February 2007 CMS - People

Two years after a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed millions of lives, survivors are still recovering, and Indian Christians are playing a vital role in reconstruction.

“I was brushing my teeth that morning,” a man named Thomas recalled. “I was going to have my bath and suddenly a woman was at the door, shouting that mud was falling, and there was shaking and people were yelling, ‘Get to higher ground!’ 

“I remember the sea was black and it made a hissing sound. The waves were as high as coconut trees.

“We didn’t know what to call it; we had never heard this word before – tsunami – until someone later told us what had happened to us.”

Like many survivors of the earthquake and tsunami that ravaged several areas in Asia two years ago, Thomas still has trouble putting the events into words. 

The devastation certainly defied description. Even photos and film did not convey the extremity of the situation in which millions of people found themselves. “We lost so much,” said Thomas. “So much.”

Thomas lives on one of the Nicobar Islands, part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a union territory of India located in the Indian Ocean in the southern reaches of the Bay of Bengal.

These islands were hit hard by the tsunami, which claimed 7-10,000 lives and wreaked havoc on the coastal communities. Unfortunately, the remoteness of these islands means rebuilding is a major challenge. 

One of the first groups on the scene after the tsunami struck was the Church of North India (CNI), a CMS partner. The CNI, the dominant Protestant denomination in northern India, is a united Church established in 1970 by bringing together the main Protestant churches working in northern India. Thousands of people in the Nicobar Islands are members of the CNI.

General Secretary Rev Dr Enos Das Pradham remembers: “I visited Nicobar on 15 January 2005. The people had lost everything, but they had not lost hope in Jesus.
“They were so prayerful; many of their churches had been destroyed so they met under a tent and had worship. And they told us: ‘Our shelter is secondary, relief work is secondary. But please build a church for us where we can worship our God almighty.’ 

“That really challenged us back in the mainland.”

With the support of several overseas partners, the CNI took up the challenge of helping the Andaman and Nicobar Islands recover and rebuild physically, psychologically and spiritually. 

No quick fix

As it responds to the specific felt needs in the Nicobar Islands, the CNI believes in a participatory method that “strengthens the hands” of people in the community, rather than a top-down, quick fix approach. 

For instance, when it came to the construction of houses, the CNI distributed 380 sets of carpentry tools to the people of Nicobar so they could build their own shelters.  Within days the island was humming with the sound of construction activity. 

The CNI also worked with the government, local tribal councils and the people of Nicobar to rebuild the education system on the islands. The Indian government gladly accepted the CNI’s offer to construct 36 schools.

One government official commented: “These are the only permanent structures that have been handed over to the government; they are a permanent legacy of how CNI has helped the Nicobar Islands.”
Healing minds and hearts

Meanwhile, the Church is also working to address people’s psychological and spiritual needs. The Nicobaris have historically been known as a fun-loving, seafaring people. The tsunami changed that. People whose lives revolved around the sea were afraid to go near the water. Even hearing rain pound the tin roofs of temporary shelters provided by the government reminded people of all they had lost.

In June 2005, the CNI began offering trauma counselling to help people cope with their grief. 

During one session, Samson Ghandi asked participants to focus on the existence of “a living God in a living tragedy”. 

“We know that we cannot control what happens to us,” he said, “but we can control our response to it.” 

He gently reminded people that while the memories and consequences of the tsunami remain, so does God, adding: “This hope is the secret to rebuilding our lives.”

Please build us a church

The direct role that the CNI has been able to play in giving life and hope to people in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is unprecedented. Yet there are still big challenges ahead, one of which is continuing the plan to give the people of Nicobar one of the things they’ve asked for: new churches. 

Rev Pradham told Adrian Watkins of CMS that the church is a central focal point for the people of the Nicobar Islands, which is one reason why CMS is partnering with CNI in church reconstruction efforts.

The church reconstruction project will involve rebuilding and repairing all 33 churches of the CNI on the islands, as well as printing over 20,000 Bibles and prayer books that were lost in the storm.  

All of these efforts will allow the CNI to continue to be the powerful testimony of God’s love that it has been throughout this difficult time. 

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