The Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka reminded me of the two weeks I spent there as part of a construction team one year after the 2004 tsunami. As I wrote in Reclaiming Joy, “the people’s serenity as they faced the future without loved ones, without homes, and without other possessions awed me.”
I was the cook and travel guide for a group from First Baptist Church, Corpus Christi. We participated in a worldwide effort of the Baptist World Alliance, in cooperation with the tiny band of Baptist Christians on the island, to build a village for those who had lost everything. They were the poorest of the poor—squatters on the beach—who lost all their possessions and many of their family members. We threw a party for them on the site of their future homes, and I left part of my heart in Sri Lanka.
The long civil war between the Singhalese Buddhist majority and the Tamil Hindu minority resumed while we were there, but I longed to return. With the restoration of peace, tourism resumed, and I finally made it back to the Baptist village in southwestern Sri Lanka in 2013. It was a complicated journey that eventually took me around the globe.
I found a company that offered group tours of Southeast Asia and India, with a new extension to Sri Lanka. After touring Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, I flew alone from Bangkok to Colombo, where a Sri Lankan driver met me and drove me through the darkness to a beach resort in Negombo. Both those cities were bombed Sunday.
The next day the driver and I set off to Galle, the ancient fortified port at the southwest corner of the island, where I spent the night in an old Dutch townhouse before going to the Baptist Village. I had no clear directions to the village, knowing only that it was inland, north of Galle and east of the beach town of Hikkaduwa—places we had visited on our first trip. The driver seemed to enjoy the challenge, once he was satisfied that this word “Baptist” wasn’t about an evangelical sect or a proselyting attempt. He took back roads and stopped each time he saw a group of tuk-tuk drivers to ask the way to the “Baptist village.” Each time they pointed the direction, and finally the driver spotted a house with a small plaque by the door. In Sinhalese, it acknowledged the gift from Baptists.
It was a weekday, so most of the residents were at work or at school; but with the driver serving as translator, I had a lengthy conversation with an elderly couple. The village wasn’t all that we dreamed of and worked toward when it under construction. Sri Lankan Baptists were unable to maintain and operate the community center, and the villagers didn’t know how to keep the water well working. Nevertheless, people who had lived in shacks on the beach held the title to three-bedroom masonry houses with plumbing and electricity. The land was lush with jungle growth, and cookie-cutter houses had been transformed to reflect the personalities and needs of the new owners.
Satisfied, we headed back to Negombo on a new highway, where I joined the group that had arrived from India. We toured the ancient heart of the island, back to the beginnings of Buddhism, before we ended the trip with a tour of Colombo. International assistance after the tsunami, followed by peace, had led to modernization and topsy-turvy growth. I left with high hopes for the future.
I pray that the bombings are an aberration, that the political conflicts that led to poor security will be resolved for the sake of the Sri Lankan people and that peace and prosperity will return to this tropical paradise.
All photos are from Ella’s 2005 and 2013 trips to Sri Lanka. Top photo: Wading in the Indian Ocean after dinner on December 30, 2005.
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Reclaiming Joy: A Primer for Widows was published by 1845 Books, an imprint of the Baylor University Press, in 2018.