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Small miracles in Sri Lanka.

An anxious woman in a faded blue sari sits on the edge of a metal chair outside the vocational college office; her son, a slim teenager in neat blue slacks and pressed white shirt, sits patiently beside her. Inside the office, a Sri Lankan man of about forty hangs up the phone and steps outside the door with an outstretched hand. He greets them in Sinhalla, "Come in, Mrs. Namayakara and Kumara. I will tell you about the course Kumara will be taking and then I will show you the classroom, the lunch room, and the other facilities." The mother smiles and clasps the priest's hand in gratitude. His warm brown eyes and gentle manner set her at ease. Trained for ten years for the priesthood, and assigned by the bishop to this centre four years ago, he seems to be as comfortable with people as he is wearing his "office clothes" of sport shirt, slacks and sandals. A white cassock hangs on a wall hook behind his chair.

Bishop Leo Technical Institute

Father Ignatius Senanayake is the director of the Bishop Leo Technical Institute, named in honour of the first native-born Sri Lankan bishop. Kumara will be joining a class of twenty-four young people who range in age from sixteen to twenty-five. Their vocational school is located in Badulla, a town in one of the poorest provinces in Sri Lanka.

Kumara and his fellow students have fallen through the cracks in the Sri Lankan education system. They lack the high school credits to get them into a government training course. They can't find work in Badulla where unemployment stands at 90%, and men, both young and old, sit in the market place and chew betel nuts. Without money to pay for a private course of studies, and often without both parents, they face an uncertain future in a country that is itself tottering on the brink of an uncertain future.

Sri Lanka, formerly Ceylon and under British colonial rule until 1948, is just emerging from a bloody nineteen-year civil war. A ceasefire has brought a respite and a peace treaty is being hammered out with the help of Norwegian diplomats. But the years of warfare have taken a toll on the entire infrastructure of this island nation. Roads are rutted, potholed, and narrow. The only repairs take place after a mudslide that washes the road away. Hospitals cry out for upgrades of facilities and equipment. Education is in the same state.

As the new government attempts to forge a path that, one hopes, will be one of peace, there are many demands on its resources. Non-governmental agencies are eager to distribute the allotted government rupees for basic improvements such as clean water to all communities. Some of these agencies, unfortunately, are rife with graft. The one social agency that seems to be operating above reproach, at least from this outsider's point of view, is the Catholic Church.

My husband and I came to Sri Lanka as short-term visitors in May of 2002. Gord, a CESO (Canadian Executive Services Organization) volunteer advisor, was asked by the Bishop Leo Institute to assess their curriculum in Electrical Technology and to recommend any revisions that might be required. As an accompanying spouse, I volunteered to teach English at the Institute. Our time in Sri Lanka was an uplifting experience for both of us, and a spiritual one for two people with no previous experience with the Catholic Church.

Gord and I were fortunate to be given accommodation at the residence of Bishop Winston Fernando. One week during our stay, the Bishop's House was home to twenty-five priests on a spiritual retreat. When not restricted by their vow of silence, they chatted with us on the grounds. The bishop joined us for dinner on the evenings he was not away on diocesan business. From Bishop Winston and his guests, we learned about the role of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka.

Catholic Church in Sri Lanka

The Christian community in Sri Lanka makes up only 7% of the population, and within that percentage, the Catholic Church is smaller in numbers than the Anglican Church. In spite of its small size, the Roman Catholic Church has a strong presence throughout the country. The priesthood seems dedicated to improving the lot of the people regardless of language or religion. Bishop Leo's, for instance, provides vocational training to Singhalese-speaking students (who are mainly Buddhist) and Tamil-speaking students (who are mainly Hindu). The admission criterion is need and there is no attempt to convert the students.

Bishop Winston, a man of slight build with a dazzling smile that extends to his eyes, is a gracious and intelligent man. His training took him from Sri Lanka to India to Rome, and he talks with quiet conviction about his calling. Over dinner on our last evening, he told us of his dream to build two adjacent homes-one to house seniors (called "roofless elders" by the locals) and one for the mentally challenged. Neither group is adequately provided for in this impoverished country. He can visualize each group providing companionship and assistance to the other. If he can get some funds to build it, he said the diocese would look after the day-to-day expenses.

