Islands of Hope in a Sea of Despair

By Tom Layton   •   February 23, 2005

Stories like Guló’s are tragically common in countries across the Indian Ocean, where nearly 300,000 people are presumed dead. “Everybody in our country has lost someone,” said Godfrey Yogarajah, general secretary of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka.

What makes Guló’s story special is his faith that his family will be reunited someday in heaven. His grief is tempered by his hope of eternal life in
Jesus Christ.

Christian hope like his is hard to find on the tropical islands and coastlines that were devastated by the tsunami. Less than 8 percent claim Christ in Sri Lanka. On the tiny Indonesian island of Nias, 90 percent of people call themselves Christians. But Nias is an exception. In fact, the nearby island of Sumatra has been described as one of the least-evangelized islands in the world.

But the Church worldwide has responded by praying, giving, volunteering, cleaning, feeding and burying. Amid the indescribable stench of rotting flesh, Christian workers have been demonstrating God’s love.

The thousands of people still struggling to survive don’t mind where help comes from; they just appreciate those who bring it. In one camp crowded with homeless families, a non-Christian woman thanked an Indonesian Christian who delivered food and comfort. “Christians are the only ones wiping our tears,” she said.

For many of the survivors, the relief workers are the first Christians they have ever met.

There are no churches in Meulaboh, the Indonesian city closest to the epicenter of the earthquake that caused the tsunami. The tragedy there was staggering. First came the 9.0-magnitude earthquake, which made pancakes of three-story concrete buildings, cracked roads and unleashed deadly geysers of hot steam. Over the next hour, the bay was sucked dry, leaving fish flapping on the sand and drawing curious children down to the beach. Then came the tsunami, with two waves so fast and powerful that few had a chance to escape. Houses were leveled more than a mile inland.

“I thought the end of the world had come,” said a man named Herman who lost his wife and three children.

Meulaboh lost 40,000 of its 100,000 residents. Just north of Meulaboh, in a fishing village with 300 people, the only survivors were a woman and 30 fishermen who were at sea when the wave struck.

A month later, workers were still recovering dozens of bodies each day from the marshes and rubble. People fearing disease wore face masks on the streets. Saltwater polluted wells and killed the lush vegetation, including rice paddies and rubber-tree plantations that will take years to re-establish.

Fishermen lost boats and nets, and some are afraid to go back to the sea. “The ocean acted out of its character,” said Sudirman, a fisherman. “It was a friend, but now it’s the enemy.”

Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) and Samaritan’s Purse are working with Christian partners in the region to demonstrate God’s love and Christ’s compassionate character by meeting needs in an unconditional way.

“We essentially want to show the compassion and love of the Lord that motivates us and compels us to do what we do,” said Hin Hiong Khoo, general secretary of the 1978 Singapore Billy Graham Crusade and the founder of International Christian Mission. His organization has trained 400 pastors and church leaders in Sumatra and has mobilized many of them to work with Samaritan’s Purse in places where outsiders cannot go.

Vincent Marshall pastors a church in a Sri Lankan community where Samaritan’s Purse distributed cooking supplies and lanterns, and where volunteers from North Carolina cleared debris and cleaned wells. Marshall already has seen people of other faiths attracted to the church, in part because of the overwhelming response of Christians. “We are helping beyond religion or language,” Marshall said. “We are helping for mankind. This is not the time for preaching. Right now, we want to help them and befriend them.”

Such an approach was effective on the island of Kinnaya, where Samaritan’s Purse installed filters to provide clean water for 5,000 people in 10 camps. Clean water has been critical in avoiding the widely feared outbreak of epidemic diseases. The filters impressed a local policeman, who told the installation team, “We’re Muslims. We know you’re Christians. Thank you for coming and helping us.”

Weeks of living in tents have taken their toll on the survivors, who are “living like dead people,” according to Nuwan Senarathbandara, who left his home in the interior of Sri Lanka to serve people on the coast.

BGEA is planning to rebuild an otherwise overlooked, isolated village just as it did in India following a cyclone and storm swell in 1977. Meanwhile, Samaritan’s Purse is focusing on Sri Lanka and Indonesia, where Franklin Graham visited in January to meet survivors, assess the needs and encourage Christian relief efforts. Samaritan’s Purse also has sent funds to help efforts in India.

Samaritan’s Purse chartered a 747 jumbo jet to airlift 100 tons of desperately needed goods to Indonesia, including material to shelter 8,000 families, filters to provide clean water for 15 towns and a helicopter to reach communities that have been cut off from relief workers. Samaritan’s Purse has been distributing food and water-treatment packets in the Aceh province and is helping to rebuild five churches on Nias, including Guló’s.

Samaritan’s Purse also is providing shelter, water and household kits to families in Sri Lanka and has offered to help rebuild an orphanage that was washed away. In addition, Samaritan’s Purse has pledged to purchase at least 50 boats at $2,000 each to help replace lost fishing vessels. Each boat will help several families. In Thailand Samaritan’s Purse provided relief in fishing villages far removed from the resorts that drew most of the headlines.

Yogarajah says Sri Lankans are resilient people who will recover from this disaster. Speaking specifically of Christians, he said, “In the midst of all this suffering, the one thing our people are holding onto is their faith. That’s giving them hope.”