Last year, eight Australians from the Sri Lankan diaspora travelled back to their homeland on a trip organised through the synod’s Uniting Journeys program.
The Uniting Journey for Peace and Reconciliation brought together eight travellers from each of the four strong faiths in Sri Lanka – Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. Together, the group shared their stories and history and explored each other’s religions.
The civil war in Sri Lanka divided the Tamil and Sinhalese communities for more than 25 years. It resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and many Sri Lankans fled to countries such as Australia. Although the war officially ended in 2009, for many the memories of violence and death still impact on their day-to-day lives.
Participants on the Uniting Journey travelled together to find common ground through sharing their histories and traditions. Storytelling was a major theme of the journey.
Larry Marshall, from the synod’s Uniting through Faith unit, travelled with the group. He said that while it was important for travellers to share stories of their history and cultural past, it was a story of a different kind – a love story – that illustrated the reality of reconciliation.
As Valentine’s Day approaches, Larry Marshall shared this story with Crosslight:
It was already a hot and humid morning in Sri Lanka and Dilan had flown all the way from Sydney just to be at this precise place at this particular time. Although nervous, he was very sure of what he wanted to do on this day.
We were in Jaffna, the northern capital of Sri Lanka.
Dilan walks through the huge doors of the grand Hindu temple clothed in a sarong of pure white. He is bare-chested, as all men must be before the Gods. He has the white ash of impermanence marked across his forehead as he goes forward to meet Sivanjana, the Tamil woman he loves. On this auspicious day he hopes she will accept his ardent request and agree to become his wife.
He sees her now as she enters the grounds of the Nallur Kovil. Sivanjana is resplendent in a beautiful black and white Sari with golden threads, linings that catch the sun as she moves. She is with her friends from the interfaith group of Sri Lankans from Australia with whom she has been travelling for almost two weeks.
He smiles as this young Hindu woman leads Buddhists, Muslims and Christians into this holy place where her family came to pray each week.
Sivanjana knows nothing of this meeting; it has all been carefully arranged by friends with the help of one of the coordinators of this Uniting Journey. Dilan had studied their itinerary and he knew that she would make sure that the group would come to this, her ‘special place’, where he will now pose his big question.
Sivanjana belongs to one of the many Tamil families who escaped the brutal war that raged in Sri Lanka. She was just a small child when her family fled the fighting and came to Sydney.
She is now a very successful professional woman who raises funds to help with projects in small villages hurt by the war, where thousands of war widows are trying to re-build their broken lives. Dilan has come to know her over some years and he loves the strong woman that she is and her passion for this important work. She is also a beautiful dancer – since the age of four she has trained in the classical traditional art of Bharata Natyam, a dance which originated in these Hindu Temples of old Ceylon and South India.
Sivanjana sees him now and her eyes grow wide, her hand flies to her mouth as she shakes her head in disbelief.
How can this be, he should be in Sydney? She strides purposefully towards Dilan in the marble foyer of the temple. Her new friends crowd around asking questions. How will she explain it all? Sivanjana opts to take him with her as she proceeds with the tour of this sacred space sharing the stories of Hindu gods with her new friends as well as with her Christian partner.
Dilan realises that their coming together here is truly symbolic of the intense interfaith journey which her group is part of. It is about challenging prejudice and artificial divisions and finding strength in diversity. It is also about respecting the faith journey that others are on. That is precisely what he and Sivanjana have practised. Because he is a born-again Christian who has fallen deeply in love with this amazing Hindu woman.
Even far away in Australia it was not easy to bring together a young Christian man and a Hindu woman. The issue of marrying into a different faith community transcended even their mutual Tamil ethnicity. Dilan and Sivanjana have faced parental fears of discrimination and found ways to overcome those concerns. Time has healed old wounds and today their families truly embrace this strong interfaith couple.
That fateful day in Jaffna was easy and full of fun, with much teasing and some romantic songs on the tour bus. The group visited a church, a Buddhist temple and another Hindu temple on a nearby island. By evening Sivanjana is emotionally spent and needed a short sleep to get back her energy.
While she slept a package was laid at her feet with jasmine petals all around.
Sivanjana awoke to find new clothes and a letter from Dilan inviting her to a special dinner. At 7pm an old fashioned cart appeared at her hotel, drawn by two white bullocks garlanded with flowers. She is driven the two kilometres to Dilan who is waiting to escort her to the rooftop of his hotel which gives them a view of their beloved city.
The Uniting Journey’s group anxiously waited for Dilan’s text. It arrived at 8.30pm – she said ‘Yes!’ We were all invited to drinks to celebrate this Jaffna/Sydney couple’s interfaith engagement in their home town.
The night became a romantic blur of music, food, photos, toasts and story-telling as Siv and Dilan gathered their new friends of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians together to share their plans for returning to live and work for peace and reconciliation in their warm and beautiful homeland.