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Buddhists open temple to homeless Catholics
By Don Melvin
The Dhamma Times, 1 January 2005


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 the complex.

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 importance.

"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]

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