By Jesse Masai
In May 2009 the bloodied guns fell silent in Sri Lanka, leaving the government victorious over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and leaving tens of thousands of civilians dead.
With the decades-old civil war over, observers hoped the warring parties would beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, never to take up swords against each other or train for war anymore (Isa. 2:4). Eleven years later, however, social disorganization and a blind eye from the world community have enabled those responsible for war atrocities to evade accountability.
The war has, however, left deep scars across Sri Lankan society.
According to 2017 data from both Sri Lankan police and the World Health Organization, the South Asian nation leads the world in suicide cases, with 80 percent of them being male.
The country’s Department of Census and Statistics and the United Nations reported that 20 percent of all Sri Lankan children grow up fatherless.
Post-traumatic stress disorders are a significant challenge, owing to perils of war and the countless children who bore arms against their compatriots. Intimate partner violence has also been on the rise.
Amidst all the pain, the nation’s Anglican church is finding a way forward.
The Rt. Rev. Dhiloraj Ranjit Canagasabey, the outgoing presiding bishop of the Church of Ceylon, was elected in 2011, during a time of increased political and religious tensions. (Ceylon is the former name of Sri Lanka.) In the tradition of his predecessors, the primate spoke, wrote, and provided leadership in mobilizing the church against harassment of religious minorities and in protesting undemocratic actions of the state.
Twenty-four months into his leadership, Bishop Canagasabey recalls a persistent South African minister — the Rev. Dr. Cassie Carstens — walking into his office and asking to see him without notice.
Carsten’s role as a parent and an ordained minister in South Africa’s Dutch Reformed Church has given him a ringside seat in the country’s troubled apartheid past. Carstens, a former chaplain of South Africa’s groundbreaking Springboks rugby team has devoted much of his life to mentoring young leaders.
His concern for dysfunctional families led him and other South Africans to establish The World Needs A Father in February 2011. TWNAF seeks to combat fatherlessness in more than 100 countries, starting in his native South Africa, which is plagued by families torn asunder by multigenerational racism.
“Our main focus is the preparation of boys and young men to be fathers one day, to help fathers provide proper leadership to their families and to restore fathers to their God-given place as servant-leaders of their families,” he says.
Carsten’s visit was an answered prayer for Canagasabey. “When our front office staff let Rev. Dr. Cassie in, he told me about the burden God had laid on his heart for fathers in the world, triggering memories of my own troubled teenage years, when my dad began drinking and wreaking havoc on our happy family, making me contemplate suicide while asking God to make my own marriage work,” the primate said.
“My wife and I knelt before God and wept. Our two children are Sri Lankans. The brokenness of the nation touched us. We were moved to get involved in the ministry of reconciliation,” he said.
After Carsten introduced the ministry concept in 2015, the Diocese of Colombo began reaching out to other churches, and nearly 100 clergy and lay leaders have been trained to lead the program in their local communities. The second phase involved training local trainers. Fifteen leaders were coached extensively, with a few even visiting South Africa for further formation.
“Once that groundwork was laid, they were then trained in the four primary roles of fatherhood, namely: To establish moral authority; to confer identity; to provide emotional security; and to afﬁrm potential as parents and leaders across various sectors,” notes the primate.
Canagasabey adds: “The Diocese of Colombo is now engaging fathers both within and outside the Church, on occasion ecumenically, with the trainers helping rehabilitate many communities after the civil war. The ministry provides practical parenting tools, including resources and mentorship on bringing heaven home.”
At a second round of training, focused on forming mothers and sometimes children for their roles in family, many people openly testified about their personal transformation.
The ministry has so far reached 6,473 fathers across the diocese, and 185 people are now serving as trainers to extend the program to new communities.
Amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the ministry has used periods of lockdown to encourage fathers to be with their families and hold joint daily prayers. Fathers have also been empowered to conduct Sunday worship at home, with service provided in Sinhala, Tamil, and English.
“We are healing society, not just families. It is no longer merely a case of Hindu Tamils or Buddhist Sinhalese, but a Church for us all – drinking from one cup, kneeling side by side; a sign for the future. I feel we are just scratching the surface. We have a long way to go,” notes the primate.
Their outreach efforts have largely gone digital, augmented by food supplies to the poor, ferrying beggars to hospitals and preaching the crucified Christ to desperate souls.
“COVID-19 is teaching us that we need God, who is shaking the foundations of our lives, pointing us back to Him and Him alone. TWNAF is now one of the family-based ministries of the Diocese of Colombo, aiming to restore fatherhood in a fatherless generation,” Canagasabey said.
He concluded: “It truly is a testament to the work of the ministry, when many fathers who engage and participate in these events testify to having their minds opened and, in some cases, express that they have really been touched personally and spiritually to change their lifestyles. They are now more family-centric and focused on being true disciples by doing their part to usher in God’s kingdom.”
Having retired on November 15, the primate hopes to continue encouraging parents across Asia to ﬁnd healing for their own father and mother wounds before stepping into their God-designed roles in society.
Jesse Masai is a freelance journalist based in Limuru, Kenya. For more information on TWNAF, visit www.theworldneedsafather.com