It was late at night in the small city of Nagapattinam on the southeast coast of India and Jesu Rethinam was talking about what the people had been through: "Cyclones, we know how to address. But the tsunami is different."
This gentle woman, dedicated to helping fishers from nearby villages rebuild their lives after the ocean attacked them, was full of awe at the resilience and strength of the people she serves.
Three of us -- Lorna Pawis of the General Council Executive, South Asia staffperson Margaret Sumadh and I -- had come to India to tell a devastated people how much The United Church of Canada cares for them. We were met, variously, with flowers, fresh water from green coconuts, and singing and dancing children. I came away as filled with awe and as close to tears as Rethinam at the courage and strength and graciousness of the people.
I asked her what was the biggest surprise in the weeks since the calamity. She described how, shortly after the great wave, hundreds of fisher folk who had lost family, friends, homes and boats still showed up at a civic forum held by Rethinam's organization, Social Needs, Education and Human Awareness. The United Church- supported grassroots organization was protesting a proposal to dredge a deep shipping channel, an Indian version of the Panama and Suez canals, through the delicate coral reefs between India and Sri Lanka.
"When I saw the peoples' belief in public action, and their willingness to work with each other in times of necessity and need, I felt like crying," said Rethinam. That same energy is applied to preventing large corporations from mining sand from the beaches, and to coping with a new phenomenon -- "disaster tourists."
Nothing in India is easy. It is a nation of incredible beauty, but accustomed to earthquakes, landslides, drought, famines, cyclones and the floods that follow heavy monsoons. Its people need to be resilient. Our travels to visit those affected by the tsunami were by van, train, air and ship, through major urban centres on the mainland to remote island communities off the west coast of Thailand.
We drove through restricted territory where the Indian government is attempting to protect the isolated Jawra people. We found rice paddies and other agricultural lands ruined by the salt from sea surges. We passed broken powerlines and bridges so torn up we had to leave our vehicle late at night and walk across -- to be welcomed by people who had been waiting for hours on the other side.
In the midst of this, we found the most profound compassion. In the southern city of Chennai, the poorest of the poor were sending money to those momentarily worse off than themselves.
Anitha Mahendiran works with the leaders of women's associations in Chennai, a coastal city that many Canadians remember by its former name, Madras. Now a major technology and call centre, among its citizens are women who live in shelters of cardboard, wood and plastic sheeting between buildings and on the sidewalks.
Mahendiran directs the Institute for Development Education (another United Church partner) which networks these Hindu, Muslim and Christian women into co-operative self-help clubs. The "slum dwellers and pavement dwellers," as they identify themselves, were busy sending much of the money they had struggled to raise to the relief effort, for people whom they would probably never meet. It reminded me of the generosity of the Canadian Inuit during the Ethiopian famine years ago: "We know what it is to be hungry."
Our trip also took us to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands north of Sumatra, off the coast of Thailand. As on the mainland, the strength of the people, who make their living from coconuts and fish, is astonishing. A huge wave had washed over one village where we were welcomed; miraculously, in this village, the loss of life had been minimal. Like others on the mainland, they are getting schools and playgrounds and community libraries up and running again, trying to re-establish a sense of normalcy for the children -- who were fascinated by the dreamcatcher Lorna Pawis, of the Wausauksing First Nation near Parry Sound, Ont., presented to local chief, Captain Aberdeen Blair.
On these islands, and on mainland India, there is a vigorous discussion with government about where to locate new housing. The government wants homes at least 500 metres from the shore. Fishers regard that as impractical and as a possible land- grab. They fear the beautiful coastline where they have always pulled up their fishing boats will end up as beachfront resorts in the hands of international tourist consortiums.
The type of housing is a problem too. For those dislocated by the tsunami, the government provides temporary shelters with tin roofs and walls -- "micro-ovens" say those forced to live in them, with temperatures in the high 90s F. The government wants to provide permanent housing from the same material. Our Church of North India partners are asking for, and contributing to, traditional housing with thatched roofs and bamboo-matted sides -- much cooler, and infinitely safer in a cyclone.
In one settlement of fishers formerly from Bangladesh, the community leader said we were the first people "from the outside" to visit. Church of North India (CNI) delegates, our hosts, had been there from the very first days, though. In fact, CNI's relationship of trust with the local people allowed us to meet with islanders in regions where some villages had seen up to 90 percent of their residents washed away.
Thousands of bodies have been recovered; thousands more remain missing. We heard stories of loss, and of Herculean efforts to rebuild and restore food supplies before the monsoons hit again. The United Church, which has accompanied the people of South Asia for generations, will continue to do so as they work on providing safe shelters, reclaiming damaged lands, re-establishing mangrove swamps to protect shorelines and getting fishers back to work.
As happens in times of tragedy, people visit to hold one another, to hear their stories, to cry and to laugh together. As United Church of Canada sisters- and brothers-in-Christ we hoped we would be a tangible reminder of the larger community of faith and friends. We saw a miracle: people experiencing new life when one might never have imagined hope was possible.
If you enjoy reading our online stories about ethical living, justice and faith, please make a donation to the Friends of The Observer Fund. Supporting our award-winning journalism will help you and others to continue to access ucobserver.org for free in the months to come.