Unification News for October, 2001
RYS in Sri Lanka: In a Land Where Blood Flows we Work for Peace
The Religious Youth Service (RYS) is a project of the International Interreligious Federation for World Peace (IIFWP) and is active in working on creating projects that can help heal and reconcile people of diverse and often antagonist backgrounds. The 97th RYS project was recently completed in Sri Lanka, which has been torn by a violent civil war. This project was organized and run by the Sri Lanka RYS chapter an is the eighth project hosted in the nation since 1992.
The Eastern part of Sri Lanka is very special in many ways. It has many lagoons and waterways and look very pretty to visitors. The place consists mainly of Tamils who are Hindus and Christians and Muslims. Even the Batticaloa Tamils and the other part of the Tamils have difference in their speaking ways also have some animosity in the field of employment opportunities and marriages.
Muslims have their own distinctive way of living. Animosity between the Tamils and the Muslims in many ways has increased in recent years in part because of the increased animosity towards the government for its use of intelligence officers from Israel. In recent times the Tamil insurgency has gone in to a mosque and killed all in attendance and several clashes between the two communities have since arisen since that event in an environment of growing distrust and misunderstanding.
Zone of violence
Our RYS service and peace project was held on August 23-26 under the theme, "Youth working to build a culture of peace." Hosted at Manresa, a Catholic Jesuit retreat center the project was carried out on what is called a ‘Cleared area’ which is bordered on the other side of a lagoon by an ‘un-cleared’ area. In the cleared area the Main roads closed around 7 PM and moving after this time is at best risky and troublesome. Wise locals remind visitors that they "really don’t want to go into the ‘uncleared area".
The idea of working in this zone of violence started to take shape two years before during an international RYS project in Kotagala which is located in the peaceful high country of Sri Lanka. The Kotagala, RYS project received the support of Dr. Henry Victor of Eastern University and he sent five capable graduate students of the Comparative Religious department to work with our international and interfaith team. These participants were deeply moved and when they returned back to their university they feverously helped to promote the ideals of RYS in their war torn region. This August, students, along with the project co-director’s, Ravi Galhena and R. Thillairajan and Fr. Saminathan of Eastern University were finally able to accomplish their dream by bringing a working project to the Eastern region.
Our work project was found through Dr. Ganesh who is a psychiatrist as he asked our volunteers to help create a garden for the patients in the front and back of the ward. We also agreed to help him to make a pond and hut and landscape and beautify the whole area. The hospital staff volunteered to help on many of the preparations including arranging lunch and tea. The work in front of us was more then enough for our thirty volunteers and an eager staff.
The project co-director shared this about preparing for the project.
"I would stay at the Director of Comparative Religion Department; Fr. Saminathan’s church when working on the project. On one of those nights Sri Lanka’s insurgents (LTTE) went into the highly secured international airport and the Air Force Base and destroyed and damaged half of the air fleet in a few hours. The whole country went into a state of shock which we are not sure when would recover."
Yet despite this environment of fear, Vijendren and several of the RYS alumni at Eastern University who are currently lecturers helped to find twenty qualified participants for the project.
The interfaith component of this program was diverse and strong. The Ramakrishna mission under Swami Ajarathmagananda sent several participants and they led one of the morning meditations for the RYS. The Franciscan Community sent two young nuns as participants and were very supportive since the IIFWP had already conducted a one-day seminar for the entire Franciscan nuns in Sri Lanka in their Provincial house on the theme "Building a Culture of Peace".
Also joining the program under the direction of the Sufi Muslim Maulavi were three participants from Kathankudi, which is within a couple of miles from the mosque that had experienced the carnage by the insurgents. With the support of a wide range of religious leaders the basic ideals of RYS being understood and appreciated in a profound manner.
The one shortcoming in our selection was the limited level of Buddhist Singhalese participation. This was in part of the mounted tension in the region due to the attack on the air force. Participants and staff are determined to increase this representation on the next program.
Terrorist Strike Before the Project
On the 21st I, Vijendren and Rev. Gnanaponrajah departed to the Batticalo town from Nuwara Eliya after knowing the news that the rebels have attacked the Central Police camp in Ampara and six-tractor load of weapons had been removed. This location is just two hours by road from the project site. On our way we were delayed at the first check point as they insisted that we shouldn’t take any things in our van. They delayed for about two hours as none of us could speak fluent Singhalese to communicate properly to the police officers.
Finally when they found that we are priests and going to a program and let us cross the Mahavelly dam to proceed. We arrived at the Manresa and spent the next day meeting to make sure of the work preparations and prepare for the arrival of the participants.
