Another View for March 17, 2005
By Robert Marus
A Baptist minister who is a Sri Lanka native has issued a set of guidelines for Christians doing relief work in the wake of the Dec. 26 South Asian tsunamis.
Shanta Premawardhana, the director of interfaith relations for the National Council of Churches, released the document on Feb. 26, the two-month anniversary of the massive waves that killed hundreds of thousands from India to Indonesia.
The 11-page document, titled “Listening to, Learning from and Living into Asia's Pain: Guidelines for U.S. Churches Seeking to Engage in Tsunami-Affected Areas,” cautions evangelical groups against engaging “in aggressive and inappropriate evangelism” as something that may do more harm than good for the Christian movement in many of the affected nations.
The issue has become important since American Christian groups-such as an organization that attempted to place Indonesian Muslim children orphaned by the tsunami in Christian homes-garnered negative publicity for their evangelistic tactics in the disaster zone.
Premawardhana noted that the context of Asian Christianity is vastly different from that in the United States and other Western nations, and that American Christians should be sensitive to both the political plight of Christians in the nations in which they are working, as well as the interplay of the multiple faith groups in those communities.
“While evangelism is important and necessary, it is best left to local Christians,” he wrote. “Our task is to partner with them, both to help them to be the best Christians they can be, particularly in the context of this disaster, and to learn for ourselves a new way of being Christian.”
He cited an Anglican leader in Galle, Sri Lanka, who confronted some overly evangelistic relief workers. The leader, Premawardhana said, “reported how he confronted these missionaries, asking how they would like it if he was killed and churches were burned because they couldn't differentiate between aid and evangelism!”
Premawardhana said he would seek dialogues between NCC leaders and evangelical leaders on the subject. “The ecumenical movement, having struggled with the question of mission in multireligious contexts for almost a century, would bring those learnings to the table,” he wrote. “The evangelical community would bring its passion for evangelism to the table. Asian church leaders believe that if such a conversation can lead to new understandings of mission and evangelism, that can directly benefit Asian churches that are struggling because of theologies and practices of mission and evangelism that belong to the colonial era.”
Associated Baptist Press
Rob Marus is chief of ABP's Washington bureau.