By Larry Marshall
The Uniting Church’s Uniting Through Faiths project was recently involved in a major initiative aimed at bringing together the divided community of Sri Lankans living in Melbourne.
This large, multi-faith and multi-lingual community of educated and successful Australians is beginning the difficult post-war journey of reconciliation and peace-building, both here and in their homeland, after 30 years of protracted and bloody civil war.
Harmony Day 2014 – held on a Sunday afternoon in March – was so successful it will now become an annual fixture in the Sri Lankan Diaspora’s calendar. More than 300 people attended this inaugural community event which was open to all Sri Lankans and friends of Sri Lanka.
Hosted at the beautiful Wesley College campus in Glen Waverley, the day included sharing food together, enjoying a concert and then partaking of the traditional glue that brings Sri Lankans together – a game of cricket on the green.
This important work of healing was instigated by UCA ministers from Tamil, Sinhalese and Burgher backgrounds.
The ministers were encouraged to embark on a pilgrimage back to Sri Lanka in 2012 by Commission for Mission director Rev David Pargeter. That experience of pilgrimage energised the group to continue their work across faiths and ethnic divides. One of them, Rev
Raja Rajakulendran, even chose to return as a volunteer to Sri Lanka after living away for 20 years. The other ministers focussed on the divided diaspora here in Melbourne.
Harmony Day was organised by a group called Sri Lanka Invites, headed by eminent Sri Lankan Professor David De Kretser (former Governor of Victoria) and Judge Christy Weeramantry (formerly on the International Court of Justice). They led a group of Sri Lankans of various backgrounds who are continuing a journey of peace and reconciliation. Their primary aim is to pave the way for Sri Lankans living in Melbourne to meet and form links beyond and across religious, ethnic, political, cultural and other divides.
Celebrations began at noon with a feast of spicy Sri Lankan food provided by Shanaka Fernando’s famous ideological restaurant Lentil as Anything, based at the Abbotsford Convent. This not-for-profit community restaurant has no prices on its menu. One pays only by donation, and this ‘contributes towards a world where respect, generosity, trust, equality, freedom and kindness rule’. The conversations around the food began the healing.
Lunch was followed by a vibrant multi-cultural concert of dance, poetry, music and song. It began with children of all religions lighting the traditional oil lamp. This was followed by the children’s choir singing ‘We are One’ from the Lion King, they sang:
We are one, you and I
We are like the earth and sky
One family under the sun
Professional dance group, the AMA Dance Academy then fused the Kandyan (Sinhalese) dance style with the northern (Tamil) Bharatnatyam style symbolising this coming together.
Guests heard inspirational speeches from two young people about a youth organisation working for reconciliation back home. Sri Lanka Unites brings senior school children together at an annual conference where they discuss, work and play together for five days before finding the healing strength to ask for forgiveness for the pain of the war. Five hundred youth embrace and forgive each other. Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist all representing the richness of our diversity.
We finished the concert with choirmaster Rushan Hewawasam leading all 300 guests in a rousing chorus of ‘You Raise Me Up’.
And finally, the icing on the cake – the cricket match. This was a 20/20 encounter played with great heart by two young multi-ethnic and multi-faith teams brought together just for this event. They were joined in competition for the Harmony Cup, one team from Lentil as Anything versus a team from Sri Lanka Unites – a beautiful ending to a perfect day of Harmony in action.
This event was supported by the Commission for Mission’s Uniting Through Faiths Project and funded from the generous gifts of support from the Lenten appeal run by SHARE in 2013 which aimed at bringing the Sri Lankan diaspora into meaningful interaction.