Ruwani Gunawardene reflects on her experience of diaspora life, through changing times and now through the pandemic. What will hold us together through our different cultures?
May 2020 found my local residents’ association distribute bedding plants to all neighbours as we came out of lockdown one. It brought hope and a sense of togetherness to this extremely diverse part of NW London. ‘Sudbury in Bloom’ has enabled us to connect in new ways. While we watch our beautiful plants grow, we have also matured as a neighbourhood.
On a more sombre note, a Sri Lankan friend in North London returned to her local swimming pool after lockdown, to find a fellow swimmer had succumbed to Covid. She was grieving the sudden loss of someone whom she had socially engaged with in the community. This was a stark reminder that the landscape of our lives is going to be different in the coming months, no matter where we are in the world.
It also reminded me of the time we emerged from a week of violence in July 1983 in Sri Lanka, to find some friends and acquaintances gone forever. Life was never the same for many of us. The war lasted another three decades. Nearly four decades on, reconciliation has been an ongoing process not only for the islanders, but for those who migrated and now live in the West. In one sense, the process has been slower for the latter. All this amidst natural disasters and the recent upheaval of the 2019 Easter bombings in the island.
As diaspora communities in pre-Covid times, we had the freedom to visit family and friends around the world and especially in our countries of origin. Some would say we had the best of both worlds. A host country which is politically stable and peaceful, which provided a safe haven from whatever we had moved away from, and the sense that ‘back home’ was always there as a place to visit. We probably did not even notice this blessing until we were faced with the pandemic. How we engaged in our connections, holding these different spaces and cultures together, before the restrictions were upon us, could have an impact on how we blossom or wither in tough times.
When I moved to the UK in the mideighties, I brought in myself, a curious young Sri Lankan self which from the onset refused to be contained only in my own culture group. Having turned down a prestigious role within the Sri Lankan expat community, I sought regular work within a fabulously cosmopolitan part of West London. People I encountered were most welcoming, not only in church but also in the workplace. I knew I had so much to learn of this new culture and I did not miss any opportunity to share my own with those I met.
Several decades later, we are in very different times. I have never been more indebted to my Christian family back home in Sri Lanka than during the last 18 months. Friends who have gone out of their way to ensure that my 89-year-old father is cared for, have been invaluable, when getting on that plane to visit loved ones has only been a dream. Whilst over here, church family and local friends have truly shown their colours during lockdown. The phone calls, puddings dropped at the door, mid-week Zoom drinks, walks in the park and of course prayer support. All this has sustained us through very difficult times.
“Whoever does God’s will, is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35)
Jesus was pointing to the new Kingdom of a world-wide family he was starting. Before his ascension, when he spoke of the Kingdom of God, he asked his followers to wait for the gift his Father promised. We are of one tribe, with one Father. We recently celebrated Pentecost which reminded us of this very thing. When people of many tongues were in one place, a gift was given us to pass on.
As post-covid Christians how do we perceive family? Who is your brother, sister or mother? Are you blooming where you are planted?