Having been assured by his two sons that ‘Facebook wasn’t something for his generation’, Jebi decided to check it out for himself. He discovered most of his classmates online, set himself up a Page and before too long, was adding the many and varied contacts he made speaking at churches across the country in his capacity as President of Sri Lanka’s largest Protestant church.
“People were commenting on issues on my page, but I thought they might be more open and less ‘polite’ about things that needed to be spoken about if I started an Open Forum for the church,” Jebi tells me when we chat upstairs at the Old Adelaide Inn, where we’re staying with almost 50 other international guests for this week’s National Assembly of the Uniting Church. “It’s proved to be a wonderful way to raise issues and keep up with the life of the church.”
“Keeping up” is vital in a country like Sri Lanka. In 2009, when conflict between Tamil Separatists (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan Government came to an official end, almost 250,000 people were identified as Internally Displaced Persons. They were housed in temporary shelters, without employment and traumatised by the effects of a brutal and long running civil war. 86,000 women were left widowed and shops, schools and places of worship were destroyed.
The Methodist Church has stepped willingly into the breach. Currently at its head is a man who has a deeply personal connection with the conflict.
“I was in Grade Eight when I lived through the first murder of a local MP in my village,” Jebi recalls. “I was a Tamil from the north and part of the minority group during the conflict. From 1983 on I lived as a refugee in my own country. As a theological student I saw more than an opportunity to preach a sermon- I saw an opportunity to live one out.
As a Christian we were the only ones trusted by both sides- the Government and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers)- to reach refugees with food and other supplies in what was known as No Man’s Land. It was an area in between the fighting where people in need lived. When people were suspected of being spys, Christians were able to take the risk of travelling into that area. And that is what I did.”
For his PHD, Jebi went on to study the impact of living as a displaced person, and he has published a book on the conversion experiences of asylum seekers called “Changing of the Gods.” As the President of the Methodist Church, he is now committed to working within his country for universal prosperity and peace between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils.
“Access to education has been badly affected by the conflict, with many children walking 5-10 km to attend school,” Jebi says. “The Methodist church is providing bicycles and study centres in areas where there is no electricity. We’ve set up solar panels in temporary shelters made of palm leaves. We’re also offering vocational training to young men who left schooling and now find themselves with very few options- they are no longer the heroes in their villages, have been rejected by their families and have no way to generate an income. We’re providing them with training for basic vocations like carpentry, masonry and mobile phone repair.”
In partnership with UnitingWorld, a new program will focus on the needs of women and children who have been the victims of war.
“Sri Lanka is traditionally a very patriarchal society and unprotected women and girls are very vulnerable,” Jebi explains. “With so many widows as a result of the conflict, poverty among women and girls is a very significant problem. The exploitation of such women is unfortunately common, and there are pregnancies in girls as young as 13.”
One of the aims of this project is to provide counselling and health support for these young women so that are are able to continue their schooling.
Sri Lanka, like many other nations, is a country of great contrasts. On the one hand, the legacy of war and human rights abuses has left many impoverished and disempowered. On the other, well-educated men and women use Facebook and other social networking sites to discuss, debate and connect with one another to bring about social change. The complexities of engaging in this world are a constant challenge, requiring a dynamic evolving faith and a sharp mind.
From all observations, the President of Sir Lanka’s Methodist Church has both. Jebi says he has come to the National Assembly of the UCA to learn. But as the President of the UCA’s newest partner in South Asia, he also has much to teach us. With his quiet determination, sharp sense of humour and passion for his people, Jebi will be one to follow not only on Facebook but onto the mission field, where’s God’s spirit is very much alive and well among the people of Sri Lanka.