The former Negombo chapel where Steve attended - 12 members the first time he went there in 2000.
Fourteen years ago while studying a dialect of Tamil spoken by the Catholic fishermen of Negombo, Steve attended church here with a very small group of people. He came to love them and they loved him back. Many of them are still friends with him these many years later. And so, today, he anxiously returned to church with these never-forgotten friends, with Elanor and me in tow.
The new Negombo chapel, completed in 2010 - currently housing between 500 and 600 members.
And what a reception it was! There were hugs, there were kisses, there were handshakes, there were pats on the back, there were tears, there were smiles, as word spread throughout the building that Bonta had returned and people came running to greet him. He was given a king's welcome by these wonderful people that he holds so dear.
As the wife of their great friend, I was also warmly welcomed and greeted with the traditional pressing of cheeks, enveloping hugs from the women, and hearty handshakes from the men. One of the men very enthusiastically told me, "You deserve many congratulations for being Steve's wife!" And as I sat in my Sunday School class, I could hear a growing murmur that eventually stopped the lesson until it died down again, as pointing fingers and head nods and whispers of "Bonta's wife! Bonta's wife!" announced my presence to everyone in the room. The excited outpouring of mutual esteem between Steve and his old friends and their families and even the people he had never met but who had heard of him from the others was honestly like nothing I have witnessed before.
I attended Sunday School in Sinhalese, with some explanations of the discussions being provided in English. But, one of my talents is being able to understand, even if only in small and simple ways, what others are saying when they speak in other languages, and this experience was no different. Between the anglicized words found in Sinhala, the scripture references, the study guide, and the brief explanations of what others were saying, I had no trouble following the gist of the lesson after just a few minutes, and then helped an older woman visiting Sri Lanka from Finland to follow the gist of the lesson as well. She, by her own admission, does not speak English very well, but between the sections I was pointing out to her in my English language scriptures, the very simple summaries of what the teacher said, and some pantomime, she was also able to follow the lesson. She and her husband came here to meet a girl whose schooling they have sponsored since she was young. This young woman is about to graduate from university in Europe, and they came to celebrate this tremendous accomplishment with her.
Elanor experienced some culture shock as the day passed by. We told her that we were guests in this country, and that as guests, we needed to make sure that we respect the language, culture, and customs of the people here. Part of this includes her attending her Sunday School (Primary) classes in Sinhala, not English. We want her to learn some Sinhalese while we are here. She is a little anxious about that, but I explained to her that we believe she can do it. After all, her step-sister Amber learned Inuktitut when she and I lived among the Inuit for two years in northern Canada, and there is no reason why she can't do the same here in Sri Lanka.
After church we were treated to lunch by one of Steve's closest friends here at a roadside open air restaurant usually frequented by locals found not far from the chapel. Served family style and all-you-can-eat, we feasted on basmati rice, curried manioc, onion pickle, jackfruit mash, thin noodles with carrots, a grilled mackerel-like fish with spiced gravy, barbecue chicken, and tiny dried fish with coconut shreds. Total cost? 1108 Sri Lankan rupees - about $8.65 total for all four of us.
Sri Lanka is, in many respects, a third-world country. There is a lot of garbage everywhere you look. Mangy dogs roam free. Street vendors and small sidewalk boutiques line every available space in some places. We paid less than a dollar for the same adaptor we could have bought at Walmart back home for $12. Our hotel costs about $35 per night. Yesterday our tuktuk driver spent close to an hour taking us to downtown Negombo so we could buy adaptors, fruit, and anti-histamines for Elanor, and it cost us 600 rupees - $4.70. A beggar came into our church today looking for 10 rupees - 7 cents - to buy rice.
But don't let any of the above fool you. These people are generous and kind and good-hearted. They are modest, well-kept, and dress well - skirts and blouses or dresses or traditional attire for the women, dress shirts and slacks or wraps and well-shined shoes for the men. Even the few locals that we have seen wearing our typical Western leisure clothing look nothing like Westerners do in Western clothing - nothing is dirty, frayed, offensive, immodest, baggy. At the beach last night there were throngs and throngs of people of all ages enjoying the sand, the ocean, the beachside Valentine's Day concert / political rally, with nary a bikini in sight. The only immodestly dressed people we saw were two European men wearing speedos, one American woman wearing a one piece swimsuit that would be considered completely modest back home, and two fisherman who stripped to their underwear and dove into the warm waves to clean away the results of their day's labours before they headed home.
And their spirit is unquenchable. We met a woman at church today with the brightest smile, the most loving eyes, the most welcoming words...and yet her story is one that would have broken most people. She was originally from the south of Sri Lanka, but came to Negombo after the 2004 tsunami as a refugee. For three months she looked for her youngest son, who had been washed out to sea by those terrible waves. For three months this mother never gave up hope. And when she finally began to despair of ever seeing her son again, she found some church members here in Negombo who told her to keep having faith and helped her to look for him. And, beyond all miracles, she found him. She had been a devout Buddhist her entire life, but became a member of our church after experiencing the love and care and compassion and help of the members here. In her words, "For everyone around the world, tsunamis are terrible problems. But for me, our tsunami was a blessing, a wonderful blessing in my life, because it brought me here, where I could be with these good people." A man whom Steve has known for a long time here grew up as the son of the leader of another church here in Sri Lanka. He had been granted a full scholarship to study medicine at one of the best medical schools in India, but gave it all up to be here with these members.
As I heard life story after life story - all told with cheerful faces with no regrets - it struck me that while we were given the royal treatment, these people were the real celebrities. Celebrities inspire awe and humility in us, a desire to want what they have and to be like them. If I can learn to be half as joyful, half as hopeful, half as optimistic as these good people, I will consider myself to be very blessed indeed.
A few more sights from today....
No idea what kind of tree this flower grows on, but each flower lasts for only one day before it falls to the ground with a loud whump that is audible from our balcony three stories above!