Kuda Payagala, Sri Lanka
- It was Sunday morning and, in this deeply religious land, almost
everyone was in church.
But Gerard Perera was on the beach
preparing for his day as a fisherman.
"I saw the tide was coming inland,"
he said, "and I shouted. I ran to the church. My family was
in the church, celebrating the Sunday Mass."
All along the road in this area, 35
miles south of Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, lies evidence of the
force of nature's wrath.
The earthquake-induced tsunamis that
struck this south Asian island last Sunday turned houses to kindling
and swept cars and trucks into the forest. Concrete walls were demolished,
foundations swept clean of the homes they once supported. The road
is littered with the shards of fishing boats.
But whatever the force of those waves,
many people in Sri Lanka think faith is just as powerful. Perera
believes God alerted him to the coming tsunamis and directed him
to warn the others.
Those who were not already in the
Santa Maria Catholic Church ran to it when they heard his cries.
And as the people of this coastal area huddled inside it, their
homes were flattened while the church was spared.
"I cannot swim," said Bhacy
Fernando, a 49-year-old mother of three. "So I am 100 percent
sure that if I had stayed in my home, I would have gone under."
The church withstood the force of
the waves but the danger was not over. The water was rising. The
parish priest told the congregation to seek higher ground.
Go, he said, to the temple.
The people ran from the church, across
the road and up the hill to the Buddhist temple. There they were
welcomed by the Rev. Malegoda Nanda, the priest who presides over
Nanda, who has an easy smile and a
rueful giggle, has lived here for 50 of his 60 years. Never once
has a homeless person sought refuge. But when crowds of Catholics
ran up the road seeking help, he hesitated not a minute. He told
them to stay as long as they needed.
"I am ready to give them what
they need," he said.
Now, he presides with equanimity over
4,000 homeless people, almost all of them Catholic, who are living
in the various buildings of the Pushparama Buddhist Temple complex.
The situation is not unique. Catholicism
was introduced to Sri Lanka by Portuguese and Dutch colonizers who
rarely penetrated the interior of the island. So, although the country
is 70 percent Buddhist and only 8 percent Christian (the rest being
mostly Hindu and Muslim), Catholics predominate along the coast
in some areas.
And Buddhists around the country have
opened their hearts and their shrines to homeless Catholics.
Faith is enormously important to Sri
Lankans. In Sinhala, the language of Sri Lanka, the country's name
means "Holy Land." But the particular variety is of less
"They are really a very religious
people," said the Rev. Wickrema Fonseka, a Catholic priest
just down the road from the temple. When Sri Lankan Catholics arrive
in a town, he said, they often look first for a church and, failing
to find one, go to a temple.
The 4,000 or so Catholics now inhabiting
the Pushparama Buddhist Temple, a complex of orange-roofed buildings
among the tall palms, feel in no way out of place.
"First I went to the church,"
Perera said. "But I believe we came to a temple because here
also lives a God." [COX NEWS SERVICE]