The Disaster Hits Home

A young Christian reflects on the tsunami and the death of a friend.

“I don’t have words to explain how I feel. Please pray, that’s all I can ask,” said the e-mail that my friend and classmate Devaka’s mother sent to loved ones after hearing about the death of their long-time friend, Tamara Mendis (pictured left), in the tsunami disaster.

Tamara had been traveling over the holidays with her 23 year-old daughter, Eranthie, from the United States back to her ancestral home in Sri Lanka. They were on a train north of Galle when the first wave swept across the coast.

“People inside the train started panicking and screaming and water started coming inside the train. And I was standing closer to the door and I was trying to close the door but the water kept coming in,” said Eranthie to her local news station (see link below).

The second wave lifted the train from the tracks. Eranthie kicked open a window and pulled herself to safety. “I was calling for
my mother but I didn’t see her,” Eranthie remembers. When her mother was found, Eranthie and two men tried to revive her but she had passed away. Eranthie prayed over her mother’s body.

Devaka Premawardhana (pictured right), a 24 year-old Harvard Divinity School student who was born in Sri Lanka, recalls the Mendis family from his childhood days. “I knew [Tamara] as one of our very few close family friends,” he says, smiling with memories. “She was a wonderful cook.”

Devaka grew up playing with Tamara’s daughter, Eranthie, and her two brothers who lived two blocks away in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.

He recalls one day when a neighborhood gang of kids knocked down his siblings and him as they walked home from a church camp. His sister was crying and they went to Tamara’s house for comfort. After tending to their wounds, Tamara “walked around to the front of the apartment to try and find these kids,” Devaka remembers, laughing. “She was going to administer justice for us in some way, but nothing came of that.”

Now Devaka is left with only memories of Tamara’s care…and with anger over the tsunami tragedy. “When it happens to your home country, that is enough to make it extremely devastating,” he says. But the death of Tamara and the terror experienced by her daughter, Eranthie, make it all the more horrific; “there is now one less person in our close circle of friends,” he says.

Devaka not only mourns for Tamara and the approximately 228,000 others who died, but he also mourns the fact the fact that this tragedy could’ve been avoided. He believes the global maldistribution of wealth has also played a role in the catastrophic number victims. “There is a correlation between the fact that this happened in the Indian Ocean that is surrounded by some of the poorest countries in the world and the fact that [228,000 ] people died” he says. According to Devaka, if a tsunami hit the western coast of the United States there would likely have been far fewer lives lost due to the existence of a tsunami warning system that only certain countries can afford.

Structural Change

Looking to make a long-lasting impact to help the tsunami-affected area
Check out the following organizations:

Catholic Relief Services, Poverty Relief Organization

Jubilee 2000, Debt Relief Organization

NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby

Sarvodaya, Sri Lankan Development Organization

While Devaka believes that his fellow Sri Lankans and others affected by this disaster are grateful for the generous contributions given to them by the rest of the world, there are “bigger questions involved than what people are able to contribute at this time in direct response to this tragedy.” Because of global economic inequalities “some people, are more vulnerable to the destructive power of natural phenomena than other people” he says. Instead, a genuine response should include an international reflection upon the type of world we live in where such extreme disparities exist between those with wealth and those in poverty: “what is really necessary is a radical re-questioning of our lifestyles and how those lifestyles affect…other people in the world.” (See sidebar)

Although he would like to journey back home to Sri Lanka to help rebuild the coast, Devaka plans to stay in the United States for the next six months to help build relationships between churches in Southeast Asia and the United States. He will work with the National Council of Churches to support projects to strengthen Sri Lanka and Indonesia, beyond just rebuilding from this disaster.

As the days pass, Devaka and his family continue to grieve the loss of Tamara, but not alone. Although oceans apart, their grief is shared by millions across the globe who have lost loved ones or whose hearts are torn by this tragedy. They know that God, also, “is grieving along with us.” And they know God will be with them as they seek to rebuild a strengthened world, although the task will be more difficult now with one less person in their close circle of friends.