Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, rests comfortably on the western coastal region of the country, far enough north to have escaped the brunt of the giant tsunami waves that devastated vast areas of Asia on Dec. 26 last year.
I was attending a regional ecumenical meeting on post-tsunami reconstruction. The business-as-usual scenes in Colombo did little to create a sense of urgency. Streets were crowded, stores appeared to be doing a thriving business and even tourist areas were regaining their life. However, a one-day trip to areas hit hard by the tsunami brought the terrible reality into our experience.
As our bus slowly moved down the road south leading to Galle, the destruction quickly became evident. Wreckage littered the land where villages, churches and Buddhist temples had once existed in calm harmony. Groups of people picked through the debris here and there, searching yet for some possessions they might still salvage and use, while others sat forlornly in the ruins of houses and gardens, perhaps unable to find the energy to go on.
The bus was eerily silent as we watched the scenes pass by, imagining what the people must have felt and experienced as the waves tore through their lives that fateful day. In only 20 minutes, nearly 60,000 lives were taken away, with many thousands of others traumatized beyond complete healing.
As I watched the scenes of destruction along the road, my eyes suddenly caught on a bright splash of color amidst the blocks of broken cement, rebar, tiles and bricks. A delicate bush growing beside the shattered remains of a once-solid house glistened with an abundance of brilliant red flowers. This was the first sign of hope that day. Nature was healing itself.
And our time in Colombo and Galle brought other signs of hope and healing, not only from Nature, but also from those we refer to as the "victims of the tsunami." These are the ones we see in our newspapers and on television, weeping pitifully amidst what little is left of their lives. We pity them. Our sympathy for them brings tears to our eyes.
Yes, they have lost almost everything. Their spirits are shattered. But they are also the ones nurturing the healing process. They are not just victims, but also heroes, for they have helped each other survive this horrific experience. A Sri Lankan pastor perhaps summarized it best when he said, "God's divineness surfaced in people of all faiths."
We heard a story from Thailand of local people who had lost homes, businesses and family members but who spent time consoling foreign tourists before tending to their own pain. They apologized to the tourists that their holidays in Thailand ended so abruptly and terribly. These Thai individuals became angels of mercy for some tourists, holding them up as they struggled to deal with their own losses.
From Sri Lanka came a story that brought to mind Christ's feeding of the 5,000. A group of indigenous people, looked down on by others as less than human, survived the tsunami waves and then, for three days, until rescue teams could arrive, fed those who had always discriminated against them. They did this despite the fact that they had barely enough to feed themselves. Surely this is a reflection of the divineness of God in all its sacrificial compassion.
The stories are many, but rarely told. On television and in newspapers, we see the heroic efforts of governments and large aid organizations in bringing succor to the survivors. They are praised for their humanitarian efforts, and indeed their efforts have been life-saving and welcomed.
But let us also pay attention to the heroic efforts of the victims of this tsunami to nurture and to heal. Like the plant blooming beside the shattered house, these victims truly reflect the divineness of God and can bring to all of us a feeling of hope and spiritual renewal if we but have the ears to hear and the eyes to see.