As you read this account of another Tsunami and the devastation of a village within the Sri Lanka, please continue to pray for the people of Japan as they continue recovery efforts and face nuclear reactor meltdown. May God guide us to provide the right kind of help they need.
We landed in the capital city of Colombo, location of the only international airport in Sri Lanka. This is where I discovered my first lesson about living in Sri Lanka: there is traffic, lots of traffic. The small, narrow roads were jammed with bicycles, motor bikes, cars, rickshaws, cows, dogs, pedestrians and trucks. Everyone drove fast, monitored the many mirrors around their vehicles and kept one hand constantly on the horn: beep, beep! There are two rules: the largest vehicle always wins and you better beep before you swerve.
Colombo was on the other side of the island, away from the tsunami zone, but everyone seemed to know someone affected by the waves. Amazingly, just a few miles away, a train jammed with hundreds of passengers was destroyed as the waves literally curved around the island.
Len Stevens, news anchor for our local station WSET-TV, visited the area and was told as the water approached, someone or maybe several people in a state of panic pulled the emergency stop cord. The train was moving away from the oncoming wave but, instead, stopped and received the full blow.
After the train tipped over, local residents told Len, you could hear the cries of the wounded and dying for hours; but because of the very real fear of another Tsunami, no potential rescuers approached the train.
The next day, we flew to the other side of Sri Lanka to visit the tsunami-ravaged beaches. Even the news reports could not prepare us for what we were about to witness.
Demolished hulks once used as fishing boats littered the beach area of Kalmunai. Piles of brick and rubble, scattered among the palm trees, represented what used to be houses and small businesses. The desolation and destruction caused by the tsunami stretched for miles along the beach and for at least a mile inland. We witnessed an endless array of destruction, despair and hopelessness.
Flapping in the breeze by one house was a large white flag. Residents said, “The white flag represents our enormous sadness and grief.” In other areas near the beach, clusters of the same white flags were used to mark mass graves.
Despite the overwhelming tragedy, young children were the first to greet us and appeared remarkably exuberant as they scrambled to pose for pictures. There were giggles and laughter as we distributed kits filled with household necessities, school supplies, games and Frisbees. Yet, when we mentioned the word tsunami, their faces became more somber. One little girl spoke of losing her entire family, including her mother and father, three brothers and one sister.
Two images on the beach I will never forget: First, a little child’s flip flop, buried near a pile of bricks that once formed a house. Holding the shoe, I could only imagine what must have happened to the little girl who once played on this beach.
Second, is the image of a woman’s yellow blouse billowing gently in the breeze, caught on a tree limb approximately ten feet off the ground. How did a blouse become lodged so high? How could one wave cause so much destruction?
We were told the tsunami was actually made up of three consecutive waves. Each one would sweep through the area, enveloping everything in its path for miles, but then the water would quickly recede with a powerful suction that literally swept everything back out to sea.
Women and children were especially vulnerable to being washed away. Hours or even days later, the bodies of the victims washed back ashore. But many have never been found.
Now imagine this: We witnessed the destruction on one beach in one village of Sri Lanka. The Tsunami struck 11 different countries all around the Indian Ocean. Within Sri Lanka there were 500 miles of shoreline, all hit by the gigantic waves. Yet in this one area, Kalmunai, nearly 3,000 people died. An elementary school near the beach enrolled 62 students — 57 died. A church claimed 350 members; 61 were gone.
A woman approached me with a plastic bag clutched in her hands. She reached inside and handed me a type-written piece of paper describing how she lost all seven of her children to the tsunami. Then she handed over a white card containing the name, age and description of each child. Through an interpreter, she said to us, “Please pray for my family. I have lost them all.”
All I could do was exclaim, “I am so sorry!” and cry.
Yet, while walking through town, we were frequently greeted with warm smiles and urged to stop for a moment and visit a tent or other place of shelter. Noticeably polite, everyone was eager to offer hospitality. They all asked one question: “From where did you come?”
A few asked for handouts, but only a few. Most simply wanted to share their stories and thank us for visiting. When asked what we could do to help them, the answer was nearly always the same: “We are fishers of the sea. We want to fish again?”
There was one tense incident. We were surrounded by a crowd led by a large man we later discovered was the town leader. They seemed upset. Not knowing their intentions, we were getting scared.
Through an interpreter we heard, “You people come to our town with your cameras, take pictures and make many promises. Then you go home and give us no help. Others receive aid but because we are Muslim and you are Christian, we get nothing.”
“Suppose you see someone who needs food or clothing and you say, ‘Well, good-bye and God bless you; stay warm and eat well’ — but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?” (James 2:15-16)
We made a promise to the crowd and the town of Kalmunai that we would not abandon them. Our group had traveled a long way to do something good. We were about to have our opportunity.
Amidst the rubble, I picked up a cluster of fishing net and showed it to several men as they described their desire to go back to work. “We must fish to survive!” they emphasized. Our guide told us that for approximately $3,000, a new fishing boat equipped with a motor and nets could be built in Sri Lanka. With each new boat, four families could go back to work.
