COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (BP)–Tailors have sewing machines again. Masons and carpenters have tools. A chicken farmer has a new coop. Families have houses in which to live. Children have smiles on their faces.
And Sri Lankans are asking why. Why have Southern Baptists come to help them?
They’re hearing the answer — and seeing it lived out among them — through hundreds of Southern Baptist volunteers who have come to their island nation since the Dec. 26 tsunami ravaged its coastline.
Volunteer Debbie Russell left her 18-month-old son, Brayden, with her husband for two weeks. Dane and Marleen Guffey*, newly married, came to test water wells for contamination. Retiree Billy Cox missed being with his wife on their 42nd wedding anniversary to help out. They all came because the love of Christ compelled them.
Every two weeks a fresh team of Southern Baptist volunteers arrives to serve through the International Mission Board. Russell came with a group from her church in Lancaster, S.C. The Guffeys came from Tennessee. Cox, from Batesville, Ark., accompanied a team representing four states. The teams, coordinated by South Carolina Baptists but open to qualified volunteers from any state, will continue projects in Sri Lanka through mid-November. After a break, aid efforts will resume in 2006 with less-frequent visits. For information on how to participate, call South Carolina Baptists’ disaster relief office at (803) 765-0030.
“God has guided us here. He has put together a super team,” said Billy Snipes, another volunteer. “And the ones who were here before laid a great foundation.”
Each team builds on foundations laid by the previous team — whether it’s the foundation of a house or of a relationship. One group joined hands with local residents and prayed around their well, which the volunteers had just pumped and cleaned.
“Show them how much we love them, and not only that, but how much Jesus loves them,” Marleen Guffey prayed.
Volunteers pump wells contaminated by salt water and debris. They spend hours in the sun mixing mortar. They buy tools for carpenters and repair partially damaged homes. They hand out mosquito nets and mattresses. They entertain children with games. They drink more than their fill of coconut milk and hot Ceylon tea. They minister to the hurting.
Russell spent most of her days in Sri Lanka surveying the needs of tsunami survivors in a village. At the first house she visited, a 43-year-old man explained that before the tsunami he sold coconuts on a bicycle route and made 1,000 rupees (a little less than $10) a month. He lost his bicycle in the tsunami and had not worked since. His wife makes coconut twine. Before the tsunami, she made 1,200 rupees (about $12) a month, but now she is pregnant. Only the foundation of their home remained. A tiny, temporary house stood on the foundation. They asked for a bicycle so the husband could get back to work. They also requested a gas cooker — and a mattress.
“A new baby coming and no mattress,” a volunteer commented as they left.
At another house, an image of the Buddha — decorated with flickering electrical lights — sat on a shelf in the sitting room. A television perched just below it. This house had little apparent damage and the family had few needs — or so it first appeared.
As one of his sisters went to the kitchen to prepare tea and mangoes for the volunteers, the man of the house shared how the tsunami stole their parents. He was away when the tsunami flooded their parents’ home, which was closer to the ocean. His sisters were unable to carry their ailing father to safety. They later found his body, but not their mother’s. The man searched through about 800 bodies rescue workers piled high during the days following the tsunami but finally gave up hope of ever seeing his mother’s face again.
His sister emerged from the kitchen.
“Do you think [the tsunami] will come again?” she asked. “I’m afraid. My mother and father are dead, and I am sad. I don’t like to stay here. Every day I am crying.”
The woman invited Russell to see the rest of the house. When they were alone, Russell offered to pray for her. She readily agreed, saying another American woman had told her about Jesus before the tsunami.
Then the woman had a request, Russell reported: “She kind of lowered her voice and said, ‘Get me a Bible, so I can read it — in Sinhalese, not English.’”
Russell gave her the Bible the next day. Since then, other Christians have followed up with the family. The sisters and their brother have been reading the Bible.
Volunteer Jeff Williams spent nearly every day of his two-week stint in Sri Lanka helping one man build his house. Michelle Porter joined Williams at the construction site often, but never raised a hammer. She spent her time visiting with the man’s wife and playing with the neighborhood children.
“We kind of hit it off from the start, so I have been trying to come every chance I get,” she said.
At noontime, Williams, Porter and other volunteers sat on the floor of the family’s temporary house and ate the Sri Lankan food the man’s wife prepared for them.
“Help them to understand that Buddhism is a philosophy — and that the only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ, Your Son,” Williams prayed before one of the meals.
Williams and Porter had several opportunities to tell the family that the love of Christ compelled them to come from the other side of the world to help. As a housewarming gift for the new home, they gave the family a fan and a Sinhalese Bible.
“I said, ‘It is a special book for special people,’” Williams explained.
Every two weeks there are tears — tears from volunteers going home, tears from Sri Lankans who watch them go. But both groups find solace in knowing that another team will arrive soon, eager to carry on the ministries and relationships previous teams began.
“The work here isn’t done. It’s continuing,” said Nic Natale, leader of a team from Lancaster, S.C. “We need to be praying for the team that is coming.”
*Names changed for security reasons. Goldie Frances is an IMB missionary and writer serving in south Asia.