Bandung, 25 February, 1924
Amsterdam, 11 August 2011
A tribute delivered at the St.Pauls Church, Milagiriya, Colombo on Tuesday, August 16, 2011 (day of the funeral)
Colombo Branch of the Jaffna College Alumni Association
Our thoughts at this time are very much with the members of his family. Those of us who were teachers and students during Ben’s period at Jaffna College do remember his children – a lively bunch of kids making the best of it in that rural setting that is Vaddukoddai and in that exceptionally homely campus that was Jaffna College.
Ben Bavinck was, teacher, colleague, a committed Christian activist, a social worker and friend.
Ben came to Jaffna College in its heyday as a missionary -teacher. A period in which Jaffna College reached heights of excellence in the academic field, sports, literary associations, residential life and the liberal ethos that was pervasive in the College Community. I place stress on the word Community – for we were a closely knit community with a significant multi-ethnic and international component. At one stage we had several Sinhalese students, an occasional Muslim, and students of Ceylon Tamil descent from Malaysia and Singapore and once we had two students from far away Uganda. This was partly because we had an Undergraduate Department preparing students for the external exams of the University of London.
The College having been founded by American missionaries, naturally the American presence on the teaching staff and extra-curricular activities was strong. Few people today are aware that we had Pastor Sussbach, a German Jew who had sought exile from fascist Germany and on a later date a Japanese -American couple – the daughter of the famous Japanese Christian leader Kagawa. In addition at one time 20 per cent of the teaching staff was from South India - mostly from Kerala.
It was into this setting that a 30 year old young man from Holland arrived in 1954. I have vivid memories of the day he arrived. He was mobbed by the younger students in the College as he playfully interacted with them. At that time I little realized that this was to be the beginning of a long and intimate relationship with the people of Jaffna – a relationship that lasted a good fifty-five years covering three generations. I am inclined to believe that his latter day commitments were shaped by the experience of living among the people of Jaffna at a crucial period in our history. His theological awareness based on the Servant hood of the Master influenced his practice which in turn further sharpened his theoretical and theological understanding of society and mission.
The choice that Ben made to learn TAMIL was to stand him in good stead in subsequent years. He may not have achieved what he eventually did if he had not made this vital decision as linguistic nationalism took over and we became a monolingual society. He became a vital link and bridge-builder among the various communities in the divisive times that we have been through. This is testified to in the diaries he maintained.
In recent years he translated into English these diaries he maintained in his own language. He lived to see the publication and release OF TAMILS AND TIGERS – A journey through Sri Lanka’s war years, Part I: 1988-1994, the diaries of Ben Bavinck, edited by Maithreyi Rajeshkumar (Rajani Thiranagama Memorial Committee),Vijitha Yapa Publications, Colombo, April 2011. This valuable publication in the old tradition of missionaries and officials in the public service will last the test of time. It will remain a lasting testimony to the man and his indefatigable commitment to the people of this country in one of the worst times in our history.
Another facet of his life and personality was his simple life style and adaptability to local conditions. In one sense he belonged to the missionary tradition of the nineteenth century of simple living and being one with the people. In this sense he had much in common with Sister Hutchins of Karuna Nilayam in Kilinochchi and Sister Elizabeth Baker of Navajeevanam in Paranthan – referred to by the village folk there as “bicycle riding Baker Amma.” Both were able to communicate in Tamil. He like them was among the last of LIFE TIME missionaries
His life style was simple and frugal- when in Colombo he always travelled by bus and in Jaffna in the war years on his bicycle. I observed the same when I met him once in Amsterdam, on another occasion in Chennai and when he visited us in Tokyo. He returned to work for the NCC in 1986. In Holland he was Associate Director of the World service Department of the Reformed Churches (Algamin Diaconal Bureau of Netherlands), a humanitarian social work agency. A friend from the WCC once remarked to me that Ben was very tight-fisted when it came to funding for social work and understandably so. He had strong commitment to stewardship in the use of funds, marked by his own life style – that funding must reach the poorest segments of society. And he was deeply agitated and hurt by those who plundered and embezzled such funding.
He was aware that funds that come for humanitarian relief through churches is often donated not by the rich and affluent classes but by ordinary working people with a very limited income in the developed countries of the world. Many of the missionaries that I have known retired without wealth. Some had to work after returning to their homelands, after a life time of service here. They were relatively poor in the affluent west, having given the best years of their lives to us here.
Though as I have mentioned he belonged to the nineteenth century tradition in missionary work those of us who knew his thinking and intellectual bent know how much he belonged to the contemporary era in which live.
He was very close to and deeply influenced by the Rev. Dr. D.T.Niles, who was responsible for bringing him to Jaffna. Like D.T., Ben became a very ecumenical person. He was widely read both on theology, secular and contemporary issues. By interacting with people in all walks of life he developed insights regarding our problems in this country, especially on the long unresolved national question, justice to workers, environmental and other issues. He impelled us to look at things from the other point of view – always challenging. At the same time he never failed to encourage with a short note from Jaffna of from Amsterdam when one had taken a stand that he thought was right and just. He sent us a signal that we were on the same wave length. His own experiences of life under fascist rule and the negative impact of narrow and belligerent nationalism, made him abhor extreme nationalist posturing be it Tamil or Sinhalese.
After an evening of serious and heart rending discussions it was always a pleasure to end the day with his bubbling humour, and his apt and inimitable expressions in Tamil. He enjoyed Lankan food and our ways of life. Many of us here will miss the remarkable friendship and fellowship enjoyed with this long time friend. As we say farewell to Ben Conrad Bavinck we shall always acknowledge the indelible mark he made on our lives and in some cases for over half a century.