The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Tsunami aid about relief, not religion

Tsunami aid about relief, not religion

Wednesday, March 9, 2005


When asked why God let the tsunamis happen to Southern Asia, the Rev. Kugan Rajadurai didn't hesitate.

"It was a sign," he said, "that these are the last days. You must prepare yourself to meet Jesus Christ. Repent for your sins."

Standing on the beach at Batticaloa, the pastor voiced what some evangelical Christians believe about the Dec. 26 disaster: that their God had issued a wake-up call to predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka, Hindu India and Muslim Indonesia.

To those who believe in religious freedoms, that's an alarming statement, considering how many Christian relief organizations have flocked to Southern Asia recently. They would seem bent on evangelism, and there have been isolated reports of Christians distributing tracts in tsunami-affected areas.

But when 13 medics and engineers affiliated with Faith International, a Tacoma children's aid agency, traveled to Sri Lanka in late January, a different story unfolded.

"There's a lot of anti-Western, anti-Christian feeling," warned Mohan Seevaratnam, a doctor based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, during his initial meeting with the Faith team. "Deeds, rather than words," he said, would carry Christian relief workers further.

For the next seven days, that proved true. In rented vans, the Faith team crisscrossed this "teardrop of India," engineers installed water-purification systems at orphanages and physicians -- David Ricker and Greg Rurik from Gig Harbor and Maggie Hood from Tacoma -- cared for hundreds of patients in refugee camps.

The team's itinerary had been mapped out by Therese Koelmeyer, a Tacoma native who moved to Sri Lanka 19 years ago to work with a small Christian charity group, the Community Concern Society. In 1989, Koelmeyer and CCS opened the Lotus Buds home for abused and neglected children in Colombo, and today she and her husband, the Rev. Roger Koelmeyer, care for 22 kids there in addition to their three own children.

After the tsunamis, the Koelmeyers discovered a refugee camp jammed with survivors from one of Colombo's beachside slums. The waves had taken every scrap of a community of 1,500 families.

The Koelmeyers and the members of their church, the Gospel Tabernacle of Colombo, plan to relocate the homeless families to land donated by the Sri Lankan government. And if the government doesn't come through with a parcel of property by spring, Therese said they will raise money to buy their own land.

"This is our enormous task," she said, adding, "We do what we do because we love Jesus. But we help absolutely everybody: Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, everybody."

As it turned out, the people on the Faith International relief team weren't uniformly Christian. A pharmacist from Harborview Medical Center, Allison Miller, is Jewish. She had never been inside a church before entering the Gospel Tabernacle. Bud Whitaker, a city engineer from Gig Harbor, was raised Catholic and is now a practicing Buddhist. Ricker is a devout Christian, as is Kerry Eby, a Harborview emergency room doctor who was also on the Faith team.

But the trip was about relief, not religion. Rurik, the pediatrician who treated scores of children during long, hot days on Sri Lanka's eastern and southern shores, never mentioned his church affiliation (if he had any). He did, however, sum up the point of Faith's mission.

"Our biggest impact," Rurik said, "isn't going to be with the medicine. It's making the connection" that aids the healing process. "There's a lot to that one-on-one interaction, knowing that someone cares and is interested in them, just as individuals. With no real agenda, just, 'We're here, we care about you.' "

Some of us have the luxury of sitting around, discussing which God, if any, sent the tsunami. Others just got busy. Roger Koelmeyer, addressing his Gospel Tabernacle congregation three Sundays after the disaster, hailed what he called the "flood" of relief workers who came in the tsunami's wake. Donors and relief workers, local and international, have pooled their resources to help, and "people are working across ethnic lines, across religious lines," he said.

With rebuilding under way, Christian organizations such as the Community Concern Society, World Vision and Catholic Relief Services continue to be driving forces. They have set the best possible example, letting their "deeds, not words," as Seevaratnam urged, speak for their faith. These relief workers understand they can talk a lot about who's going to heaven but their on-the-ground work means more. They also understand that in South Asia and around the world, a non-evangelical work ethic is called for, to promote peace in a diverse society.

Diane Urbani de la Paz is a writer living in Tacoma


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