Modern missionaries

doctor with a patient in sri lankaBEN GRUNDY

The word ‘missionary’ may conjure an image of old-world, and perhaps outdated, Christian missional work in developing countries.

However missionary placements are often a matter of practical and professional support for partner Church communities throughout the world.

Rev John Bottomley and Margaret Neith are certainly not your ‘traditional’ missionaries.

John and Margaret are now five months into a six-month-long missionary program in Sri Lanka with the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India.

Throughout the years Margaret and John have developed close ties with Sri Lanka through volunteering and advocacy. So when they retired from the UCA agency Creative Ministries Network at the end of 2014, a volunteer placement in Sri Lanka seemed like a natural fit.

During the missionary placement, John has been working on a major history project and assisting with finance issues while also contributing pastoral support and training programs. Margaret is working to support projects for the Jaffna College and the Centre for Holistic Healing (CHH).

The CHH provides healthcare and other services for communities in rural areas, with limited access to support.

Margaret recently attended the CHH’s free mobile health clinic in a remote region south of Jaffna, where many communities live with visible reminders of Sri Lanka’s decade’s long civil war.

“Thaya Thiagarajah, director of the CHH, asked me to accompany her and a medical team on a visit to the Konavil district of Vanni,” Margaret said.

“I have not seen such poverty up close before – this is where the worst battle of the civil war took place.

“The area is one of saddest I have seen since arriving in Sri Lanka this year.

“Some of the houses are really just huts with one or two rooms. Cooking is done outside on a fire and water is drawn from wells.

“Some homes are made of bare concrete bricks with unlined tiled or tin roofs, and others are just palm leaf thatch. Two blue emergency tents, first supplied by a charity at the end of the war, have been used as a home by one local family for the past six years.

“Some of the concrete houses still bear the marks of shells and bombs.”

Many communities in Sri Lanka’s regional areas have limited access to healthcare, as travel and associated cost can be prohibitive. More than 300 people came for treatment from many surrounding villages throughout the day.

“When we arrived there was already a long line of people waiting patiently,” Margaret said.

“The patients were all ages, including many mothers and children.”

Margaret said that during the health clinic’s visits social workers, doctors and other staff keep an eye out for people with particularly severe health problems and other issues.

“I met one little child, Niroshan, whose situation was quite concerning,” she said.

“This seven-year-old boy was wearing grubby clothes and was very thin. I was told he was doing well at school and has potential to succeed in his education, but that his home situation was not good.”

The child and his two siblings were living in a tiny house with their grandparents because both their parents were killed during the war. The grandparents, in poor health themselves, had very little income, surviving on meagre subsistence farming.

Due to the intervention of CHH, Niroshan’s family is being supported with material aid and funding will be provided to support the children’s education.

Reflecting on her time in Sri Lanka, Margaret said she has been particularly struck by the effects of the civil war.

“Many people have shrapnel scars – one girl had an enormous scar on her head and suffers from headaches,” she said.

“Her younger sister was also blinded in one eye during the bombing.

“There are times when I can’t help but reflect on the contrast between the circumstances of people I’ve met and my own life back in Melbourne.

“It’s been a privilege to see first-hand the benefits that free medical clinics are bringing to isolated communities.

“I’ve been touched by the patience of those who wait to be treated and by the kindness and support of the volunteers who help run the clinics.”

As well as being involved with the practical work of the Jaffna Diocese, Margaret and John have also been warmly welcomed into the Church and broader community.

“Despite the challenges of climate, language and culture, without reservation we are so glad that we made the decision to come here,” Margaret said.

“We’ve so been warmly welcomed into the Jaffna community.

“We’ve set up residence in the newly renovated Jaffna College guest house and have been able to continue with our Tamil language classes.”

Both Margaret and John are contributing to English learning through Conversation Clubs with teachers and students and would be happy to assist ESL or TESL teachers interested in volunteering in Sri Lanka.

To contact John and Margaret email

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