Before leaving Kalmunai, we stopped at the home of our guide, R.K. Jeyakumaran, to visit his family and enjoy dinner. While there, we noticed a six-foot-high, dark line on every wall in the house. Mr. Jeyakumaran described how the waves swept through, leaving the watermark. Both, he and his wife sought safety on the roof, only to watch helplessly as their son and daughter were swept away. Both children were later found alive, but the reality and the horror of the tsunami was evident on his tear-filled face.
Still, despite the tragedy, we were beginning to find signs of God’s presence. Through the eyes of this godly family, we witnessed hope mixed with grief and we saw — in them and others — a strong determination to rebuild and start anew.
In the Bible, the book of Lamentations is written for a community facing tragedy: “The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words. I will never forget this awful time as I grieve over my loss. Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The unfailing love of the Lord never ends! By his mercies we have been kept from complete destruction. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each day. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him.’” (Lamentations 3:19-24)
God never guaranteed a life free from suffering and tragedy. What He did promise is this: “The unfailing love of the Lord never ends.” This is the assurance we must cherish, especially in the midst of unspeakable suffering.
“The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him.”
As the church, we are called by God to respond to suffering and tragedy wherever and whenever we find it. As we step out in faith, we not only discover the joy of helping others, but also experience the very presence of God.
In just three short days in Sri Lanka, we discovered tragedy beyond comprehension. But we also found practical needs we could meet:
1. The Kalmunai community needed fishing boats. The cost would be only $3,000 each if built in Sri Lanka. Each boat would provide four families a living income.
2. Funds distributed through reliable local contacts will stretch considerably farther than supplies purchased and shipped. We established connections and knew we could make a difference.
I left Kalmunai, forever saddened by the horrific tragedy we witnessed. Yet, I also left Sri Lanka hopeful, discovering a strong sense of familial love and a hardy determination to survive. God seemed to give our little group a unique opportunity for ministry which could make a real difference in Kalmunai, Sri Lanka. “Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each day.”
During the long, 36-hour flight home, the four of us made plans to share pictures and stories. We vowed to work together to raise funds throughout the community in order to purchase as many fishing boats as possible for Kalmunai. We set our goal at 10 to 15 fishing boats, but at the time we wondered if it would be possible.
Our Community Reaches Out to Kalmunai
Within days of our return, people throughout the area responded. Money was raised by various churches to purchase boats, but groups and families also adopted the fishing boat idea as projects.
• One family in the real estate business donated the proceeds from the sale of a house toward a boat.
• A local bank board pooled their resources after their annual meeting and donated enough to purchase a boat.
• Sunday school classes, youth groups and women’s groups throughout the area worked to purchase boats.
By the end of the campaign, our community far surpassed our goal of 10 to 15 boats, eventually purchasing 33 boats for the people of Kalmunai. In addition, other donations were funneled directly to contacts made in Sri Lanka, preventing unnecessary confusion and expenses. But perhaps more importantly, a sense of hope was restored to Kalmunai as one community aided another.
Despite heroic efforts to provide fishing boats, there were complications even after the new boats arrived. Rev. Davidson, CEO of Gleaning For The World, told us that, as the first fishing boats arrived in Kalmunai, nothing happened; no one would actually venture out to sea to fish.
We discovered through interpreters that all of the fishermen were afraid to go back out to sea. They were afraid of the possible return of the tsunami, but even more tragically, afraid of catching fish in the same water that contained lost loved ones who were washed out to sea. They told the interpreter: “The possibility of eating fish that ate our relatives is just too much to bear.”
Finally, to satisfy our need for photographs, several volunteers agreed to take the new boats out. They immediately caught a record number of fish! This was interpreted as a positive omen from God so families from all over Kalmunai once again could return to their livelihood.
Four people left a small city in Virginia to travel half way around the world to Sri Lanka. At one point, I wondered if we were doing the right thing spending money to travel that could be better used to help those in need. Once we arrived however, we knew God brought the four of us together for a divine purpose.
• Ray Buchanan was our ever-present guide. His extensive experience traveling throughout the world, offering aid to those in need, helped the rest of us quickly go where we were needed most.
• Len Stevens, through his TV news reports, told the story of our trip and what happened so effectively that our entire community was motivated to take the action needed to help Kalmunai.
• Rev. Ron Davidson became the coordinator for the distribution of aid when we returned to Lynchburg. Through his efforts and contacts, the money that was raised made a huge difference.
• I was the church contact. The involvement of our church set an example and encouraged other churches to join our efforts.
Len Stevens remarked, “Normally, as a media person, my job is to present the news without bias or getting personally involved. But this time was different. I could tell the story and know that I was also encouraging the people of Lynchburg to make a difference for the people of Kalmunai.”
Still there was one thing we all missed out on: We never got the opportunity to see the looks on the faces of the leader and the people in Kalmunai when those 33 boats arrived. Someday, we hope to go back and revisit our newfound friends. Who knows — maybe we can do a little fishing.
In a country that is primarily Hindu and Muslim, the Christian church is making a difference and has become a significant source of aid and relief. Although it was outside our comfort zone, we accepted God’s challenge and he gave our little group an opportunity for ministry that will have a real impact. “Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each day.”