Suffer the little children...

How Christ gave me His eyes to see the children of Sri Lanka

by Roheen Jayawardene

My sister and I shared a precious camaraderie. I remember well those whispered secrets, the silent understanding and those times we knelt together in prayer.

tsunami refugee baby

Being in her presence was like relaxing under the shade of a strong tree. I felt comfortable and accepted. It was not uncommon to find the two of us walking together down a crowded city street in Sri Lanka, our easy laughter encircling us in a world where all was safe and good.

I'll never forget the day we went shopping together in the buzzing town of Nugegoda. I waited by the side of the road as my sister entered a fabric shop. I watched the passersby for a few minutes until my attention was turned to a young mother with two small children begging on the roadside.

They were dirty and clothed in rags. The eyes of one of the little girls locked on mine. She ran over to me and looked up expectantly. A bag of candy was all that I had with me, so I handed it to her. Her face beamed with a glow that surprised me.

I was suddenly overcome with the desire to take her home, bathe, feed and dress her in clean clothing. But my desire quickly faded as I got caught up in everyday pressures and responsibilities.

My life is not my own

When I was a child, my mother would always tell me that my life was not my own. Instead, it belonged to Jesus. She told me that I needed to ask Him what I should do with it. But I could not understand a God who would demand so much of me.

My inner struggle continued until I discovered that every person is unique to God, and that He knew His plans for each of our lives before He even created the foundation of the world.

The words of Psalm 139:13-18 played over and over in my mind. Twice, I had almost met with death. Before I was born, my mother was on the verge of a miscarriage. Then, at the age of 6, I was knocked unconscious by a school bus. The doctors pronounced me as good as dead. But despite the doctors' grim assessment, a pastor who was praying for me prophesied that I would live.

tsunami cleanup

I considered these events, and knew that my life was no accident . . . so I dedicated it to God.

In 1974, I completed my studies at the Bible College of Wales. I was currently teaching Sunday school and broadcasting two 15-minute Christian radio programs a month for children. I asked the Lord to guide me into the field of ministry He had planned for me. Opening my Bible one day, I came upon Mark 10:14:

"Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God."

The beginning

In 1996, my sister, who was a mere 38 years old and a mother of two young daughters, was called home to heaven. I was overcome with grief and loneliness. Night after night I cried myself to sleep. I attempted to pray, but the sorrow would not lift.

The Lord finally spoke to me through the autobiography of Corrie ten Boom. When her sister, Betsie, died in a concentration camp during the Nazi regime, the Lord told Corrie to be a sister to others. I knew that God was calling me to do the same.

I became optimistic, believing that God had prepared some wonderful friends to take the place of my beloved sister. Little did I know, that the sisters the Lord had for me were the street women: the drug addicts and the prostitutes.

Children after tsunami in Cuddalore

As I ventured out into the street to enter their lives, I discovered a whole new world. Children were used as prostitutes and beggars. They were instructed to steal and deliver drugs. How had I been so blind to their plight? The little girl whose face shone with happiness when I handed her a bag of candy years earlier came flooding back to my memory, and I knew what I had to do.

My mother had been running a Christian library and counseling center for illiterate mothers and children for several years. Together we began to reach out to the women on the street.

Children, dirty and hungry, began arriving on our doorstep. Many of the children who came to our center had been abused by alcoholic and drug-addicted parents. We fed them rice and curry, gave them baths and taught them reading, writing and arithmetic before sending them away for the night.


"Amma! Amma!" a tiny 8-year-old girl cried one morning as she stumbled through the door of our library. Tears ran down her face, but she refused to tell my mother or me why she cried.

Inquiring from the other children the reason for this young one's distress, we learned the answer. The girl had been raped the night before.

Neither my mother nor I could sleep that night. The cries of the little girl echoed in my mind. Although the children were safe at the center during the day, many of them returned to an unsafe, abusive environment in the evenings.

One child, beaten daily by an alcoholic father, used to hide in the marshes around the slums. The mother of another malnourished boy had poisoned herself after being repeatedly abused by her alcoholic husband.

In the war-torn, Buddhist nation of Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of children are sold to pedophiles or used in the child pornography business. Young girls, in particular, are in danger of being abused and raped by male family members. The foster mother of one of the girls stated that she could not protect the child from her husband and sons.

Lama Sevana

I felt the Lord tugging on my heart to open a shelter for these wounded girls, and decided to take a step of faith. In 1998, with only $60 to our names, my mother and I started Lama Sevana, meaning "a haven for children," in a rented house.

Boys in a camp set up for tsunami refugees

Four girls in dire circumstances were immediately housed. But the numbers rapidly grew as the need for a safe place to live is great.

Most of the children arrive at the center without shoes and proper clothing and with wounds on their bodies. Some do not know their biological father, as their mothers go from partner to partner.

The Lord provided one day at a time. Often, we began the month not knowing how we could feed the children or pay the salaries of the staff, but God provided for our needs each and every time.

Through help from Christian Aid, we have been able to move forward with our vision and expand our services. In 2004, we opened a shelter for boys in another rented facility.

Christian volunteers, who lovingly give of their time and skills, have immensely helped us to reach more women and children for Christ. A clinic next door offers free medical treatment.

All of our children are taught about the love of God, and the changes in their lives have been extraordinary. When funds are available, children who meet a certain standard are enrolled in local schools.

Slum ministry

Lama Sevana is reaching out to the children of four slum areas with a combined population of 3,500. Most of these people live in one or two-room houses without water, electricity or sanitation facilities. Drinking water is collected from common wells. The roofs of many of the houses leak when it rains.

Girl who never had a toy before Lama Sevana

Most of the families have more than five children, as there is little knowledge of family planning. In many of the households, the woman is the breadwinner, as their husbands are drug or alcohol addicts, sleeping during the day and gambling at night. Strapped for funds to feed their children, it is not unusual for these women to work as maids by day and prostitutes by nights.

Many of these women have also attended our programs, and several have made the decision to accept Christ as Savior. Women who live in slums are being educated on health and child care matters, as well as in Christian principles.

Loans are advanced, as money becomes available, to construct decent living shelters or start simple businesses. Women are taught how to cook low-cost, but nourishing meals.

As our ministry grows, we are seeking to improve the condition of depressed villages. Through a community-based revolving loan fund, we were able to provide the families of one village slum with wells and sanitation facilities for each household.

This year, Christian Aid provided the funds for us to purchase a piece of land on which to build a new children's home. We are expecting to receive our permit soon, and will then begin construction. Praise the Lord for His provision!