Having travelled to Sri Lanka several times between 1987 and 1998, I thought it was time to go again. There have been quite a few changes since my last visit. The civil war which had crippled the country for 30 years had ceased and reconstruction was well underway. And there is now an ecclesia in Negombo, where worship is conducted in several languages – Sinhalese, Tamil, Urdu and English.
A team from Perth consisting of Sister Sharon Jalawadi, my two eldest children, Erica and William, and myself was assembled. A Sinhalese brother, Malik, would accompany us as we travelled north to Jaffna, the capital city of the Northern Province. I have always liked trains and Sri Lanka has a fine example of a colonial British railway system throughout the country. We settled in for the journey; our second class tickets gave us an allocated seat with the freedom to wander the carriages and talk to other travellers. After a few delays, the journey from Colombo to Jaffna took 11 hours.
There were some interesting conversations along the way. A retired army major joined me in the carriage doorway. He joined the army in 1988 at 20 years of age. He still has some duties in the army and was travelling to Vavunia. He is involved in the clearance of mines around the Mannar district and the buttresses around the Elephant Pass area where the Tamil Tigers were blockaded. I introduced myself and told him what I had done in the past and what I was doing now. I gave him our flyer and a copy of Israel: God’s People, God’s Land. He said that he had recently been in Jordan and was familiar with the region. He got off at Vavunia to continue his service.
A strange place
The railway from Vavunia to Jaffna is completely new. Track, signals and stations have been completely rebuilt. The communications towers and systems are all newly constructed. There is little evidence of the battles that were fought in this district. We arrived after dark in this strange place and settled at an old Dutch guest house called Sarras.
We had an old list of contacts and we started our search, but many people have moved away from this area. We managed to locate a few homes where the person had moved to Colombo or moved on to an unknown address. The new occupants received some Gospel literature printed in their own Tamil language. Was this work in the Jaffna suburbs wasted time? I don’t think so: more people received the word, a message of hope, and it led us to our next objective.
A Bible class
As we walked Somasundaram Avenue, we passed a house with a large sign advertising independent Pastor Jonathan. We went to the entry and enquired. The Pastor was not home; however, his son explained there was a Bible Class the same evening at 5.00 p.m. We wrote a note that we would like to attend and continued looking for contacts.
We then investigated the Dutch fort where the Tamil Tigers made their last stand. The fort is being reconstructed, although much of it is in fine condition, well worth the time to explore.
After a short rest at Sarras, we arrived at the Pastor’s home. The meeting was in full swing as we entered and we were motioned by the son, who was leading praise, to five chairs set at the back of the enclosed verandah. Pastor Jonathan was not present. At one stage I was called outside to meet two of the men, who informed me that this was a special first meeting for 2016 and they would be conducting business; I would have 15 minutes and then we would have to leave. I returned to my seat and the praise session, which soon morphed into shrieking and what could be described as speaking in tongues. There were about 20-30 people and I wondered what I could possibly say to these people. They sang the song ‘Give thanks’ in Tamil and English, and then I was called upon.
I was able to acknowledge that their love for God was evident by their praise. I referred to the song they had just sung and repeated a few lines. I asked them, “When?” When would the weak be strong? When would the poor be rich? This led me to the return of Christ and anticipation of the kingdom on earth. After a reading from Luke 21 and Acts 1, I was able to refer to their own recent distress of nations. Christ will return for the greatest reconstruction project ever. I think we were able to leave them with a short but sound message.
I sat down and then Pastor Jonathan appeared. He sang a song accompanied by hand drum which seemed to go on for a long time. I found an opportunity and managed to interrupt, citing their business meeting as our excuse. We made to leave and then the Pastor wanted a photo taken. We distributed our flyers and left them with Tamil literature. We were then ushered through the kitchen and into the lounge where the son (Jonathan) brought us drinks and started to talk about another meeting. We explained that for the next evening we were available, but then we were returning to Colombo – he was to call if he could arrange something at such short notice. We offered to send Tamil literature for their group and he was happy with this. We left but did not hear from him again.
One like unto the Son of Man
We left our accommodation early next morning to catch the Colombo train at 7 a.m. I felt as though I had not found what I was looking for. We had connected in a small way with Jaffna and hopefully provided a starting point for further visits; however, I felt that there was something missing.
Then a man found us. Kingsley, a 57 year old, appeared from nowhere as we were considering which platform we had to leave from. He gave me a Watchtower magazine and started to tell me about the end times. He asked me about the seed of the woman in Genesis 3:15. He guided us through the underpass to the opposite platform and we said farewell. Kingsley had third class tickets; we had second. Once the train got rolling I made my way towards the back carriages. He was sitting alone and we continued our discussion. He took me to Daniel 7:13-14 and asked, “One like unto the Son of Man – who is this?” His English was very good. He used my pocket Bible as though it were his own, and turned to Exodus 6:2-3 as we discussed the name of God. Then we considered Exodus 33:20 and the Psalms. He followed the line of thinking from 1 Corinthians 15 and asked when Jesus came. He expressed surprise at my response “2,000 years ago”. His Bible knowledge was superb, but as well as this, his attitude and humble manner was thrilling.
He takes the Colombo train each day to work at a coconut factory in Pillai to make ends meet. Pillai is approximately one hour towards Colombo. He said he had retired from his government job; more likely he was dispossessed. Kingsley spent six months in a displaced persons camp in Charakachcheri in 2008. I asked him if he was scared. “Yes,” he said, “but God did not forsake us.” I am sure this man is one of God’s own, genuine and sincere. His father died in Putulam aged 87, but Kingsley could not leave the camp to bury his father.
As the train came to a halt an hour down the line, we said our farewells. He walked down the platform with a slight tired limp. Had I found what I had been looking for? No, he had found me, and he has always been found of God, but he has had a difficult path to walk. Our journey to Jaffna was complete. I pray that one of us will “find him out” again. Incidentally, when I was taking the details of his name he smiled: Thevathasan means son of God!