A shepherd of the oppressed, the poor and the people on the run
Bishop Rt. Rev. D. J. Ambalavanar, the second Bishop of the Jaf fna Diocese of the Church of South India ( American Ceylon Mission), whose twentieth death anniversary falls on October 10, rose to great heights of spirituality and intellectual stature to become a humble servant of God and a man for others.
Bishop Ambalavanar came across to me as a simple, friendly bishop who was a friend of the oppressed, the poor and the people on the run. He rejected seats of honour and prestige to give strength to the poor, by his very presence in their midst. When there were regular ethnic conflicts and military operations causing much pain and distress to the people, he raised his voice loud and clear on behalf of the oppressed and showed no fear of any consequences. He was able to take up the plight of the Tamil people to international forums. He became the voice of the voiceless and gave hope to a people who were suffering untold hardships due to the ethnic conflict.
Bishop Ambalavanar was a great Biblical scholar and in recognition of his scholarship he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Serampore in India. As a sound intellectual he was well informed of the latest developments in Christian theology. He was happy to know that I was the only priest who visited the Ashram library in Maruthanamadam where there were a lot of theology and ecumenical books. As I had returned from Britain after my studies, he used to ask me to select the books from the catalogues of the latest theological books.
Bishop Ambalavanar sought to bear witness to the Bible through his commitments to the people in establishing missions in remote areas, to train people for social development and also to care for the orphans, the poor and the underprivileged. There was so much to learn from his caring ways.
Bishop Ambalavanar was sensitive to the needs of the whole population in turmoil, uprooted from their traditional lands and homes, and who needed to be looked after both physically and spiritually. Members of his church (CSI) had fled for their lives to the South of Elephant Pass and he needed to look after them.
Bishop Ambalavanar came across as a bishop who dared to dream of his mission entrusted to him and expanded the mission merely for the sake of serving his wounded people. In such actions he became a healer in the footsteps of his Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
In expanding the frontiers of the Church of South India he had to find the labourers for the vineyard. He changed the qualifications required for the new recruits and accepted anyone from any social background, so long as that person was convinced of his/her call, and was willing to undergo training for this purpose. This was, indeed, a bold step he took which many found difficult to accept. He was a shepherd who went seeking for the lost sheep and was keen to serve them as a true, humble servant of God.
Because of his vision to expand the mission and the need to train them and give them a sound theological knowledge, he started the Th e o l o g i c a l Seminary at Maruthanamadam. This was to avoid the problems of obtaining visas for studies in India and also to overcome the stringent requirements for admission to theological studies.
I would say that the early years of Bishop Ambalavanar were a period of dreaming and preparing and clearing the ground for the implementation of those dreams. The second half of his ministry was on materialising those almost impossible dreams, and he, with the grace of God, did achieve them.
It was his strong faith in God and the belief that he had been entrusted with a mission that he had to carry out at any cost. To achieve these dreams, he took calculated practical measures to make them possible. He had a strategy for every dream he pursued and his repeated reminders were: ‘Failure to plan is to plan failure’.
The success of his dreams was his determination to follow a dream and once he was convinced of a particular course of action he would carry it through to its end. His style of achieving his dreams reminded me of what Father Timothy Long, a famous Rector of St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna, who would keep saying to us at school assemblies: ‘The dogs may bark, but the caravan goes on’. In Bishop Ambalavanar’s case, his caravan full of dreams did move on all because of his deep faith, insight and determination.
I would conclude with some lines from the song that was popular in the early 60s. It refects the life and dreams of Bishop Ambalavanar.
‘ To dream the impossible dream, To fight the unfightable foe, To bear with unbearable sorrow, To run where the brave dare not go, To right the unrightable wrong, To strive when your arms are too weary, To reach the unreachable star, To strive for the right without question or pause, To be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause’..
Bishop Ambalavanar will always remain in our memory as a dreamer who believed there was hope for a better tomorrow. He was God’s greatest gift to us during the period of great trial for the people of Jaffna. May he enjoy the company of the angels in heaven! Bishop Justin B. Gnanapragasam Bishop of Jaffna