When the participants arrived they represented a diverse religious and educational background and most had been involved in previous community service activities. The qualities of the participants helped make this project very special. Some were specially curious for as students they had taken comparative religion and they were eager to know first hand about the faith of others.
The first night introduction was very warm and the following day every one woke up to the Islamic Meditation at 6:30 A.M. It was conducted by one of the participant who is a Maulavi (Priest). The morning Meditation was conducted at the rooftop with clear blue sky with birds flying in groups and the Monkeys playing at the treetops. Then after breakfast the participants created their visions.
We had three dynamic groups led by capable leader and assistant leader. The groups were very enthusiastic about their discussions and were very eager to present it to the whole group. By the late afternoon leaders and their assistance and the site coordinator went to the site to mentally prepare for the next days work. As we were discussing some said that they thought it is going to be a small garden and they didn’t expect such a scale of work to be accomplished in a day. The evening was devoted for the preparation for the cultural night as well as the preparatory discussion for the next days work.
The next morning we were at the roof top for the meditation and eagerly waited for the Swami Ajarathmagananda arrival. Promptly he came and led the meditation in a pleasant, spiritual and intellectual manner that most people who have questions were answered and the Swami himself enjoyed the encounter. We had a quick breakfast and went to the work site. The pond the RYS has donated has been completed. The entire place has to be cleaned, the pond has to be cleaned, a hut to be made, pathway to be laid with old bricks, soil to be prepared for gardening and planting the plants and seeds. The removal of garbage, weed and stones took some time and then soil was leveled and brought in for landscaping.
All participants were on a line passing sand and bricks and worked very hard. The lunch was ordered from the neighboring shop and served with such a love and care to the participants by the doctors and nurses. The participants commented that they have not worked like this in their life and felt that it was easy when they do it together. One of them commented, "When we unite and work not only the work could be easily done but I feel love and compassion for all the participant regardless of what religion they come from."
Around 5 P.M. we had a gathering to thank the hospital staff and the hospital staff thanked us for the valuable contribution.
Every one returned to the Manresa for a wash and was in the room at 6:30 P.M. for a Video show about the Little Angels Children’s performance in North Korea and the North Korean Children’s visit to Seoul. The beauty of the performance and the meaning of the encounter energized the tired bodies before the dinner. After the dinner some wanted to postpone the cultural night as they were feeling very tired. With the persuasion of the group leaders we had the cultural night at the rooftop with the emergency light on.
The cultural program provided a wonderful occasion to see other hidden talents and enjoy the group and individual performances and despite our tiredness it went on till past 11 P.M. though the night restriction at the retreat center was until 10 P.M. The Anglican Priest, two nuns and the Christian participants led the morning devotion the next day. It was lively with the bible readings, songs and prayer. After breakfast we had the reflection. Many of the group’s vision have been accomplished during this period. Then the certificates were awarded and we had the final lunch.
Many of us wrote in our reflections that we have gone through profound change by listening and appreciating others who are not like us and who have a different view point. We felt that the misunderstanding between religions can be rectified and that each religion is seeking to guide us to be a better person showing compassion towards others. One Christian realized deeply that the other religions are not against Christianity. Some memorable experiences of participants include: 1. How quickly they over came shyness and felt the brotherhood. 2. They came to interact with the different religious people and learn and know more about them in a short time. 3. The resentment towards another religion because of the past conflicts in the areas vanished from their heart. 4. They found something about their own personality and others and how one can look at people in a positive way even at the people who are so different from their personality. 5. They felt that the morning meditation had tremendous influence in their understanding and experiencing other religions. One Christian stated that he is going to read the bible in his home because of this experience. 6. The service at the Psychiatric ward had a great impact. Many participants had not been to the ward in their life. Talking and working with the patience they learned some thing about mental illness. Dr. Ganesh informal encounter and short talks about the mental health of the patients was quite educational. They felt that if we work united that we can accomplish any hard work. The ladies felt that they can work equally hard as men and gain a certain confidence. 7. Some said they were touched by the video and cultural evening program. 8. They all want this program to continue and possibly have another opportunity to participate. 9. Some want to do some small service projects on their own in the villages. 10. One Assistant Director of Education who came to the work site to meet the Vice Principal was moved to see all religious people worked in harmony. He asked me how he could help me. So I asked him if he could get the students from the 30 high schools we could do similar program in the future. He is fully supportive. 11. The local media was supportive and promised to publish an article with the pictures.
That evening we went for a dip in the sea and enjoyed a nice meal prepared by the wife of the Assistant Director of Education. Later that night I and Rev. Gnanaponrajah, though very tired, reflected how we could bring this programs to other places in Sri Lanka. We have decided to go from the eastern part of Sri Lanka to the western part of Sri Lanka to do the feasibility studies to have a RYS project in Mannar.
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