Discovering a New Set of Eyes in Sri Lanka

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I first talked to Lanna Abbott in September, about a month after she had travelled to Sri Lanka on a missions trip with team members from Free Methodist churches in Canada. At the time we spoke, Lanna, a high school teacher and member of Northview Community Church, was actively and enthusiastically processing the trip and what impact it had on her.

Team in Sri LankaThe team in Sri Lanka: Jaylynne Fox, Lanna Abbott, Zac Abbott, Rachel Runnalls, Jason Johnson, Ben Gomez (missing from photo, Dan Sheffield)

The mission to Sri Lanka involved carrying out physical labour (replacing a roof on a church building), pastoral leadership training, children’s ministry and teacher training.  For Lanna, at the heart of it, was the relationship-building and encouragement for the church in Sri Lanka.  In the end, that was the double-sided impact. Lanna went to encourage and returned encouraged in the Kingdom work that was happening in Sri Lanka and in her.

Lanna is no stranger to cross-cultural work.  She travelled and volunteered in South Africa right after high school, she went to Europe on a university history class and participated in a teacher-exchange to Uganda.   Lanna would not say it was the geographical or cultural differences that affected her this time. “In terms of conditions,” she says, “I didn’t find that part challenging.” Rather, she was given new and helpful tools to process what she was experiencing.  Lanna says, “I discovered a new set of eyes.”

 PREPARATION AND TRAINING

The team to Sri Lanka included Lanna and her husband, Zac and Jaylynne Fox (Northview FMC), Rachel Runnalls (First Free Methodist Church, Moose Jaw), Jason Johnson (West Springs Free Methodist Church, Calgary), Ben Gomez (Wesley Chapel Free Methodist Church, Toronto), and Global Ministries Director, Dan Sheffield.

Sri Lankan Team
Cross-cultural training for the team at the Ministry Centre, in Mississauga. (From L to R: Dan, Rachel, Jason, Jaylynne, Zac, Lanna)

As the team was made up from people from different churches, they spent two days at the Ministry Centre in Mississauga, learning cross-cultural strategies from Dan Sheffield.  Before and during the trip, Dan led them through some team building exercises as well as activities to get them thinking about cross-cultural communication.

“One of my favourite activities was when Dan gave us different words and we had to decide whether or not they were Canadian values.  It was so interesting.  We discovered we had opposite values to Sri Lanka almost… Canadians tend to think as individuals versus group mentality. “ 

Lanna learned that “one’s perspective runs so deep we cannot fully understand another culture’s point of view.  We have to develop cultural intelligence [in order to be effective ministers].”  

The investment Dan made in the team through training helped them anticipate and then deal with the differences they encountered on the ground.  They were then able to maneuver and work in the culture instead of potentially creating conflict by reacting in judgment to what they saw around them.

THE IMPACT OF THE TRIP

Lanna says one of the biggest impacts was developing an understanding of how she could be used.  In particular, on her third day in Sri Lanka, she had the opportunity to do a teacher-training course for children’s ministry teachers in the village of Nikkagola.  Lanna was questioning the influence she could have in the short time she would be there.  Lanna and Jaylynne spent time initially asking the Sri Lankan teachers what they wanted to learn and then carried out some activities based on that feedback.   It was wonderful for the team to witness the teachers take what they had learned and use it to teach Bible classes to the children. The team asked the teachers for prayer request to take back to Canada.  The teachers shared how influential children are to their families.  The families might be Buddhist or Hindu, but a child who knows Jesus is a shining light to his or her community.  

Sri Lankan Children

On the last day of children’s ministry and teacher training, the Sri Lankan teachers ushered the Canadian team to the front of the room to pray for the children.  Lanna was terrified, but she went ahead and prayed for the children. 

“I put my hands on their shoulders, thinking about how kids are lights to families in ways we do not fully understand.  It was such an amazing opportunity. I was praying for the children to go and be a light to their family and their community.  One girl in particular, when it was her turn, I put my hands on her shoulder and it was like an electric shock went up through my arms the moment I touched her. I had a vision of how God was going to use this girl even though I did not know her. I was praying and became overwhelmed. I don’t know how culturally appropriate it was, but I started to cry!  Afterward, Dan asked if I was OK.  ‘Oh yes.’”

