Interview with Presbyterian Church in Singapore April 2013
ON EARLY DAYS OF YFC AND OUR RESPONSE TO THE WAR
1. My first question, if you don’t mind – are you Methodist or Presbyterian?
I am a Methodist! I am very fond of my heritage, but I have worked interdenominationally most of my ministry life. I have learned to appreciate other traditions and celebrate their contribution to the body of Christ.
2. I understand you grew up in a Christian home. This against the backdrop of a largely Hindu and Buddhist country. Your family was a secure world to you, fairly affluent. Then sometime when you were in high school, YFC came to Colombo. Which year was this? What were the early days like for the organization? Did YFC encounter obstacles or difficulties planting their work in the country? What was your first memory of your first contact with YFC?
YFC came to Sri Lanka around 1965. In the early days there was a lot of suspicion about YFC. There was very little youth work in the churches. Most of the churches were quite liberal theologically at that time. There were very few evangelical churches. I think the biggest opposition came from evangelicals! My father was a Methodist layman and was one of the people who encouraged the starting of YFC and he was happy about my involvement.
In the first 12 years or so of our work we worked mainly with youth from Christian backgrounds. Once the youth fellowships got active we moved to working with totally unchurched youth.
I got to know about YFC because the leader used to come to visit my elder brother who was active in YFC. It was some time later that I got active. I had already felt a call to ministry at the age of about 14. I wanted to take the gospel to others. YFC gave me that opportunity.
3. You have worked tirelessly in Sri Lanka for many years. Your work, inescapably, has to be understood in the shadow of the terrible civil war that wounded your country. This war must have formed you. How?
The war made me ask what the bible and the gospel has to say about ethnic tension and taught me that Christians must be radically different to the prejudice that surrounded us. I also realised that prejudice does not automatically leave us when we become Christians. So there was a lot of thinking to do. I learned a lot from others. Theologising in situations of war must be done in community listening to as many approaches as possible.
The war also made me realise that obedience to Christ means putting ourselves in dangerous situations. We have kept Tamils in our home in times of conflict which was a little dangerous to us. I travelled to Tamil areas all through the time of the war however bad the situation was. I have travelled by van, by bus, by boat and by plane as roads were often closed. These were among the most rewarding times I ministry I have had. What was supposed to be a risk ended up being a great blessing to me.
As a leader I realised I needed to be careful about what I say. I must carefully listen to all sides. Then I must think deeply about what the scriptures have to say and discuss with other leaders about the situation we are facing and about what the different parties say about the problems. After this time of theologising I had to formulate and present to the national family of Youth for Christ a word for the situation we are facing. I had to do this about four times in the 25 years of war. But I believe the Lord used this to help our people stay united and make a constructive contribution to the situation in the nation.
4. Post-war reconciliation has proved a hugely controversial issue, with many arguing that it must begin with addressing the legacy of the war. Speaking as a citizen, how much progress do you think has been made? What do you think needs to be done?
A lot more needs to be done to convince the Tamils that they are valued contributors to the richness of our nation.
5. What can the Sri Lankan church do to repair the racial and political rifts that rent the country? What can the church do to prevent these divisions from tearing apart other multi-ethnic communities and organizations? Was YFC Sri Lanka spared? What did you do?
The church can demonstrate to the nation that it is possible for Sinhala and Tamil people to live in harmony, respecting and supporting each other’s rights and aspirations. In some cases we have done this; other cases we have failed. Talking openly about the problems is very painful. It must be done sensitively and wisely. But if opportunities are not given to talk about the pain that a group feels there will be no reconciliation.
In Sri Lanka all the groups feel vulnerable. We must listen to what all the groups think and feel. We have tried to do this in YFC. There were some occasions when prejudice and anger surfaced. But we sought to seriously listen and respond when that happened. Thanks to that I believe God has given us a relatively happy experience of unity in Christ.
If the pain or anger of a group is not taken seriously, there will be no hope of real reconciliation. Sadly, Christians sometimes submerge these feelings through emotional worship and affirmations of oneness in Christ like hugging and verbally wishing each other well. But that is not the answer. Worship is a marvellous way to affirm our oneness in Christ. But it must be done alongside frank facing up to the pain of each group.
6. After decades of war, many minority Tamils are war-weary and struggling to earn a living. What needs to be done to serve them?
There are a lot of things that are needed. Each group must ask what God has called them to do and give themselves to that. They need to, of course, receive government sanction for larger projects. As for me, what I have tried to do is to go to these areas and minister the way I know to minister–by teaching the leaders from the Word of God and about issues in ministry and family.