A Tribute by Ajith Fernando
15th January 2018
On 13th January 2018 at the age of at the age of seventy-one, Suriyakumaran Williams went to be with the Master he had served so faithfully and lovingly. He had battled Alzheimer’s disease for eight years.
And I lost a friend of fifty years. We studied together as teenagers for the Advanced Level examination, seated next to each other in class. We were Youth for Christ volunteers at the time. Then we became staff colleagues in Youth for Christ for about twenty-five years.
What joyous memories we have of serving God together as YFC’s leadership team. The five of us had such different personalities. Some were brilliant sportsmen, like Suri, who played and won in competitive table tennis till he was forty-five years old. Some were brilliant intellects, like Tony Senewiratne. The other three, Brian Blacker, Richard Brohier and I were generalists—jacks of all trades and…. All of us passionately wanted to see young people coming to Christ. We played, we prayed, we argued, we dreamed, we planned, and we had so much fun together.
Our friendship continued even after Suri left Youth for Christ and he became one of my accountability partners, along with a few other long-time friends. This group has been a safety net to me. With them I plan my life, to them I confess my failures and share my pain; and from them I have received comfort, guidance and encouragement to persevere in the call God gave me.
In our social media age there is a great need for friendships where trust is forged through long term commitment. There is a security in such trust which brings protection, stability and peace to one’s life. As a travelling person and an organisational leader, with all the pitfalls associated with such vocations, I wonder where I would be without such friends. The Bible says, “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). That’s the kind of friend Suri was to me.
A GREAT PREACHER
There are many good preachers today; but Suri was a great preacher. The greatness was forged through a combination of several factors. He carefully studied of the Word and was committed to preach only what accords with its message. He was committed to apply the scriptures relevantly to the lives of his hearers. He was willing to work hard to prepare a message that communicated God’s truth effectively and with the highest quality.
Suri and I spoke together at a Youth for Christ Asia Pacific Conference some years ago. Suri was the main Bible teacher and I was giving two or three talks. We stayed in the same room in the home of our friend Albert Lee. One night both of us needed to do a lot of preparation. I managed a get a few hours of sleep and got up fairly early in the morning. I saw that Suri was still at his desk. I made tea for the two of us and kept his cup on his table. When we left for the conference about two hours later, the cup of tea was untouched—quite an achievement for a Sri Lankan! He was so focussed on his preparation that he didn’t even think about sleep or his morning tea. At the end of the conference, many delegates said, “The student was better than the teacher.” They thought I was his teacher. Actually, we had grown together in learning to preach.
Great preachers have a vision of the greatness of God and tremble at the awesome call to represent this God through their preaching. So they will labour, using all their strength and ability to devote themselves to the task of preparing great messages which bring glory to God. Suri was this kind of preacher. Paul said, “Do not neglect the gift you have…. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Tim. 4:14-15).
Suri, like me, was of a nervous disposition. This can be a great boon in the preaching ministry. Those who sense their worthlessness tend to trust God more for help. This opens the door for the Holy Spirit to fill and use the preacher. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon used to keep repeating the words, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” as walked to the pulpit to preach. He had learned to trust in God for anointing.
A PROLIFIC DISCIPLER
I use the word prolific intentionally. The number people who have been discipled effectively by Suri is unbelievable! Since the news of his passing spread, tributes have been pouring in on social media and dozens of people have been testifying to Suri’s marked influence on their lives. This company includes denominational and organisational leaders, pastors, workers in Christian organisations, lay people in the marketplace and in various professions. When I travel to different parts of Sri Lanka and different countries, I’ve met so many people who testify to the huge impact Suri had on them
This is all the more significant because most of these persons were discipled in Jaffna during the dark years of the war. In this unideal environment God was nurturing giants of the faith through the discipling ministry of his faithful, unassuming servant.
There were three key hallmarks to Suri’s discipling ministry. The first was his practice of giving biblical advice and guidance, rather than earthly wisdom. All his advice was based on scriptural principles. Even now people point to principles they learned through the advice that Suri had given them.
Secondly, Suri’s discipling was built on a foundation of Bible teaching. He faithfully taught the Bible to those whom he led. There is no surer foundation upon which to build disciples. Jesus said, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). And Suri was a dynamic teacher of the Word.
Thirdly, Suri was unselfishly committed to the holistic growth of individuals. One leader told me of how he would come to his house daily at 5 am to get him to start the day off right. He cared for their spiritual growth. But he also guided them to make the best vocational choices and prodded them to discipline themselves to work hard so as to advance in their careers.
Programmes are a very important aspect of the life of Youth for Christ. But Suri was not comfortable with organising big programmes. He would get very nervous at such times. But his ministry multiplied. This was because he was committed to people. He helped build up people and paid the price to do that. These people organised the programmes and the work progressed! He had put the emphasis where it should be; and the other things happened through the people he had nurtured.
