God in the Valley of Laughing Children (Sri Lanka)
by Winfried Friedel, translated by Dorli Gschwandtner
We advance slowly, step by step, trying to avoid the huge, water-filled potholes. Some threaten to swallow our vehicle and we evade their hidden dangers by carefully squeezing past, along the edge of a precipice.
The drive to Lonach, a remote mountain village, is adventurous. But the tortures of the ride are doubly repaid by spectacular views: one green hill follows the next, covered with tea bushes. Our Work & Witness team has joined the local pastor to show the JESUS Film and organize the first church in this village. There are many ways to share the Gospel: Pastor Jude uses modern technology with a DVD player and a projector.
We reach the village after dark. Houses appear on both sides, and children start running alongside our vehicles laughing and waving. Larry, the local Work & Witness coordinator, holds out his hand to the children, who shake it and shout “Uncle Larry”. Then the doors are pulled open. Laughing faces pour into the buses. When the vans arrive at the village square, we get out with difficulty, children clinging to us on all sides.
Proudly they lead us through the village. We are shown into houses where women cook on open fires, and laughter is the main language. The children hold on to us, careful that none of our steps end in a waterhole.
When we return to the village center, the film is showing the first scenes of Luke's gospel. More than 200 people are standing or sitting in front of the flickering screen. All eyes are fixed on the film, and beyond it there is absolute stillness. Our departure is announced by Pastor Jude, but nobody gets distracted. Quietly we retreat, trying not to disturb the people in their first encounter with Jesus. Christ is in the centre of attention now.
On the following evening I join Pastor Jude, Larry, and Dr Dhas, a pastor from India, for the organization service in Lonach. The reception in the village is as cheerful as the day before. A young couple has offered their house for the service. The small home consists of two tiny rooms with a simple cot, some plastic chairs, and an old sofa. Pastor Jude constructs an altar with a table and a white sheet while we wait in the living room, surrounded by children. Dr Dhas tells a Bible story and teaches the children a song. Then we are asked to sit in the chairs by the altar, and the service begins.
47 people are squeezed into a room measuring about four square yards, listening intently to Pastor Jude's words. He explains the night's agenda and introduces elected church officers. Scripture readings are followed by songs. Before the sermon, the people swap with those waiting outside. Again more than forty people press inside. Reverently they absorb each word that passes Dr Dhas's lips. After more than an hour the service ends with prayer and the people say goodbye, smiling, shaking hands.
Some children accompany us to our vehicle. With my flashlight I lead the way. The circle of light darts back and forth, moving forward slowly, towards the van. Finally the beam comes to rest on a child's naked foot. I can distinguish the toes spread wide apart, the dark, wet skin, the lighter toenails. Firmly, securely, and calmly the foot rests in the mud.
God has arrived in the valley of laughing children.
Winfried Friedel visited Sri Lanka as part of a Work & Witness team from Gelnhausen, Germany, in October 2005.