Fighting outside, fighting inside. Fighting marked Chaminda’s life before he met Jesus Christ. While serving in the navy, he was short-tempered and had no control over his tongue. He quarreled a lot with his peers and even with his officers.
“All my officers were Buddhists,” Chaminda recalls. “Because my father was a Roman Catholic, I sometimes argued with them about God, which would get me in trouble. Religion was a confusing thing to me. I sometimes sought counsel with some Roman Catholic priests I knew, but I found no peace.”
Temple of the Tooth
Chaminda Jayawardana is a 41-year-old tea-seller from Sri Lanka’s Central Province. His hometown is famous for the “Temple of the Sacred Tooth,” where devotees from all over the country come to venerate a relic of the Buddha. Roughly 70% of Sri Lanka’s population adheres to Buddhism, and the benevolently smiling effigy of its founder can be seen everywhere you look. A giant statue of the Buddha overlooks the city from the summit of Bahirawakanda Mountain, leaving no doubt about the religion’s dominant position. This is the environment Chaminda grew up in.
“Although my father was a Catholic, my mother was a devout Buddhist. She took me to the temple in my childhood. I know all the Buddhist rituals. Buddhism is all about doing the right things. After that, you can go to heaven. In Theravada Buddhism, there’s no concept of God. You follow the rituals, you meditate, and that’s it. I had many issues with my Buddhist culture.”
In Buddhist doctrine, a person has to undergo the cycle of reincarnation until he reaches Nirvana, a perfect, unstained state of consciousness. Chaminda thought this was all very tedious and unfulfilling. “Compared to Buddhism, the Christian faith is a shortcut to heaven,” he smiles.
As a navy man during the civil war that ravaged Sri Lanka from 1983 until 2009, Chaminda had to fight the Tamil Tigers. Meanwhile, his inner struggle continued. The many atrocities he witnessed urged him to search for spiritual consolation. “I knew I had been baptized as a child, so I thought I’d explore my father’s religion: Roman Catholicism,” he notes.
However, the main reason for Chaminda to move toward Christianity was his girlfriend Inoka, who later became his wife. “She belonged to the Anglican Church and pushed me to go to church and pray to God. So, from a Buddhist, I became a Roman Catholic, and from a Roman Catholic, I became an Anglican.”
Yet, at that time, neither the Roman Catholic nor the Anglican Church brought Chaminda what he was looking for. “I didn’t experience spiritual growth there,” he says. “I didn’t like the idol-worshipping in the Roman Catholic Church. There’s no idol-worshipping in the Anglican Church, but still, I missed the spirituality.”
The leadership of the local Anglican Church at that time had a strong focus on traditions and rituals, without paying much attention to the spiritual well-being of the congregation, Chaminda explains. “I came to church for spiritual growth, not for socializing,” he adds. “My number one focus is spiritual!”
One Sunday, Chaminda brought his wife and children to St. John’s Anglican Church and waited outside for the service to end. It was there that Pastor Anton, Bible League’s ministry coordinator in the region, met him.
“I knew him already because our wives were friends,” Chaminda says. “We usually smiled at each other, but this time we started to talk. I told him I was frustrated and troubled. Pastor Anton spoke to me about Jesus and showed me a few booklets, telling me He could help me overcome my frustration.”
Chaminda invited Pastor Anton to visit him at home. The pastor accepted and used the opportunity to share with Chaminda the story of Zacchaeus from Luke 19. “Through that story, God spoke to me clearly,” Chaminda says. “I learned that man’s major problem is sin. I found a God who forgives. I found the solution in Jesus Christ and came to know Him as my Savior. I knew that Christ was superior to Buddha.”
Talking about Pastor Anton brings a broad smile to Chaminda’s face. “He is my brother in the Lord! Even when I had many questions about God, he remained patient and answered them all. He has helped me teach others about God. During that period, I almost lived in Pastor Anton’s house; I always wanted to be with my brother.”
Saved Three Times
Looking back, Chaminda realizes that the Lord had been working with him long before he himself knew it.
“Jesus Christ saved me three times,” he states. “The first time was when a shell exploded in front of my eyes. I wasn’t hurt. The second time, a bomb exploded in a bus in Habaruna. I was supposed to be on that bus, but I missed it. The third time, I was on a warship when the tsunami came in 2004. We survived. Now, I know it was Jesus Who saved me all these times.”
Chaminda and his family still attend St. John’s Anglican Church, and since the arrival of a new pastor, Chaminda feels at home there. His wife Inoka leads the Sunday School. “She already did so when I met her,” Chaminda recalls, adding with pride that “Inoka has a wonderful voice, and she is the leader of the church choir.”
Chaminda is a tall, sturdy man by Sri Lankan standards. He has a gentle voice, laughs easily, and makes broad gestures when he speaks. He and Inoka have two children, the 21-year-old twins Roomal and Anne. When asked about her job, Inoka answers she doesn’t have one and that she’s “only a housewife.” But being a housewife is a full-time job, right? Inoka only smiles and shakes her head. She is a humble and self-denying lady, who never pushes her own role to the foreground. Instead, she says she’s supporting her husband, both in the ministry and in his tea business, which is their only source of income. Chaminda buys tea at a nearby plantation, has it packed under his own name, and re-sells it. The family lives on a wooded slope in the hills of Dangolla, on the outskirts of the city. The natural splendor of the place can’t hide their economic limitations, which become evident in their humble three-room house, where all four of them sleep in the same bedroom.
