By Leon and Elizabeth Hamm
We did not know what to expect when we set out for Sri Lanka in the summer of 2013. We were to spend three weeks there as part of the Vandu Paaru Lasallian Summer Immersion Program, visiting and volunteering in the De La Salle Primary and Secondary Schools in Colombo and Mannar. Although we sat in fellowship with some of those who had gone before us from Saint Mary’s College of California, Dr. Cynthia Ganote and Dr. Heidi Marie Rambo, and although we received guidance and support from Br. Mark Murphy, Br. James Joost, the Office of Mission, and the District of San Francisco, we were nonetheless embarking on a journey into a place unknown to us. None of our colleagues’ stories nor the light in their eyes that sparkled as they recalled their time in Sri Lanka, could prepare us for living in community with the Sri Lankan Brothers and learning out their lives and work. With the Brothers we saw first hand what it means to live a life devoted to God and to social justice, to love and to community; we worked side-by-side with those committing their whole beings to serving others and providing a quality education for the poor.
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. - Romans 12: 9-21
It is an easy thing to compare an American school to a Sri Lankan school and to find one or the other wanting in an area. In the Lamorinda area surrounding Saint Mary’s College, for example, some schools have iPads for every child. There are large computer labs, several tennis courts, and pools. Every kindergartner has a set of brightly colored crayons and other art supplies at their disposal. In Sri Lanka, there are computer labs, too. We saw one school with a pool. The crayons and art supplies are shared collectively, though some children have their own. But we also saw small moments never seen at American schools, like an older boy who waited at the entrance of a bus on a school trip. As each boy entered the bus again, the older boy shook his hand, a sign of greeting and welcome into the collective space. The verse from Romans speaks of the imparting of a strengthening spiritual gift. It was not us who came to give this gift; it was us who received.
In a time of American school shootings and sustained violence in communities, we marveled at the moments of wonder and joy we experienced in the schools of Sri Lanka. The people there, too, are no strangers to violence. The civil war, which lasted from 1982-2009, ended only four years before our arrival. Many of the children we worked with, along with their families and communities, were traumatized by the war.
Every day we were reminded that teaching is a sacred act. In one preschool in Colombo, we encountered this reality with Brother Damian. A volunteer group from Australia had recently painted the school in bright colors; inside the students were starting the day in prayer. The students came from different faiths: Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Catholic. Gathering together in their small faith groups, the students prayed, guided by their teachers. In brightly colored saris, the women stood, eager to show the students in their faith practice to Brother Damian and us visitors. In a country with a history of division rooted in language, religion, region, and power, all of these students stood unified in the act of prayer. In was inspiring to see the way that faith and education were intertwined.
At another preschool we visited, housed in an extremely poor community and beset by violence, we walked in to see a series of classes in session. On the far wall, there were statues of Jesus, Buddha, and the Hindu deity Ganesh. All faiths were welcome to learn. That day the students were studying animals. A teacher had gone down to the river and collected a small turtle for the students to observe and draw. The eyes of the preschool students were those of artists as they demonstrated a precise focus in their drawing. In another class, the students were forming letters on the floor with bottle caps. This is how they learned their letters, using the tools available to them in pursuit of learning. In many of the classes we visited, the children sang a song in English and one in Tamil, impressing us with their mastery of this expression.
Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. - Romans 15:7
In Sri Lanka, some resources are readily available, and some are not. In contrast to the weather of Colombo, Mannar is hot, and water is a concern for much of the area. Trucks deliver water to some of the schools, such as Kids Campus. While the climate was unwelcoming, especially coming from the mild summer weather of the San Francisco Bay Area, the Brothers and the students in Mannar greeted us with open arms. The hospitality and kindness they showed us was humbling. We watched as the Brothers cared for each other, the students, and their wider community. The weekdays were full of work in the schools and around the Brothers’ house. On the weekends, the Brothers were off to weddings, funerals, and other events to offer a blessing or show their support. Attending such events is important and they showed their love for the wider community with their presence and their prayers. Brother Silvadas commented that the weekends are sometimes heavier than the weekdays. Time is a gift, and by watching how the Brother’s spent their time, it was clear where their priorities lie: the Brothers are integral to their communities and they demonstrate that through their presence. What we learned is that while water and electricity availability may be sporadic, the intentionality of service is not. It is ever constant.
