Rising with resilient hope | Sunday Observer

Rising with resilient hope

26 May, 2019

Love, tolerance and peace are the need of the hour. Our motherland was sent into shock and grief since the Black Sunday attacks. Christians are slowly but surely overcoming this terrible injustice that was violently inflicted on them- as they knelt to pray in the house of God.

In the May 5 edition of our newspaper, I wrote of how 100 young sailors cleaned the entire church in one day. Human blood was washed that day. This was on April 27, and the very next day a group of 250 men and women of the Sri Lanka Navy began one of the largest restoration operations in Naval and local church history. I visited the Shrine of Saint Anthony on May 17,(Friday) with Lt. Commander Sudusinghe. Normally the church is packed to capacity on Tuesdays and Fridays. Today there was an aura that I could not understand.

The front of the church had been cordoned off. Alert naval sentries stood watch.

The entire church was covered with steel scaffolding, as masons and carpenters were climbing up and down. Vehicles passing by on the opposite side slowed down in solemn reverence. Shops selling accessories for worship were open but empty. A crippled man who sold candles sat still, his eyes gazing into the heavens.

We made our way into the church. There were noises coming from cutters and grinding tools. A cloud of permanent dust infused with the aura of fresh paint was present. Young sailors were moving back and forth- some carrying wooden planks, others carrying bucket loads of cement whilst another crew were sorting out coiled wires. A temporary office, comprising of a few desks and computers had been set up by the navy. The lead Project Engineer in charge of this mighty reawakening is Captain Ranjan Madegoda, a humble man of few words. He is busy walking around motivating his crews.

We walked into the office of the resident priest. At the entrance a group of electricians were fixing a main circuit box, above which was suspended a framed photograph of the Pope. The floor of the priest’s office was covered with dust and a kind staff member quickly brought us some chairs. Rev. Fr. Raj Fernando was at his desk, his eyes closed in prayer. He is emotionally moved by the cowardly attack that caused the death of many Christians and the extensive damage to the historic church. He explained “Everyone knows the significance of this church. People from every culture and ethnic background came here. We lovingly welcomed them all. I am very happy about the manner in which the navy stepped in to assist us. It is a great help in this hour of need. Son, my people are coming to me as their shepherd and sharing their shock and sorrow. The reverend fathers and sisters are now involved in trauma counseling. We have children who have lost a parent or parents who have lost a child”. The priest has a great challenge ahead of him. For indeed we can build and repair the church, but the hurting hearts need loads of love and comfort. The church is also assisted by the Faith Animation Team in terms of inspiring the flock from Seth Sarana (Caritas) - the social arm of the Catholic Church. Rev. Fr. Raj Fernando is also thankful to the many that have silently made donations via the fund opened by His Eminence the Archbishop of Colombo.

We walked into the sanctum. Scaffolding had been erected to reach the 60 foot high ceiling. Young sailors strapped to safety harnesses were completing the plastering process. The damaged tiles had already been restored by another crew.

The electrical repairs are overseen by Commodore Leelaratna and Commander Nadeeka Wijekoon, a female officer is in charge of materials and labour. One of the young engineers commented “Most of these men are from SLNS Rangala Base. They leave camp by 4.30am. We enter the church and start work by 5am. We have a short time for breakfast and lunch. Initially we were sad to see the damage within this church. Most days, we finish our work by 8pm.

On some days we worked till midnight. In addition, colleagues from our sports teams - rugger, soccer and netball find time to come and work alongside us.

We walked past the harbour wall and saw a large tent where tea was being served to the sailors. The small side chapel was open for prayer. A few devotees had come, after passing through a body search by the police.

I heard an old man crying aloud asking for divine justice on those who organised this deadly attack. This is the united cry of many Christians. One officer who has faithfully been here since Easter Sunday is Commander Sunanda Appuhamy, the Executive Officer of SLNS Rangalla. He said “I am from Negombo, and rushed here when informed of the blast. The sight of blood and death was terrible. Since that day my men have set up the security perimeter and guarded the church”. Navy Commander Admiral Piyal De Silva was among the first senior military officers on the scene. He recalled “I told Rev. Father that my men will work around the clock to restore this church. We aim to finish before the Annual Feast”.

An American businessman named Joseph Ferrell, came forward and made a significant contribution in consultation with the Navy Commander. Also Admiral De Silva has made regular visits to inspect the restoration. The dedicated work of the navy has now been acclaimed by Christians around the world.

As we walked past the chapel a little girl had lit a candle. She looked at me and smiled her gentle heart full of joy and faith. It is this kind of faith that will help all Sri Lankans overcome this tragedy. We will overcome.