He told us also of his attempt to start a training centre similar to Bishop Leo's in another part of the diocese. The Church already owns the land, but the local Buddhist priest strongly objects to the project. Bishop Winston has met with him and the villagers frequently to try to convince them that the church is interested in educating the unemployed youth of the area, not in undermining their faith. Discussions were still ongoing as we left the country. Bishop Winston is determined to proceed with support from the Buddhist priest, rather than go ahead and build the school, even though the Church is in a legal position to do so. Respect and co-operation seem very appropriate in the aftermath of a bloody war that was fought over just these kinds of differences.

I hope the project goes ahead because there are countless numbers of young people like Kumara who need a chance to learn a trade. The class that Kumara joins in Badulla has 24 students, six of whom are women. The World University Students Canada (WUSC) money that funds in part this Electrical Technology course is particularly interested in encouraging the vocational training of women. Considering that over 60,000 men lost their lives in the 19-year internal war, there are many women who are raising families alone. The choices for these women-led families are few. Many leave Sri Lanka and work as domestics in the Middle East, Greece, and other countries, sending their salaries home. I spoke to one young boy who had not seen his mother for three years.

Bishop Leo's also provides training for refrigeration and air- conditioning maintenance, TV repairs, secretarial and computer work. A small library contains a few shelves of books, all donated by overseas donors and some outdated by fifty years. The English teaching master sets out three or four daily newspapers in the little alcove off the library that serves as a reading room. Each morning a few students are reading the papers before class. Another facility for students is the clean washrooms with flush toilets--a special feature in a country where public lavatories are few and of questionable hygiene. There are many reasons why Kumara's mother is grateful for his entry into Bishop Leo's.

Don Bosco Institutes

There are other agents of the Roman Catholic Church who are playing a key role in educating the disadvantaged learner in Sri Lanka. On a weekend excursion to Kandy, an ancient capital of Sri Lanka before the colonial era, we visited the Don Bosco Institute.

With funding from the Italian religious order of the Salesians (founded by St. Don Bosco), as well as the gift of a building from the German government, the Don Bosco school on a hillside in Kandy is operating in what is essentially a construction site. Workers are adding another floor and renovating the existing building. Father Dixon, a dynamo of faith and good works, showed us around the space that will be used for a bakery, an auto mechanics shop, and the electrical technology lab, as well as space for a new dormitory, a meeting room, and classrooms for elementary students. Eventually Father Dixon hopes to accommodate 300 students.

In the meantime sixty-five boarders and another sixty day students were taking classes in the courtyard amidst the rubble and anywhere else they could find a bit of space. The children ran up steps without any railings, leapt over wide gaps in flooring, and generally got on with the business of learning in a building zone that would definitely be off limits in North America to all but those in hard hats and safety boots. After classes and on weekends, the staff and students moved earth and materials to where they were needed for the next stage of work.

I told Father Dixon that I was surprised by the number of students and their ages--some looked as young as ten. Father Dixon said that when they turn up he cannot turn them away despite the unfinished project and the shortage of funds. He told us, "God will provide." And He does.

If Father Dixon had waited until the construction was completed, he might have lost some of the students to the streets and perhaps a life of prostitution and drug running. The boarders are those without families, the marginal young people that a Third World country can't afford to care for. At the Don Bosco, they are fed and clothed and educated; and they seemed to be happy and busy.

One of the guiding principles of a Don Bosco is to keep the boys active. The students make good use of a small room filled with weight-lifting equipment. They all have chores to do. Father Dixon has "acquired" some musical instruments and a sound system from a generous donor, and the boys learned to read music and play the guitars, drums, and other instruments in the last six months.

We arrived on the Feast of Saint Mary and were treated to a band concert that rocked the rafters and got us all up dancing. To the claps and encouragement of their friends, a steady stream of vocalists waited for their turn at the mike to sing. After the concert, a service followed in the chapel, and then a buffet-style meal with the boys' favourite dishes. Warmth and camaraderie filled the space that will one day house a great Don Bosco institute. After supper, the boys on dish patrol carried the dishes to the open courtyard and washed up. The sound of their laughter and goodbyes followed us down the road as we left.

After five weeks, my husband and I were on our way home to Canada with our minds and our hearts a bit more open to what life in a Third World country is like. We also gained a lot of respect for what the Catholic Church is doing in Sri Lanka. People like Father Ignatius, Father Dixon, and Bishop Winston renewed our faith in the goodness that a few caring people can achieve.

Susan McLure lives in Calgary, AB, and is a retired school teacher. A posting to Sri Lanka for her husband led to this experience of the role of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka
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Author:McLure, Susan
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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