Living in community remains a prominent feature of our experience. The daily conversations at the kitchen table, or the chats over tea after dinner allowed us to connect – every day and multiple times a day – with the brothers and with each other. Teaching and the work that filled the days was a joint endeavor. Our work was part of something bigger, and we were reminded of that constantly as we worked closely with other educators. The kitchen table was a place for discussion and problem solving: we asked the Brothers for advice about challenges we faced in the classroom, we heard stories from the war, we learned about the history and culture of Sri Lanka, we shared stories from our lives, and we became friends.
Our daily lives in the United States are those of action. We live by timetables and agendas. We set up meetings to set up meetings. We have difficulty arranging anything without consulting our phones or written agendas. In Sri Lanka, those slates were wiped clean. Our time was not our own; rather, we responded to the call of the Brothers. In Mannar, we were given our teaching assignments. Though we had specific teaching schedules, these frequently changed. For example, there was a troupe preparing for a drama competition. Often we were called to support them as they refined their English pronunciation and perfected their dramatic presence. In the case of the teacher assigned to the secondary school, at times, this would mean that a class was missed in favor of theater. Soon enough, the support extended from the high school students to those at the middle school level as they, too, were preparing a production. Wherever the Brothers called, so we went. This countered our own professional experience as professors and organizers of our own time. In our work and in our learning in Sri Lanka, our hands did not belong to our own bodies; rather they were ordered by those with a better eye for the needs of the community.
That there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. - 1 Corinthians 12:25-27
Sri Lanka is a beautiful country. Monkeys play in the trees, tea plantations cover the steep hills, and the ocean is never far away. The varieties of coconut and banana trees seemed endless and we relished the fresh fruit, particularly the rambutans, guavas, jackfruit, and mangosteens. The days were humid, but when sitting in the shade on a hot day and the breeze hit just right, for a moment all would seem right and well in the world. As much as Sri Lanka felt like paradise, it has a lot of turmoil. The beauty of the country and the warmth of the people were juxtaposed against the many reminders of a long and violent war. In the north, roads and a railway, which had either been destroyed or neglected during the thirty-year war, were under reconstruction. Churches and Buddhist temples in the south often had small displays exhibiting the devastation from bombings during the conflict; while many of these churches and temples had been rebuilt, the pictures were a reminder of how recent and destructive the war had been. But more pronounced than any of the physical reminders of the war were the stories of loss that we heard from the people we met.
The Brothers in the north were threatened themselves many times during the war, particularly as they protected children from becoming child soldiers. In Vankalai, a village in the north, we prayed silently in front of the statue of a priest who was killed in the war, and we listened as Brother Johan described that tragic night that the priest, and many others, had been killed. Despite threats, and the losses of loved ones, the Brothers stayed in their communities. Today they continue to work to heal the devastation caused by the war. In Mannar, the Brothers run an orphanage, The De La Salle Boys, providing education, room, and board for those who lost parents in war. The Brothers continue to have a profound impact on their communities by teaching and serving others.
Returning to the United States, the first significant change we experienced was a loss of guardianship and the consistent, focused interest in our shared mission of working with the students. In the absence of the daily gatherings at meals, there was a silent transition back to previously held routines. We now consider the question: How does what we learned impact our understanding of community in our daily work? We have found ourselves more attentive to the work of community building in our classrooms and daily lives, more focused on listening to individual stories, and collaboratively looking for the connections between us.
Saint John Baptist de la Salle in The Conduct of Christian Schools invokes us to develop compassion and a commitment to the interconnected process of teaching and learning. In his own life and writings, he offered us an example of what it means to dedicate oneself to a full education that respects human dignity while also cultivating a reverence and respect for God. He too, practiced community building that respected the diversity within the group. Our time in Sri Lanka demonstrated the importance of community. By feeling connected to our students and colleagues our work at Saint Mary’s becomes more meaningful. The vocation to teach belongs to the Brothers; it belongs to us, too. It is a vocation enriched by spirit, community, and dedication to human dignity and education.