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Tsunami survivors, year later, responsive to Baptist compassion

EDITORS’ NOTE: 2004, a massive earthquake in the Indian Ocean spawned one of the most destructive tsunamis in recorded history. It swept away thousands of lives and left millions of people homeless. One year later, Southern Baptists continue to aid and share God’s love with survivors in South Asia. The following stories report ongoing ministries and needs; additional reports will appear in Baptist Press on Dec. 27.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (BP)—Last January, she stood on her second-floor balcony, pointed to foundations where homes once stood and counted off the number of people who died when a vicious tsunami wave swallowed her village.

“At that house, two women died,” she said. “At that one, a man died. At that house, one woman died.”

Then Jenat*, a 33-year-old mother of two, went to the only thing remaining in her home -– an altar to Buddha -– and gave him glory for saving those who lived.

“I am Buddhist, and I am very happy because we saved a lot of people,” she said. “We were praying to Buddha.”

That was her response to the tsunami this past January.

Today, Jenat is a vibrant follower of Jesus Christ who understands that He alone has the power to save.

“At that time, I thought the Buddha saved us,” Jenat said days before the anniversary of the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami. “You know I believed in Buddha, and I would have died for that at one point. Now I only believe God. I am a changed Jenat, a new Jenat. Salvation came to my house. That’s why. I didn’t think I would change like this, but that is the power of God.”

In late November, Jenat could wait no longer. Even though the sea was rough, she stepped into the ocean and followed Jesus in baptism.

She was not the first tsunami survivor to do so, nor will she be the last. A few days after Jenat’s baptism, six more new believers were baptized. In all, more than 40 men and women have been baptized, said Southern Baptist worker Liam Metsker.*

“Getting to see all those … baptized in the first group was another surreal moment,” Southern Baptist worker Jada Lynn* said. “I’m sitting here in Sri Lanka, and there are nationals being baptized in the Indian Ocean. It was pretty much tops to actually get to experience that.”

Since Metsker baptized that first small group, the Sri Lankan believers have been baptizing others.

“They feel like they own baptism,” Metsker said. “They feel like they own the new groups” of believers.

Groups of people who desired to know more about Jesus began forming in May. Some of them soon dissolved, while others thrived. A few of the groups are on their way to becoming churches.

“This Sunday, they are going to share in the Lord’s Supper,” worker Nikki Edenfield* said of the group that meets in Jenat’s home.

The decisions to follow Christ did not come quickly or easily for the Sri Lankans. Most are the fruit of relationships developed shortly after the tsunami — and sometimes of relationships that existed with other Christians even before the tsunami.

“When I first met Jenat [in August 2005], she was not even interested in Jesus,” Edenfield said. “Then one day she told me that some friends from Holland had sent her a gift and she was really excited. It was a Bible in Sinhala. Now she gets so excited to go and share. She’s bringing people into her home for Bible study and leading people to Christ on her own and teaching her boys how to pray before they eat.

“Jenat told me she loved [how] nobody came in here and forced people to take Jesus. She said, ‘If I can go and help you help others and translate for you, then I can share with them that we are doing this because God loves them. That will give me an inroad to share Jesus with them.’ Our language only goes so far, but she’ll be able to go in and really share with them.”

Southern Baptist worker Riley Delk* said meeting the physical needs of tsunami survivors has led to opportunities to meet their spiritual needs as well. With the help of volunteers, Southern Baptists have reclaimed wells, built both temporary and permanent homes, provided mattresses and mosquito nets, repaired and painted damaged houses, rebuilt chicken coops and fishing boats — and simply listened to the survivors tell their stories.

“The volunteers probably had more impact on the spiritual interest [of Sri Lankans] than we ever had on the ground,” Delk said. “They had a fantastic input. I think God set the stage with the volunteers and the relationships. The tool He gave us to bring it together was the ‘JESUS’ film.”

Another team member worked with a national translator to develop meaningful Bible stories on tape in Sinhala, Delk said.

“Without the stories and the volunteers and the concern the volunteers showed, I am not sure what impact the ‘JESUS’ film would have had,” he said. “I don’t think just walking in and showing it would have the same impact that showing it when you have the relationship does.”

A dollar may seem like an insignificant amount to give. Those spending five minutes in prayer may not feel like they are doing much. Two weeks may seem like only a short time to serve. Yet, each sacrifice, each contribution -– no matter how small -– is making a difference in the lives of tsunami survivors throughout Asia.

“Here I am distributing money that came from dimes and nickels,” Delk said. “Every time I go to build a foundation, I tell them where the money came from.”

Southern Baptists have contributed nearly $17 million to tsunami relief. Countless people have prayed. Thousands of Southern Baptists have given their time to volunteer in tsunami relief throughout Asia, including about 180 volunteers in Sri Lanka. Volunteers also have served in India and other areas of South Asia where the tsunami devastated coastal areas.

“On behalf of countless victims of the Dec. 26 tsunami, your missionaries serving in South Asia want to thank Southern Baptists for their prayers, their gifts, and their commitment to this ongoing relief effort,” said David Garrison, International Mission Board regional leader for South Asia.

More Southern Baptist volunteers are needed in Sri Lanka and in most tsunami areas in 2006. Many Sri Lankans still are without homes. Some live in wooden shacks, but others remain in leaky tents even as the first anniversary of the tsunami comes and goes.

New believers in Sri Lanka testify that a variety of wants or needs first piqued their interest in Jesus. Nearly all of them interacted in some capacity with Southern Baptist workers or volunteers:

—- Sunimal* said he first showed interest in Jesus to please those who had helped fix his damaged house. “They were helping me, so I wanted to help them,” he said.

Then a volunteer named Kimberly gave Sunimal a Bible and he began attending Metsker’s training sessions. He soon found himself wanting to please God above anyone else. Now Sunimal’s Buddhist father is reading the Bible.

-— Sihina* started hanging around volunteers serving on a well reclamation team because he wanted to practice his English. Then volunteer Dane Guffey* began sharing with Sihina, and he made a profession of faith in Christ.

“Mr. Dane, he said about God, what He can do, what His power can do,” Sihina said. “Then he taught me some stories. He gave me a Bible, and I read it. Then Mr. Liam taught more stories.”

For Jenat, prayer finally drew her to listen to and receive Jesus -– the prayers of Southern Baptist workers and others who prayed on her behalf. Before Southern Baptists arrived in her village, Jenat faced many troubles in her marriage and spent much of her money visiting fortunetellers.

“I had a good feeling when you prayed for me and you shared with me my problems,” she said. “When I prayed as they told me, it was wonderful. When I prayed, it changed a lot in my life. I cannot forget that.”

Now Jenat is gaining a reputation as a godly woman of prayer, and women seeking a hope like hers are coming to her to ask for prayer and counsel.

“Every day, somebody comes to me and asks, ‘How do I follow Jesus?’” Jenat said. “I think they can see how my life has changed. I am like a messenger for this village. One lady, a first member of the [Buddhist] temple, she laughed at me, but now she wants a Bible.”
*Names changed for security reasons. Goldie Frances is a missionary writer serving in the South Asia region. For more information about volunteer needs in South Asia, e-mail [email protected].

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  • Goldie Frances*