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More tributes for a fearless social activist

Slum dwellers won't forget the work of Fr Balasuriya

More tributes for a fearless social activist
Oblate Father Tissa Balasuriya reporter, Colombo
Sri Lanka

January 28, 2013

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Tributes to renowned theologian Oblate Father Tissa Balasuriya have continued to pour in from around the world since his death at age 89 on January 17.

He was excommunicated by Pope John Paul II in 1997 for promoting a greater role for women in the Church. But to many in Sri Lanka, he is best remembered for his tireless work with the poor.  

Activists, academics, politicians and rich and poor alike have praised the priest’s work among city slum dwellers and his struggle to gain social justice for the oppressed and marginalized.

According to Oblate Father Oswald B. Firth, former assistant general of the world congregation of the Oblate of Mary Immaculate, Fr Bala’s (as Balasuriya was known) contribution in helping the poor must not be forgotten.

"We will not only remember and respect his contribution to the betterment of working people, we will never forget his genuine love for the needy, irrespective of their socio-cultural background," said Firth, a former Caritas Sri Lanka director.

Never was this more evident than among those in what became known as the Summitpura slum in Colombo.  

The Summitpura slum was created in 1976 after the then prime minister, Srimavo Bandaranaike, forcibly evicted around 1,200 families in a bid to clean up the city when Sri Lanka hosted a Non-Aligned Movement summit in Colombo.

These families were left to fend for themselves in makeshift housing with no basic facilities.

This was unacceptable to Balasuriya.

“He established an evening school, community center, organized loans so slum dwellers could start their own businesses and initiated health awareness programs to prevent diseases,” Firth said.

He even donated his 32-acre family property and home to establish a farm and training center for street children. It was set up as a self-sustaining community.

"Fr Bala felt education was the key to climbing the social ladder to better one’s life," said Firth.

His approach was unusual in that he recruited the teachers from the slum dwellers themselves, because they knew their own community intimately and they were more dedicated.

“People looked upon the slum children as wild animals; many schools would not admit them. Thanks to his efforts, they sat government-run examinations and some were even offered government jobs,” said Firth.

Roshan Abayawickrama was one of these lucky children.

That was the kind of man he was, said Abayawickrama.  “He didn’t wait for people to come to him for help, he went to them," he said.

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