Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Listening to and Learning from Asia's Pain

Ten year old “Tina” whom we met in Banda Aceh is the
only surviving member of her family of five.
She survived only because she spent the previous (Christmas) night at her aunt’s house in the next village.
(Picture by Vince Isner, www.faithfulamerica.org)

Learning from Asia’s Pain

“The tsunami has significantly increased ecumenical and interfaith tensions” bemoaned Tarsi Fernando. He should know. He is the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Officer at the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka.

Critical Concern – Building Community

If the tsunami destroyed community by demolishing villages and towns, houses and people’s livelihood, money has become a further threat to community. In conversations I had with church leaders in January and in the meetings with church leaders in other tsunami affected countries at a Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) meeting, they emphatically affirmed the principle that in all relief and recovery efforts, building community must be the first priority. That is to say, any project or recovery effort that threatens to disrupt community or does not make sure that it builds community must not be affirmed. Money, because it often comes with strings attached – sometimes subtle, but nevertheless real -- unless very carefully handled can easily disrupt community rather than rebuild.

I address here, the concerns of Ecumenical and Interfaith tensions particularly as they relate to foreign money, highlight grass-roots community organizing as an alternative model and make several affirmations and recommendations.

Ecumenical Tensions

Funding that comes from many denominational agencies and other NGOs, comes with their particular brand identity attached, said Tarsi. The Heads of Churches, a key decision making body of the NCC Sri Lanka had urged their constituent churches and relief organizations, that relief and recovery operations be undertaken ecumenically. However, funding from foreign denominational and other NGO relief and recovery agencies causes two problems:
1. it often encourages denominational branding that distracts from ecumenical commitment, and
2. it is often restricted to projects that are pre-determined by the foreign donor agencies.

Sri Lankan denominations and churches, since the relief and recovery needs are so great and urgent take the money despite their better judgment that

  1. relief and recovery operations done ecumenically presents a stronger witness of a united church, critical in the present hostile political environment, and

  2. the money is best used to implement recommendations made by grass-roots organizing efforts that engages people and gives them ownership.
Everyone, from pastors to social workers and community organizers on the ground are working extremely hard and accomplishing great things amidst unprecedented adversity. They have my deepest respect and admiration. The challenge to ecumenical partnership does not lie at the ground level, but at the level of funding agencies and NGOs.

The attitude that money dictates the terms of engagement harkens back to the colonial era. Almost a century ago, Asian Christians struggled against this same attitude. Ninan Koshy, writing in his recent A History of the Ecumenical Movement in Asia reminds us of V.S. Azaraiah of India, and his strong critique of the missionary movement. Speaking to the International Missionary Council that met in Edinburgh in 1910, Bishop Azariah addressed the complexity that arises when missionaries have contributed both money and the commitment of their own lives and therefore feel the need to control the agenda. “Through all the ages to come the Indian church will rise up in gratitude to attest the heroism and self-denying labours of the missionary body. You have given your goods to feed the poor. You have given your bodies to be burned. We also ask for love. Give us friends. The favorite phrase ‘our money’, ‘our control’ must go…” (p.17)

Interfaith Tensions

Christian relations with the majority Buddhist community and with the Hindu and Muslim communities, which were at a low ebb during the colonial era, have been painstakingly built during the decades following independence. In the past 20 years or so, a new challenge to these relationships has emerged. Evangelical churches and NGOs have begun to send covert missionaries to Asian countries including Sri Lanka. They cannot arrive in Sri Lanka as missionaries since the Sri Lankan government issues only a very limited number of missionary visas, and only to the established churches. Evangelical churches in the US recruit English teachers, computer programmers, business people etc. to go to countries such as Sri Lanka to fulfill some of the legitimate needs of a developing country, who then become evangelists seeking to start Prayer Groups and Bible Studies in local villages. The problem is that these people have no knowledge or training in cultural and religious sensitivities, and their lack of sophistication about how to deal with money quickly turns their missionary enterprise into a serious debacle. Their genuine charity towards poor villagers is often seen as luring Buddhists to convert. Some seeing this as a threat to Buddhism have taken to anti Christian violence. During the past few years we have seen a dramatic increase incidents churches being burned and pastors being killed.

Presently, an anti-conversion bill entitled “Freedom of Religion Bill” is making its way through the legislative process. Although a similar bill that was struck down by Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court last year, this second attempt, proposed by a Cabinet member and already approved by the Cabinet only requires Parliamentary approval for it to become law. Most knowledgeable observers call this a draconian law that will imprison the evangelist and the convert for a minimum of five years.

The tsunami which occurred in the midst of such inter-religious controversy has now exacerbated tensions. Evangelists in the guise of relief workers poured into the country. Even reputed and massive NGOs such as World Vision would not disclaim their evangelistic agenda. When Antioch Community Church of Waco, Texas sent a team to do children’s ministry, which in their mind clearly included evangelism, that was properly seen as preying upon the most vulnerable population. A member of a Conservative Baptist Church in Chicago argued with me that such disasters are God’s way of providing an unprecedented opening to countries that are usually closed to evangelism!