Suri’s discipling shows that he was not an empire builder, constructing “a Suri Williams empire.” He remained a simple, unassuming, quiet person; generally unnoticed in public. He didn’t even drive a car, always having his faithful motor-cycle to take him about. He was not an empire builder who exuded the trappings of success. He was a kingdom seeker whose legacy is eternal in reach and will continue to multiply even after his death as leaders and programmes keep growing through those he invested in.
ONE WHO OBEYED A SOVEREIGN GOD
We all knew that if Suri believed something was the will of God for him, nothing would detract him from that. The supreme example was his staying on in Jaffna for fifteen years during the war years and bringing up his young family there. I am sure that the family was affected by the war. But Shanthi, Miriam and Premjit show no signs of being handicapped by that. They are now making their unique contributions to church and society.
When things had got really bad in Jaffna, many people fled to safer areas. Once we were told it was too dangerous for Suri to stay there with his young family. I wrote to him saying he must come back to Colombo. He wrote back saying that he cannot abandon his people at that crucial time. We had told him it was not safe for the family. His response was that the safest place to be was in the centre of God’s will. He believed that the will of God was “good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2), even in war-torn Jaffna. And he obeyed that will.
But the God whom he obeyed was sovereign. This means that he will turn even the depressing situations which he faced into something good. So, in all he did, Suri was determined to project the hope of God doing good through the situation. Oduring really bad times in the war in Jaffna, others neglected their gardens and let weeds grow. But Suri, the one who loved flowers and gardening, cultivated flowering plants in his yard, right in the midst of a raging battle. The roads were littered with trash. Suri got together a few others, and they began to clean the road outside his home. The Indian army officer in the nearby camp was challenged by this, and he got his soldiers to start cleaning the roads. At the funeral service Suri’s daughter, Miriam, told of how when shells were going above their house, the Williams family would go to the garage and sing songs and play board games!
Wherever Suri was, whatever the circumstances, he wanted to reflect the beauty of his sovereign God who was at work in the world. And beauty is a good way to remember him. His life portrayed the beauty of a person who would let God mould his character.
A FAMILY MAN
Suri was the second oldest in our original Youth for Christ leadership team of five. But he was the last to get married. We often wondered why he didn’t proactively pursue the task of finding a wife. Whatever the reason for that, God had the best surprise in store for all of us. Shanthi Jesudas had not grown up in YFC. But she not only fitted in beautifully to our movement, she also brought the richness that only an outsider could bring. The multitude of women discipled by Shanthi testifies to her own effectiveness in ministry.
Her commitment to God made her release Suri to pay the price of following the difficult work God had called him to. Not only did she release him, she enthusiastically backed and supported his work as a partner in ministry.
Suri and Shanthi were committed to having a happy family despite all the problems they experienced in Jaffna. At the service Miriam said that her father made time for others; but he also made time for them. They knew that for Suri, family came first. There are beautiful stories of how they achieved this. Once Shanthi’s birthday was when they had a 24-hour curfew which meant they had to stay indoors. Suri, somehow got to the grocery store by avoiding going on roads, and he managed to get a biscuit (cookie) packet to celebrate the birthday as a family.
Suri would often talk about the fun things they did as a family to enjoy themselves wholesomely. The work of God often takes us along difficult paths, but that does not negate the fact that at the heart of the Christian life is joy which can always be experienced and which should be pursued.
A MAN WITH CONSISTENT DEVOTIONAL HABITS
When Alzheimer’s was beginning to affect Suri, he continued to come for our accountability group meeting until he lost the capacity to be at such a meeting. Each of us would have a time of sharing about how we were fairing. Suri always shared the same thing: what he did for his devotions. He had had a consistent time of Bible reading and prayer all through his journey with God. He followed the example of the Psalmist who said, “But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you” (Psa. 88:13). And that devotional time was still the fuel that pumped his engine. But the time came when he did not have a capacity to even have a devotional time. When we visited him, he could not converse with us in any coherent way. We would end the visit with a prayer, and then he would interject with an “Amen” and a “Yes, Lord.” Prayer still had a place amidst diminishing mental ability.
HIS FINAL LESSON
But the time came when even prayer did not make sense to him. He was lost to earthly awareness. How often I asked God why he let this happen to his faithful servant. Always, the answer I got was that from eternity’s perspective these years of sickness would be gloriously insignificant. Here too Suri spoke to us through his life.
Suri was not very concerned about establishing an earthly house. It was with some persevering reasoning with him that he was persuaded to even start dreaming for a house. Once that hurdle was overcome, God miraculously provided him with a house.
But Suri’s house focus was on his heavenly home. His life was always a lesson to us. And in his last sickness too he was teaching us. His utter helplessness pointed us to his ultimate destiny of heaven where his service would be rewarded and consummated. It is good sometimes to be reminded of the temporary nature of life here on earth. And few things do that as much as the utter helplessness of Alzheimer’s. So even in his slow descent to death, Suri was still teaching us. As John says, “… the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17).
A Scripture Union Missionary Cecil Johnstone wrote the following in my autograph book when I was in my early teens:
Only one life; it will soon be past;
Only what’s done for Jesus will last.
Oh, may we be faithful to God until the end.