A Sri Lankan pilgrim tale

By Larry Marshall

“Pilgrimage touches on many aspects of human existence, signifying not only a physical journey to a special place but also an inner spiritual journey. Pilgrimage typically provides links of common identity in plural social systems.”

IN August 2012 a group of Sri Lankan born Uniting Church ministers embarked on a brave pilgrimage back to their embattled homeland. A majority had migrated during the three decades of civil war.  More than one hundred thousand people died in those terrible years.

That war ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by the armed forces of the 20_Jaffna-Churchgovernment. However, reconciliation and lasting peace are a work in progress in a society still traumatised by grief and mistrust between ethnic groups. Returning to a war ravaged place was a journey fraught with mixed feelings of elation and trepidation.

There were four Tamils, three Burghers (mixed Eurasian Sri Lankans) and a Sinhalese in the group, as well as the director of the Commission for Mission and a chaplain to guide our spiritual journey with morning and evening devotions. The mental baggage of conflicting memories we carried was heavy in the air as we flew out of Melbourne.

We learned that a pilgrimage is a rich multi-layered process. It cannot be too carefully planned in that it is mostly about what happens to, and for, the pilgrims along the way. Some of this is about journeying in a geographical space that is identifiable and where personal memories are evoked by school buildings, churches, streetscapes and people from the past.

However, there is also the more emotionally charged inner journey of the pilgrimage that is unplanned and unfolds slowly as the pilgrims coalesce into a small family along the way.

It was in this privileged space that we began to share our pain and tears, our hidden grief and longing, our guilt and our deep yearnings for forgiveness and reconciliation across the various divides.

We heard of a father who was shot dead in the street; of the necessary bravery of facing men with guns to protect frightened children; of burying the dead in makeshift graves; of being saved by others who risked their lives for you; of coming to the painful decision to leave this sacred homeland forever and journey across the seas carrying both fear and gnawing guilt at the safe haven ahead whilst the war raged for those left behind.

As pilgrims we agreed that we received much more from this journey into ourselves than we had anticipated or prepared for. The various gifts we received included new insights, new perspectives on forgiveness and reconciliation, and most importantly a sense of shared hope for the future of Sri Lanka.

This last inspiration came to us via the young people of an organisation called Sri Lanka Unites. Mostly under 30 years old, they include Sinhalese and Tamils.

These young people had been taught to hate the ‘other’ but now they have come together through the story of Jesus and are committed to working for reconciliation and forgiveness. They want to write a new story for Sri Lanka. They will include Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim, working together on building trust and forgiveness for a peaceful future.

A Continuing Pilgrimage – Geneva and Melbourne

On returning to Melbourne the UCA ministers were determined to find a way to continue this internal life journey and share what we could of what we had learned with our diaspora community.

First an opportunity to continue the pilgrimage came almost immediately with an invitation from the World Council of Churches.  Just two weeks after we returned from Sri Lanka four of us were invited to contribute our learning to an important consultation in Geneva with the National Council of Churches in Sri Lanka (NCCSL).

There are 86,000 Sri Lankan-born Australians and a majority of these people fled the war. Tamil and Sinhalese communities are still deeply divided here in Melbourne. There is much work that the UCA pilgrims can do to encourage respectful dialogues across ethnicity and faith.

Building peace amongst the diaspora needs to begin with members of the UCA community and expand by inviting those of other faiths into this conversation. Christians are only 7 per cent of the faithful in this multi-faith community (Buddhist 70 per cent, Hindu 13 per cent, Muslim 10 per cent).

This work has already begun with Hi20_Pilgrims-to-the-Temple-of-the-Tooth-Buddhist-Holy-Placendu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist members of the diaspora sitting with the UCA pilgrims to look at what is possible in the near future.

We have decided that we may need a second, multi-faith pilgrimage, to learn from each other and further expand our vision. In fact very soon, in September 2013, four of the pilgrims will return to Sri Lanka to strengthen these bonds, to meet again with the young people from Sri Lanka Unites and work to support the National Council of Churches.

As peace-loving Sri Lankans everywhere struggle to nurture this fragile peace and find the means for post-war reconciliation and forgiveness, we strongly believe that the diaspora can, and must, play a crucial and positive role in this process.

Larry Marshall is a project officer with Uniting through Faith.

The Kataragama Pilgrimage: Hindu-Buddhist Interaction

One of the most remarkable ritual events in Sri Lanka is the annual pilgrimage to the shrine of the deity Skanda at Kataragama, located in the desolate south-eastern jungle. The pilgrimage occurs each year during two weeks in the lunar month of July-August, and is attended by many thousands of worshippers. Skanda, who is known among Hindus as Murukan, is a central figure in the pantheons of both Sinhalese Buddhism and Tamil Hinduism, the two major religious traditions of the island country; his shrine at Kataragama constitutes the major institutional intersection of the two faiths. Temples, priests, and pilgrims of both Hinduism and Buddhism are found at the site; Muslims and Christians also attend the annual festivities. The atmosphere is one of tolerance and ecumenism. In 1966, German scholar Paul Wirz observed in his book Kataragama, the Holiest Place in Ceylon: “All religions are represented at Kataragama and … all are getting on well with each other. All ritual differences seem to be resolved … all are reconciled with each other and even the feeling of caste is completely forgotten.”

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