On April 7th, at a massive demonstration in Colombo to expose "the NGO mafia, that's thriving on tsunami tears," Member of Parliament Wimal Weerawansa told the crowd, "Go and see the clubs, casinos and cafes in Colombo. Most of them are patronized by the International NGO people who have come to help our people affected by the Tsunami." Adding that most NGOs are Christian based, he described them as "crows who have come in search of dollars." (Asian Tribune: April 8, 2005)

“We still have great relationships with Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim leaders,” said Tarsi Fernando. But most ordinary people don’t know to distinguish between Evangelical or Fundamentalist groups and the mainline churches, he said, and that puts incredible pressure on these relationships.

Grass Roots Organizing: A Viable Model

Habaraduwa Participatory Development Foundation (HPDF), located about 10 kms south of the city of Galle, is a great example of an alternative community building model.

HPDF began in 1993, when Wimal Dissanayake, came to the area to conduct a research project following his training at the Rural Development Institute in Japan. I attribute the success of this organization not only to Wimal’s community organizing skills, but to the fact that he stayed there for these past 12 years. His greatest achievement is that he has created a set of strong leaders out of mainly village women. (Women form about 95% of the organization’s membership). At a political rally last year to which HPDF turned out over 5000 people, the Member of Parliament honored the organization’s president Ms. H.D. Kanthi saying that with such a following, she should be the legitimate MP of the area. This is not an option for her since the organization has a policy of not participating in partisan politics. With regular training events the organization continues to produce strong leaders.

The basic organizing unit is a small group, of which, each of the 64 surrounding villages has several. Recognizing mutually enhanced self-interest and the role of power, members nurture strong bonds of mutual support and accountability. Such grass-roots organizing led to the creation of what might be called a Credit Union, which both encourages members to save money and gives out micro-loans. These in turn were invested in cottage industries and small businesses that provided participants with a regular income.

When the tsunami occurred, several of the 64 villages were destroyed. Lives, houses and livelihoods of its members were decimated. However, because of the already existing organizational structure, they were able to very quickly organize a response. Because of the organized grass-roots power, they were able to leverage services from the government that other communities could not. The Credit Union was able to provide some of the much needed micro-credit for those particularly of fishing communities to get back on their feet.

This again speaks to the priority of building community. In our last visit, Vince Isner and I spoke with several villagers in this organization who lost everything to the tsunami. Three weeks following the event, these people had already moved out of refugee camps into their own tents, their basic needs of food and clothing were met, micro-credit for livelihood support was promised, but most of all had a sense of hope, which I attribute to having a sense of belonging to a larger community. Although we did not get to visit them this time, Kanthi assured us that most of the affected people were now in the process of receiving micro-credit support.

HPDF is only one example, albeit a good one, of grass roots community organizing. There are many other similar organizations throughout the country, including in the tsunami affected areas, that are led by people well trained and skilled as Wimal Dissanayake.

Our Affirmations

Our visits included conversations with pastors, church leaders, Buddhist monks, community organizers and NGO leaders. Based on those conversations and our observations we make the following affirmations.

  1. Building Community must be the top priority in all recovery efforts.

  2. Recovery may take up to ten years or more.

  3. Sri Lankans are quite capable of handling much of the recovery efforts themselves.

  4. NGOs and foreign based relief operations (including church-based ones) too often impose their agendas on the local context.

  5. NCCCUSA and other church based organizations making financial contributions must require strict accountability from recipient churches and organizations.

  6. It is important to stress that recovery work be done cooperatively with ecumenical and interfaith partners.

  7. Local pastors, monks, social workers and community organizers need time off, so that they can reconnect with their families, and renew their spirit.
Our Recommendations:

Having made these observations and affirmations, we present the following recommendations:

1. NGOs and the Alternative Model of Community Organizing

Create an alternative model for effective recovery that is based on grass-roots organizing methods, and sensitive to the ecumenical and interfaith realities on the ground. These might include recruiting, training new community organizers and creating structures that support those efforts.

2. Spiritual Renewal and Rest for Front-Line Workers

Recognizing that Christian pastors, other religious clergy, community organizers, social workers and such are the front-line in the tsunami recovery efforts, and recognizing that recovery may go on for the next ten years, we institute, in partnership with the NCC-SL a process for providing these front-line workers, time and resources for rest and relaxation with their families as well as spiritual resources in terms of spiritual direction and grief counseling.

In Conclusion….

I have used the theme “Listening to, Learning from and Living into Asia’s Pain” as a way of contextualizing our reflections and recommendations on the tsunami for US churches. Asian Christians having lived through many “silent tsunamis” and now with a “loud tsunami” and always in the context of ethnic and religious plurality, have a lot to teach us about how to be Christians in the midst of those challenges.


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