities participants got to know each other well and they come up numerous creative and innovative ideas.

Participants who were initially skeptical started to open up during this process. One Sinhalese Buddhist monk and a Hindu Tamil became very friendly and developed a caring relationship towards one another. The tone set at the orientation helped make everyone feel responsible for the project. It is one of the reasons everyone could work so hard with a feeling of being part of an extended family.

On completion of the orientation process, the group was taken to the work sites which were a forty minute drive through the mountainous roads with its numerous waterfalls and rustic . Three teams were engaged to complete the pre-school building and to arrange the compound.

The primary school work included paving and fixing playground equipment and the landscaping was done by two teams during the three morning sessions of work. . A third team worked to remove a small hill and fill in a steep area as part of the effort to enlarge the play area of the nursery school. This work was very strenuous but everyone accepted the challenge. The young volunteers worked very hard with enthusiasm and dedication on both sites and the community and the estate management were very touched when they saw the contribution and the spirit of the young people from so many different ethnic backgrounds.

As part of th RYS tradition, each day is started with a morning devotion from a participant from each of the faiths represented on the project. After work and a period of free time, the participants take part in team discussions, activities and talk about various aspects of community building. Often time is filled with song and friendly sharing.

On January 14th, we had the cultural evening and a meeting to hand over the building and the play equipment to the local community. It was a great help that the Sarvodaya Society agreed to help in the running and maintaining of the school. The Sarvodaya society is a very successful non-profit volunteer organization that takes care of thousands of Sri Lanka's local schools. Another important ceremony that evening occurred when the Lions Club of Elvitigalawhich, one the project sponsors, presented new furniture for the pre-school.

The excitement and emotional level deepened as participants shared their testimonies with the community while and performed some dynamic songs and dances. Leaders from the community shared their thanks to the RYS, the Lions Club and to all the local volunteers. The evening was a special time to share, celebrate and appreciate our time together.

The following morning was a time for spiritual reflection and commitment. Participants were given the opportunity to give their testimonies and evaluations of the project as well as determine their future personal commitments to build peace in their family and community.

The RYS participants and staff were then awarded their graduation certificates and officially became RYS alumni. During the conclusion of the project as people prepared to depart the flow of tears was uncontrollable. People felt they were respected, and that their ethnic origin and their religion was also respected. Every one without exception felt a renewal when they left.

The ten participants from the eastern Sri Lanka (an area where the civil war is active) were very enthusiastic to find the ways and means of bringing the war to an end. The war, has in a way marginalized these young people as far as opportunities are concerned. They were very happy to associate with their fellow countrymen/women, with foreign participants of their age and to experience good things happening around the world. This chance for exchange served to stimulate them to form a more optimistic view of life in the years to come

The civil war has been going on for about 17 years in Sri Lanka. A Tamil rebellion group called Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) is fighting with the government's military in the Northern and the Eastern parts of the country for a separate state. The civilians are getting affected by both parties because of the war situation, some parts of the war-torn area of the country are in the control of the LTTE, so any one can imagine the disturbances This was a real historic achievement for RYS, bringing these young graduates and undergraduates from the eastern part of the island.

Asian Alumni Leadership Training

Soon after the conclusion of the project a select group of twenty participants that included all the foreign participants left to a special training site at Koggala Beach Hotel to partake in the 1st RYS "Asian Friendship & Service Training Program. The three day residential program was conducted to help explain to others how to organize and run an RYS project. Rev. John Gehring and Ms. Fazida Razak (RYS Asia Training Director) led these sessions with the support of the project organizers.

The future Asian RYS leaders were given an opportunity to learn and discuss each aspect of preparing to organize and run and RYS project from the point of conceiving the project to the successful completion and evaluation of the project. Several alumni have the desire to have another RYS project in the Eastern part of the country which is heavily controlled by the military and their are sporadic incidents with insurgents. The people there really don't have much hope and were undergoing immense hardship. The plan is well supported by the students of the Eastern University as well as their professor of comparative religion.

After the leadership training we all left missing the love and fellowship we shared with one another. Yet the spirit of the RYS was brought back to the communities of the participants.

Rev. Dr. Henry Victor, senior lecturer in Comparative Religion at he Eastern University heard the testimonies of the five student participants and wrote this.

"Listening to their experience which they related directly to me individually, and again in a two hour Seminar together with the rest of the students pursuing a special degree in Comparative Religion, I gather that RYS program had a great impact on all five of them. It looks that what we couldn't communicate for the last three to four years, your program has done it in a few days"

Quotes from RYS participants:

" When we worked together I felt one community and uniqueness of one heart and one family. Though I have experienced physical work in similar project in India, RYS is different for the participants forgot their own country and gave fully and freely for the people of Sri Lanka" R. Kalyanakrishnan (Youth leader, Gandhi Peace movement-Chennai, India)

"I could experience high inspiration. This project is beyond my expectations. I was able to make my view wider than ever before. This is playing a great to effect the way of my life. I could absorb others sprit in a short time. So even though I was so tired I just clenched my teeth and resume digging. I really could see the hope of youth through our participation. They were the people who gave me tremendous inspirations." Hannah Park, Korean-Philippines (participant)

" I learnt a lot of things about humanity, hard work, sincerity and brotherhood . I feel RYS is a very good organization for the human beings. Because of this experience I would change all my negative thinking. I will serve with RYS in the future." Ganesan - Gandhi Youth Movement, India

"I have received a lot of experience and opened the door of my heart. We offered service without expectation. I could accept people of all races, religion and language as brother and sisters". It helped me to talk heart to heart to people of other countries and religions who have different kinds of future ambitions. I can say 100% this is very useful." Venerable Balangoda Chandra Chandra Keerthi-Columbo Sri Lanka

"It makes me realize the beautiful world we are living in is comprised of

beautiful people from each faith and country and that we can together live with love and purity of heart! Sharifah Shakirah , Professor, Malaysia

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