“It’s challenging to make a living in our community,” Chaminda admits. “There are times that we don’t have any meal to eat, nor water to drink. But as long as I spend time with my God, I don’t care about the circumstances. The God who was with Abraham also is with me.” It’s that boldness that allows him to remain optimistic and full of confidence about his testimony to others. With Buddhist and Hindu shrines nearby and a mosque on the hill opposite his house, the surrounding spiritual darkness seems overwhelming. It doesn’t discourage Chaminda, though.
“One day I met a thero, a Buddhist monk, in a village,” he recalls with a twinkle in his eyes. “He is the principal of a leading college here. He would fire any teacher who would talk about the Christian God, but he listened to me without arguing when I started explaining to him about my faith. He has become a good friend, and I have given him a Bible. Although he has already learned a lot about Jesus, it’s a struggle for him in his position to abandon the rules of Buddhism.”
Rain to Dry Land
So the man still serves as a thero, but Chaminda patiently keeps sharing the Gospel with him. It seems Chaminda doesn’t meet with much opposition, or he simply doesn’t want to mention it. Sometimes he drops a phrase that appears to imply struggle – “When somebody says something bad about my God, I argue with him, because He is my Savior” – but mostly, the doors are open for him.
“The people of Sri Lanka are thirsty for God,” he explains. “The Word of God is like rain to dry land. Many are Buddhists, because their parents were Buddhists. They just obey their history and culture.”
Many Sri Lankans feel the same spiritual void Chaminda experienced himself. Yet, they cling to their traditions, which form their identity – a stronghold that’s sometimes hard to break. Often, personal issues, either spiritual or material, are the gateway for Chaminda to share the Gospel.
“It all starts with me being friendly to them,” he points out. “I ask them what sort of problem they are dealing with and explain to them how God can help. Then, I tell them how Jesus came into my life. While I introduce God to them, I often compare the Bible with the teachings of the other religions. It’s the Gospel that changes their minds.”
Through Pastor Anton, Chaminda became acquainted with the ministry and programs of Bible League International. When asked about his experience with its Scripture materials, he excitedly pulls his phone out of his pocket and shows pictures of him handing out Bible study materials to people.
“In December, I gave 45 Bible study booklets to these people so that they could start the Project Philip program. I have contacts in many places who inform me about people they know who might be interested in Bible study. I go there, talk to them, and give them the booklets. I will do the Bible study with them where they are. But I also use Messenger to spread the Gospel. I keep getting requests. A lot of people know me as the one who prays.”
The one who prays – when he mentions that, another story comes to his mind.
“I once received a phone call while I was driving somewhere on my motorcycle. I stopped it at the roadside to answer the call. It was a friend who told me about his hospitalized father. The doctor had just told him he was going to die. He was so afraid! I said, ‘Hold your phone to your father’s ear, and I will pray with him.’ People were looking at me, but I prayed to God to save this man. The next day, he called me to say his father was much better and discharged from the hospital. He thanked me, but I said, ‘It was my God. You should thank Him!’ Now, these men, who were strong as trees in the Buddhist culture, are in Christ!”
“Apart from Jesus, Paul is my favorite character in the Bible,” Chaminda says with conviction. “As an evangelist, I want to follow his example and learn from him how to deal with challenges. I take the Project Philip booklets with me when I go around to visit poor people and teach them the Gospel. They love to hear it. God is giving us healthy lessons in these booklets. I love to be part of Bible League’s ministry!”
Currently, Chaminda is following a course at a Theological College to become an evangelist. In addition, he joined Bible League’s Church Planter Training (CPT) late last year and has completed the first module about evangelism.
“What I like about the CPT is that it teaches us the whole Bible,” he notes. “I’ve learned how I can introduce God to the people. It’s a good learning method. My hobby is bringing the Gospel to everyone, and Bible League is my main source. Most people can’t afford to buy a Bible in a shop. I always call Pastor Anton to ask him if the new Bible study materials have arrived yet. People in Project Philip receive God’s Word with joy.”
Together with Inoka, Chaminda serves 11 family groups with Bible study. Some are nearby, while others are up to 28 miles away. Inoka explains, “We have to travel from place to place, using the one motorbike we have. Sometimes, we also hire a van or a tuk-tuk. We meet with these groups mostly once per month. We cannot do it every week because we have to run our tea business to make a living. We cannot be full-time ministry workers. Added to the 11 Bible study groups, we also do social work for maybe 40 families. We combine spiritual and physical help.”
Supporting families also has the benefit of reaching children and youth, an important feature of the couple’s ministry. Chaminda says, “I find it’s easy for children to receive God’s Word, and when they grow up, they will be people of God. If we can have the children’s minds, Sri Lanka can become a Christian nation.”
The Good Fight
That is what Chaminda, the tea-seller from Sri Lanka, envisions: Sri Lanka as a Christian nation. Bold? Ambitious? Yes, but with God, all things are possible. Chaminda’s own life story has taught him that. Having overcome the physical and spiritual struggles in his life, he is now fighting the good fight. And his arsenal is well-equipped!
“The materials of Bible League are powerful weapons in Sri Lanka,” he asserts. “I want to tell the donors that they are a blessing. I couldn’t continue my work without your excellent support – it leaves me speechless. I’m so happy about Bible League’s ministry. Please, continue the work in Sri Lanka and every country. Thank you!”