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July 2020
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Religious Youth Service

Religious Youth Service Opens Doors in Eastern Sri Lanka

Manresa, Sri Lanka - Thanks to a cease-fire between the government and the Tamil insurgents in December 2000, roads were opened to the public and people could begin to move somewhat freely around the country. However, even though there was a political will to settle deep-rooted problems, no effective mechanism had been created to bring people together to meet in heart and reconciliation. A Religious Youth Service project August 23-26, 2001 opened doors for that to happen.

The eastern part of the country is special for its many lagoons and lovely waterways as well as the diversity of religions. The Tamils in the area include Hindus, Christians, and Muslims. There are differences in language and opportunities for employment among the religious groups. For example, Muslims have their own distinctive way of living. Also, animosity had increased among the Muslims because the government was using Israeli intelligence officers and insurgents had and killed worshippers in a mosque.

The idea of working in this zone of violence started to take shape during the RYS project in the peaceful highlands of Bogahawatte. Dr. Henry Victor of Eastern University had sent five graduate students from the Comparative Religions Department to work there with the RYS international and interfaith team. The students were deeply moved, and when they returned to the university they promoted the need for the ideals of RYS in their war-torn region.

Fr. Saminathan of Eastern University worked with project directors to plan a project to take place in August. After nearly two decades of conflict, people were happy for an opportunity to get together, especially the youth in the North, who were isolated and marginalized with limited resources and opportunities.

The service-learning project appealed to young people from diverse groups as an opportunity to get to know one another and understand the sentiments and temperaments of the various communities. Organizers and students from Eastern University worked hard to recruit a strong interfaith participation. The Ramakrishna mission under Swami Ajarathmagananda sent several participants, and led a morning meditation. The Franciscan Community sent two young nuns. Also joining the program under the direction of the Sufi Muslim maulavi (mullah) were three participants from Kathankudi, which is close to the mosque that had been attacked by insurgents in 1990. The support of such a wide range of religious leaders indicated a growing understanding and appreciation of RYS’s work and its contributions.

The qualities of the participants helped make this project very special. While they came from religious and educational backgrounds, most had been involved in previous community service activities. Students of comparative religions were especially eager to learn firsthand about the faiths of others.

However, in July, while preparations were being made, the Tamil insurgents attacked the Bandaranaike International Airport and the Air Force Base, destroying or damaging half of the air fleet and sending the country into a state of shock. The limited participation of Buddhist Sinhalese in the project was due in part to the heightened tensions in the region after that attack and their reluctance to travel there. Also because of the tensions, organizers driving from the capital to the work site were delayed at a checkpoint. Officials were suspicious of them and their van filled with project supplies, but two hours of discussions convinced officials of the spiritual motivation of the project organizers and they let the organizers through.

The first night of the project, participants introduced themselves, and the following day everyone participated in the 6:30 am Islamic meditation. It was conducted by one participant who was a maulavi (mullah) on the rooftop under the clear blue sky with birds flying in groups and monkeys playing in the treetops.

After breakfast, participants were assigned to three groups, each guided by a capable leader and assistant leader. Group members were very enthusiastic about their discussions and were very eager to express their ideas. In the afternoon, project coordinators went to the work site to make final preparations for the next day’s work. Dr. Ganesh, a psychiatrist, had asked RYS to help create a garden for the patients in the front and back of his psychiatric hospital. Other requested tasks included making a pond and hut and landscaping the area. When they saw the scale of work, some of the staff expressed doubts that the tasks could be accomplished by 30 volunteers in such a short time. The evening activities back at Manresa included orienting the participants about the next day’s work.

The rooftop meditation the next morning was led by Swami Ajarathmagananda. He spoke in a pleasant, spiritual, and intellectual manner, answering questions posed by the participants. He said afterwards that he enjoyed the encounter.

After a quick breakfast, participants went to the work site. The area needed to be cleaned, a hut built, a brick pathway laid, soil prepared for gardening, and seeds planted. It took considerable time to remove garbage, weeds, and stones and then level the soil in preparation for landscaping. Participants lined up to pass sand and bricks to the site. Lunch was ordered from the neighboring shop and served with much love and care by the doctors and nurses from the hospital.

At the end, some participants commented that they had never worked like this in their life, but it felt easy when they did it together. One of them said, "When we united and worked together, not only was the work made easier but I felt love and compassion for all the participants regardless of what religion they came from." Around 5:00 pm, participants met with the hospital staff, and each group expressed appreciation to the other.

After returning to Manresa to wash up, a video was shown about children’s folk dance troupes from North Korea and South Korea who made exchange visits and performed traditional dances for local audiences. The beauty of the performances and the significance of the encounters between the divided peoples on the Korean peninsula energized the tired youth.

Although some had wanted to postpone the cultural night, group leaders encouraged participants to gather on the rooftop, where emergency lights illuminated a space for showcasing the hidden talents in the group. One after another, individuals performed until 11:00 pm, even though lights were supposed to be out by 10:00 pm.

An Anglican priest, two nuns, and the Christian youth led morning devotions the next day. It was a lively time, with Bible readings, songs, and prayer. After breakfast there was an opportunity for reflections. In their discussion groups, the young people talked about their vision for peace and how much had been accomplished during their time together. After a ceremony awarding certificates, lunch was served.

In their written reflections, many people reported that they had gone through profound changes by listening and learning to people from other cultures and learning to appreciate their different viewpoints. One person expressed hope that misunderstandings between religions could be rectified since each religion seeks to guide people to become a better person by showing compassion towards others. One Christian said he had realized that the other religions are not opposed to Christianity.

Participants reported significant experiences of (1) overcoming shyness, (2) developing feelings of brotherhood, (3) learning a great deal about others in a short time, (4) dissolving resentments against people from other religions that grew out of recent conflicts, (5) gaining a positive viewpoint about people with different personalities than their own, (6) deepening their understanding of their own religion and others through participating in morning meditations, (7) understanding more about mental illness through listening to the psychiatrist and talking with the patients at the hospital, (8) women gaining self-confidence by realizing that they could work as hard as the men, and (9) learning that when people unite they can accomplish difficult tasks.

Some people expressed a desire to do small service projects on their own when they returned to their villages. An assistant director of education who came to the work site was moved to see people from different religions working together in harmony. When he asked how he could help, he was encouraged to organize local high school students to do similar programs.

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