Lanna learned so much from the team who went with her, each person with their own skills and contributions.  “Each team member has his or her unique gifts to share and unique role to play in this mission. I learned so much from serving alongside them.”

As much as Lanna got a specific picture of how God was using her in that setting, she also believes it wasn’t all about her and/or her experience.  “Lots of times I have travelled overseas to do something for my own purpose. It has been MY adventure.”  Yet this time, things were different.  “The church was sending me. We were doing this for God.” It was reinforced in everything they did.

The theme verse was Philippians 2:3-4 “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

Lanna shared another story (although admits there are many to share).  On one of the mornings during Family Camp, a retreat for Sri Lankan Free Methodist pastors and their families, Dan Sheffield was preaching. Lanna, Jaylynne, and Zac had been helping with the children’s ministry during Family Camp, but this particular morning Lanna had a sense she needed to join the adult session and listen to Dan’s message. That was the Holy Spirit right there. Dan’s message struck a chord with Lanna. “I realized that none of this is about me, it is about God. Jesus calls us to be humble and think of others first, to do things for God’s glory, not our own.” 

Lanna says Dan was prompted by the Holy Spirit to invite the congregation up to the altar to have a conversation with God to lay down one’s conceit and selfish ambition. “I hate going to the front,” Lanna says, “It makes me feel uncomfortable, but I felt a tug at my heart to go up there.  Talk about leading from humility and actively putting our theme verse into play.”  When Lanna allowed the Spirit to lead, she had the most amazing, spontaneous worship she has ever experienced and she received that incredible blessing along with Sri Lankan Pastor Harichandrarajah’s wife, Rebecca, who held her hand and prayed with her. She would have missed this blessing except for her change of heart.

Sri Lankan Service

Lanna loved being able to minister together with her husband, Zac. Lanna saw her husband in his element – she learned what great non-verbal communication skills he has at communicating in an new culture and unknown language. As an owner of a wood-framing business, Zac was able to use his gifts to help out with the roofing project. During the time spent at the church in Nikkagola and at the Family Camp in Kandy, Zac developed close relationships with the Pastor Harichandrarajah and his son, Jenistan.  Jenistan was sad that Zac was leaving to return to Canada.  Pastor Hari tried to explain to his six-year-old son why Zac had to go.  On the day they were leaving, “there was a little knock on door at 6 a.m., Jenistan brought a banana and avocado, gave us a hug, and cried.”  Jenistan didn’t want to say goodbye to his new friend.  

Lanna and Zac with Pastor Family

A PERMANENT CHANGE

Lanna realized upon coming home that she wasn’t making the same efforts to build connections with people in Canada as she did in Sri Lanka. She has started praying as she comes to school.  “Whenever ‘O Canada’ comes on [the P.A. System], I look around at individual students and start praying for them specifically.  It never occurred to me [to do this] before.”  

Lanna revealed the retroactive effect of the training and the trip,

“I don’t believe I fully understood my experience teaching in Uganda until I went to Sri Lanka. I had been discouraged at times [in Uganda], thinking my time there was not meaningful because I had not made a noticeable difference in six weeks. After spending time building into relationships with other believers in Sri Lanka, I realized that my time in Uganda had been along a similar vein. I was able to build relationships with the students and teachers there. I had been exposed to a different value system and a different perspective with which to look at the world. The individual does not always come first.”

And of course, Lanna also experienced reverse culture shock – a new set of eyes will do that to you.  On her first morning back in Canada, worshipping at her home church, she was a little homesick for Sri Lanka, where people sang off key, but it was beautiful.  Sometimes Lanna feels that at home she worries too much about what she looks or sounds like.   Getting the opportunity to worship so freely in Sri Lanka has affected her worship here as well.

Now, half a year later, Lanna shares her story whenever she gets the opportunity.  She is most definitely an advocate for Sri Lanka.  She is doing what she can to journal, keep the memory alive and allow it to impact her life back home. 

“I’ve experienced this connection and I want it to continue. This isn’t just one-time thing.  I want to continue the dialogue, continue the conversation with members of the church. I want the experience to continue to influence me… I don’t think you ever lose your eyesight.  Life is very much the same: I live in the same house, go to the same church, teach at the same school, but I am no longer the same.  My perspective won’t return to the way it was and I don’t want it to… I wish everyone had the opportunity to develop a new set of eyes.”

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