By: Jeanette Windle with Rev. Susiri Liyanage
“The choice is simple,” a board member reiterated. “If you will take this on, we will give you all our support. If not, we will dissolve as an organization, and BCM ministry in Sri Lanka will be closed down. Perhaps forever”
The choice may have been simple for Rev. Susiri Liyanage. The dilemma was not! Susiri was already pastoring a thriving church plant. He was involved in active evangelism in some of Sri Lanka’s poorest rural zones. He served as a leader in Sri Lanka’s association of evangelical churches. How could he possibly find time to take on leadership of BCM International’s ministry in Sri Lanka?
Rev. Susiri Liyanage had first come into contact with BCM in 1990 when he was conducting an advance leadership seminar for key leaders in Sri Lanka. The late Dr. Vararuchi Dalavai, then BCM VP of International Ministries (see link: https://www.bcmintl.org/well-done-good-faithful-servant/) approached Rev. Susiri about serving on a board of BCM’s struggling work in Sri Lanka. The time investment would be minimal, just occasional board meetings and the oversight of BCM’s national coordinator and volunteers working to start Bible clubs in different areas in Sri Lanka.
Susiri in turn had been excited to hear of thousands of churches planted and hundreds of thousands of children reached with the Gospel through BCM’s ministry across India and other parts of Asia. Susiri agreed to join several other Sri Lankan Christian ministry leaders to form a BCM Lanka board.
But only three months later, the national coordinator announced that his family was moving to England. The remaining volunteers were not experienced enough to take over the ministry. Now other board members were asking Susiri to salvage the situation. Susiri didn’t want to see this ministry closed. Nor did he want to disappoint overseas donors who’d already invested substantially in this ministry. But could he take on another responsibility of this magnitude?
This was not the first time Susiri Liyanage had faced an ultimatum. He’d grown up in a prosperous Buddhist home in the southern city of Galle. By age 16, he was searching something to fill a spiritual vacuum. Buddhism and Hinduism both professed to be peaceful religions. Yet his country was being ripped apart by infighting among extremist religious groups.
Susiri attended numerous temples, searching for answers. The one religion he had no interest in exploring was Christianity. To him, this was the religion of foreign conquerors. Then one day a friend invited him to an evangelistic campaign being held in the city hall. He declined angrily, but loitered outside the city hall while friends went in. From the doorway, he heard a young Sri Lankan give his testimony of faith in Jesus Christ.
“The foreigners must be paying him to say those things,” Susiri told himself. “This Jesus couldn’t even save himself. How can he be God?”
But on the third night of the campaign, Susiri found himself again listening from the doorway. At last he slipped inside and took a seat near the door. The message being preached seemed aimed directly at his own questions and doubts.
“How can they possibly know what is in my heart?” Susiri asked himself. At the end of the service, an usher approached.
“I can see something is happening in you,” he told Susiri. “Come, give your heart to Jesus.”
Susiri could not be so easily persuaded. Kneeling, he directed a prayer heavenward. “Jesus, I want you to show me you are a living God. If you show me, I will follow you.”
As Susiri got to his feet again, a lightness of joy and peace filled his heart. He knew God had answered his prayer. From that moment he committed himself to following Jesus Christ as his Savior.
But carrying out his new commitment didn’t prove easy. When his school authorities learned Susiri had converted to Christianity, he was expelled. Furious, his family demanded he renounce his new faith. The pressure became so great he ran away, making his way from Colombo to Tamil territory in the far north. There he encountered the Finnish captain of a small ship and his two sons. The three men were also Christian missionaries. Taking the 16-year-old under their wing, they gave him work on the ship and began to disciple him in his Christian faith. Susiri was happy in his new-found sanctuary—until a visitor arrived.
The visitor was Susiri’s older brother. He gave Susiri an ultimatum. Return home, or he’d file charges against the Finnish captain for harboring a minor. Not wanting to cause more trouble for his kindly host, Susiri agreed to return home. But once back in Colombo, Susiri was again pressured to renounce his new faith.
“If you attend church,” his brother told Susiri, “I will kill the pastor.”
Leaving home again, Susiri took a job on a farm. The farm administrator purported to be a Christian. Susiri was happy he’d be free to practice his faith. He was less happy once he received his first work assignment—cleaning out an enclosure containing years of built-up pig manure. He’d expected to be taught agricultural administration, not assigned filthy manual labor suitable only for the lowliest peasants! Was this how one Christian should treat another?
Susiri decided he’d do the job and do it well. But once finished, he was going to quit. When the enclosure was clean, Susiri reported back to his employer. The man expressed satisfaction. Then to Susiri’s surprise, he began the expected training. Only later did he explain that the first chore had been a test to see whether Susiri was willing to get his hands dirty and work hard.
Over the next years, Susiri learned the agricultural trade, working his way up to manager of a large livestock enterprise. By then he was also speaking in churches, working in children’s outreach, and sharing his faith in Jesus Christ with anyone willing to hear. Among those with whom Susiri shared his faith was a young postal worker named Swarna. She too had grown up in a staunch Buddhist home. When Swarna accepted Christ as Savior, Susiri introduced her to a local church.
“My intention was not to find a wife,” Susiri smiles now. “Only to see her become a Christian.”
But it wasn’t long before Susiri and Swarna recognized their growing love for each other. They were married when both were 23 years old. By this time Susiri was not only deeply involved in church ministry, but the young couple had begun an outreach to children in one of Colombo’s poorest slum areas, a district named Wattala. Susiri recognized he needed to make a decision—either continue a business career or commit himself full-time to ministry. As Susiri and Swarna prayed for guidance, both agreed that God was calling them to leave their jobs for full-time ministry.
A local Christian family sponsored the young couple to attend Southern Asia Bible College in Bangalore, India. After graduation, the Liyanages returned to Sri Lanka. By then God had given them a daughter. Settling into the slum area where they’d ministered before, they began an outreach to the poorest of the poor. Soon more than 200 neighborhood children were attending their Sunday School.
“They were uneducated, dirty, with runny noses,” Susiri remembers. “We shared the Gospel. But we also taught them to wash, comb their hair, speak respectfully to their parents. We helped them go to school.”
As parents saw change in their children, they too began to attend. Within a few years, a church was well established. Many of those children are now grown, raising Christian children of their own.
By now the Liyanages had two children—their daughter and a younger son. As the Colombo ministry became well established, Susiri and Swarna felt burdened for areas outside the city where there was no Gospel witness. Traveling by bicycle or public transport, Susiri began evangelistic outreach across a wide area. When one family came to Christ, they opened their home to start a church, removing all their furniture on Sundays so the space could be used for services. By the time Susiri met Dr. Dalavai in Singapore, he was well-known in Christian leadership across Sri Lanka.
And now here was one more unexpected challenge. After praying, Susiri returned to the board with an answer. “I will take on leadership of BCM in Sri Lanka until someone else can be found to take my place.”
See the next issue of BCM World for Part Two of how one simple choice became the beginning of a BCM church planting movement across Sri Lanka. Today BCM Lanka has planted nine core churches and 15 daughter churches. An urgent need is finances. BCM missionary pastors currently receive less than $100USD monthly and lack of funds limits expanding personnel.
A field goal for BCM Lanka is to raise $3000 in monthly support (less than the average single family income in North America), which will supply basic living expenses for current BCM missionary pastors and the national director as well as ministry expenses of evangelistic outreach. If you are interested in taking on part of this on-going support or making a one-time donation, follow this link: Sri Lanka Pastors
Originally Published in BCM World December 2014