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Sri Lanka (2)

S Mahendran & A Peiris

In the goodness of the Lord, the spread of the Gospel in Sri Lanka, and the stabilising of assembly witness, have been blessed greatly in the past 11 years. In the September issue of Believer’s Magazine, something of the history and culture of the island was provided as a background to the report by local brethren in this issue.

Assembly work in the island of Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, began in 1910 when a group of brethren from Great Britain, who were working in business houses, civil service and the plantation areas, decided to meet for worship in a rented house named ‘Pendleton’. A Chinese lady, Mrs Isabel Loos, was saved at a Gospel Meeting conducted by a visiting missionary, Mr Gregson. Subsequently, Mrs Loos purchased land about 500 metres from ‘Pendleton’, built Bethesda Gospel Hall, and donated furniture for its opening in April 1919. Mrs Loos was in her seventies when she was saved. She was baptised by Mr Wilcox, a former principal of Clarence School in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, India who visited Ceylon regularly. In the early years, some of the full-time workers who visited Ceylon to give help in the Lord’s work included Messrs Arthur F Whitty, Charles J Rolls, Handley Bird, A C Rose, Silas Fox and J M Davies. In those days the assembly consisted exclusively of Europeans and Burghers (islanders of colonial descent).

The country gained independence from Britain in 1948. With the development of nationalism, political instability followed, and led to many of the Europeans leaving the country. As a result, numbers in the assembly reduced drastically. The last remaining elder, Mr Fred Collette, emigrated to Australia in 1971 after more than 30 years of dedicated service in the assembly. But God was at work far off in Scotland. A Sri Lankan man and his wife, Mr and Mrs George Nicholas, were saved in 1971 while Mr Nicholas was studying architecture in Aberdeen. When they returned home, they associated themselves with the handful of believers meeting at Bethesda. God used them, many in their extended family were saved and, gradually, the assembly grew. Meetings were expanded, and Tamil and Sinhala language meetings were introduced over the next decade as more and more local people were saved and came into fellowship. In the 1990s, assemblies were established in Vavuniya and Jaffna. A major factor in the expansion was a literature work, with Bible Correspondence Courses being sent all over the island. George Nicholas was involved in the printing, translation and distribution of this literature until his homecall in 2005.

In December 2004, a tsunami struck the island of Sri Lanka, and large parts of the eastern and southern coasts were affected. Brethren from the assembly in Colombo became involved in the relief work, and this brought them into contact with believers on the east coast of the island. Initially, every week the brethren would drive ten hours to the east coast to distribute relief. The journey was not easy as the infrastructure had been damaged, and a large part of the area was caught up in the civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Government forces. After the initial phase of relief work was over, the brethren focused on providing spiritual help to those with whom they had come into contact. Regular Gospel Meetings were held, and many were saved.

During 2005, the brethren in Colombo had made known the need for spiritual help in Sri Lanka to Mr Willie Houston of the Lord’s Work Trust in Kilmarnock. Through him, Mr Phil Coulson visited Sri Lanka to assist in the work. When Mr Coulson started visiting the island regularly there was a wonderful response to his teaching on assembly truths. Many who were newly saved, along with other Christians, made adjustments to bring themselves into line with New Testament teaching. There was a great revival, and suddenly there was a great hunger to know and learn more from the Word of God. Subsequently, several other brethren started to visit the island regularly to give help in the Gospel and in ministry, and this has enabled the Lord’s work in the island to grow.

Since 2005, with the regular visits of gifted Bible teachers and evangelists, the work has been blessed and several new assemblies have been established. However, there were many setbacks along the way as the civil war moved from area to area in the east, and large numbers of believers were displaced. At one stage in 2007, when the war was at a peak, over 250 saints who were refugees were looked after for over 12 months in the Valaichchenai assembly premises. Due to the kindness and generosity of the Lord’s people, these believers were fed and clothed for an entire year. While this situation resulted in believers being displaced from their homes, losing their livelihoods, being separated from families and, in some cases, losing their loved ones as casualties of war, there were also some positive results. Because they were all staying inside the assembly premises, regular Bible teaching was arranged for them and, at the end of the year, they all left with a much deeper understanding of the Word.

The civil war continued until 2009, and the line of control lay a few miles north of the Valaichchenai assembly premises. Every time we had visitors we would arrange meetings on both sides of the ‘border’. This meant that we had to cross the ‘front line’ regularly, resulting in our vehicle and bags being searched, body searches, form filling and answering many questions from both sides in the conflict. In addition, the constant firing of all kinds of weapons of war, including artillery and mortars, with bombs exploding in areas that some of the brethren were visiting, was a new experience for all involved. In addition to the obvious problems that arose from the civil war, much was done to discourage the work from continuing, but God is to be praised and thanked for the exercise and determination, among all the brethren involved, to continue the work.

In 1986 Mr Ponniah Vimalan was saved while working abroad. He returned to Sri Lanka and met with the believers in Colombo. In 1989 he and his family moved to Jaffna and, together with a few believers, started breaking bread in his home. In 1994 the numbers had increased significantly, and a meeting place was rented in the suburb of Thunavi as the work expanded. In 2006 land was purchased and a Gospel Hall was built in Thunavi.

At the peak of the war it was not possible to travel by road to the Jaffna Peninsula in the north of the island. Mr Jack Hay was one of the first Bible teachers to visit Jaffna, and he had to travel by a military transport plane to get there. His teaching of assembly principles had a great impact in Jaffna, and the assembly at Thunavi made some adjustments to come into line with the teaching they received. Mr Hay has since visited Jaffna on many more occasions.

As the work grew, and assemblies were established, land was purchased and meeting places were built.

Five assemblies benefited from new halls in the north and the east, and farmland was purchased to provide jobs. Several believers currently live and work on these farms. Over 40 families that had lost their homes in the tsunami, or in the civil war, were provided with new homes due to the faithful giving of the “household of faith”.

The work has prospered not only in the north and east of the island but in other areas too. In the central hills of Sri Lanka, in the area of Hatton, there is a growing assembly work that is prospering due to the activity of an evangelist called Sivakumar. This area of the island has many tea plantations producing the popular ‘Ceylon Tea’. One of the outreach efforts of the assembly in Hatton is a children’s nursery that provides free care and teaching to the children of the poor tea estate workers. This nursery has operated for the last six years, and has resulted in many new contacts being established. Mr Charles Davidson who, together with Mr Stephen Grant, has visited the island on numerous occasions, began by starting a work in the schools in Hatton and Colombo. Sivakumar would visit schools in Hatton and arranged for the brethren to speak to the children. Over the years hundreds of schools have been visited, and tens of thousands of children have been presented with the Gospel. Mr Davidson also introduced Children’s Gospel Outreach Meetings, which resulted in hundreds of children coming to Gospel Halls on Saturday afternoons.

Please pray for the assemblies in Colombo, Vavuniya, Jaffna, Palai, Mullaitivu, Verugal, Pinnaiyadi, Marnkerny, Ralodai, Vaddavan, Valaichchenai, Alamkulam and Hatton, and for the preservation and prosperity of God’s work in these areas. Prayer will also be appreciated for the seven local full-time workers who are labouring in various parts of the island. Unmentioned in this account of the Lord’s work in Sri Lanka are many others who have helped by visiting, praying and financially supporting the work that has helped to make all this possible. If any further information is required, please contact: info@bethesdagospelhall.com


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