Learning from the Margins
The Center for Mission Innovation, which is a new unit of the Global Ministries, has expressed a commitment to listen to and learn from emerging theologies and theologies from the margins around the globe. I was invited to share some reflections on theologies from the margins in Sri Lanka, my motherland.
Tea Leaves. PHOTO: HANNAH REASONER
One of my colleagues, Devadasan Sengan, grew up in an estate community and is now a Methodist minister working for the Estate Communities Empowerment Mission, established in 2012 by the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka (ECEM). I was part of the initial process that shaped this ministry in the Methodist Church. Devadasan is developing a practical mission model of empowerment rooted in the tenets of asset-based community development. Let me share some of his theological insights.
The Rev. Devadasan Sengan first submitted this short reflection at my request, which was presented to a group of theological students at the Candler School of Theology at Global Ministries headquarters in Atlanta. “We are the forgotten people of Sri Lanka,” Devadasan began. “While the rest of the world enjoys our highquality tea, my own people are given only the dust of tea. Teas produced by estate workers are very tasty, but their very lives in the line-houses leave a taste of bitterness.”
Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water, and can be found in nearly 80 percent of all US households. It is the only beverage commonly served hot or iced, anytime, anywhere, for any occasion. On any given day, over 158 million Americans drink tea. (http://www.teausa.com/14655/tea-fact-sheet)
“I see the image of God in my people and in their communities,” Devadasan continued. “In the creation of humankind, God created everyone equally and in God’s image. The very first human being created by God was a laborer (Gen 2:15). The laborer is the grower, gatherer, and producer upon whom everybody else depends. But a laborer’s life has always been very hard. Many people mutter that hard labor is the first step in the development of humankind, but however hard the laborer’s work, the laborer has not been recognized. Laborers rarely reach an adequate and decent standard of living.”
Estate communities live in horrendous conditions of housing, sanitation, and poverty; there is a high dropout rate of children after primary school, health-care facilities are inferior, laborers are exposed to pesticides, and women and children suffer from a lack of welfare and poor wages. Mental health may also be a matter of concern for many working in the tea plantations.
Davadasan concluded: “A laborer sacrifices her life and struggles constantly for her daily needs. His or her struggle should bring holistic liberation as well as a change in lifestyle and a standard of life for the better.”
The estate communities in Sri Lanka are still struggling to meet their daily needs even in the modern days of technology, computers, and weapons. The estate people have been longing to be a free, dignified, and respected community. They have been praying to gods and goddesses for their liberation and justice. As a follower of Jesus, I pray that the God of liberation and life bestows compassion (Karuna) upon the estate people in Sri Lanka and liberates them and all other plantation workers around the world, especially those on tea, coffee, and rubber estates. But our response should not be limited to prayers. Our hands and hearts too should move and contribute to the liberation of the forgotten people of Sri Lanka and elsewhere.
Devedasan finished his reflection powerfully by making a theological and social appeal to the tea drinking community: “Remember behind your cup of tea there is the spirit, the sweat, and the blood of my community. The community behind your tea, the estate peoples—they wait for their story to be heard and for consumers to change their ways. While you drink tea, join with the God of life, hearing their cry, a ‘Cry from the Tea Bushes.’ Our spiritual gift is our brokenness—broken spirits, broken minds, and broken bodies. Because we are broken, we dream.”
Line houses in the estate community slum, typical for workers on the tea estates. PHOTO: ESTATE COMMUNITIES EMPOWERMENT MISSION
Telling tea drinkers to think of the struggling communities behind their cups and bottles of tea is a theological task. Advocacy for ethical tea production, fair trade, quality assurance of labor, and social responsibility for the estate communities are a few of the prophetic challenges.
Devadasan mentioned in an interview: “What we need to do is to create possibilities to empower leadership within the estate communities and to educate young girls and boys. The church is called to the ministry of empowerment, to be an incarnated community among these forgotten people.”
It is encouraging that the ecumenical study document “Together Towards Life,” released in 2013 by the World Council of Churches, affirms the church’s call to learn from the margins: “People on the margins have agency, and can often see what, from the center, is out of view. People on the margins, living in vulnerable positions, often know what exclusionary forces are threatening their survival and can best discern the urgency of their struggles; people in positions of power have much to learn from the daily struggles of people living in marginal conditions.”
You are great! But I do not want you to be always in the margins.
You are the power of agency in changing the margins.
In solidarity with you—Sellamma,
As I share the cry from the tea bushes.
*Jerome Sahabandhu, from Sri Lanka, serves as the Theologian in Residence at the Mission Theology Desk, General Board of Global Ministries, Atlanta.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
• How does this experience from the margins—“The Cry from the Tea Bushes”—challenge you and your local church’s ministry and mission?
• What can we do to change the situation of the estate communities around the world for the better?
• What do we hear the Spirit saying to our social and ecclesial locations through the “Cry from the Tea Bushes?”
Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Summer 2017 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.