It is a privilege to be with you today as we observe the bicentennial of the establishment of the American Ceylon Mission. On behalf of Ambassador Atul Keshap and the U.S. Embassy in Colombo, congratulations and thank you to everyone who made this great celebration possible.
This is a celebration in many ways. For Christians, this is a day to remember the faith and diligence of those first missionaries. To quote from “Mr. Newell’s Journal,” the record of one of the first five missionaries, “What a field is here for missionary exertions..here there is work for 120 missionaries…but there is no one to say unto them, hear the word of the Lord.”
For those of us who have the honor to represent the United States government in other nations, this is a celebration of the people-to- people ties that are the strong foundation of the relationship between the United States and so many countries, including Sri Lanka. Last month I had the opportunity to visit the grave of John Black, in the cemetery of All Saints Church, Galle Fort. Mr. Black was the first American consular and commercial agent in Sri Lanka, a responsibility he undertook in 1850. That is 34 years after the events we celebrate today. This is a humbling reminder that people like me, official representatives of a nation, may be less important than individual private Americans who, in the name of God or science, in pursuit of profit or adventure, have been travelling the globe and building relationships for longer than we have been doing so as flag-bearing officials.
I hope that this is also a celebration for many people of the north, regardless of religion, who have benefited from the contributions missionaries made in areas such as education and health care. I am not naïve. I understand that when cultures and religions meet there can be conflict and misunderstanding. Nonetheless, the missionaries who came here translated textbooks from English to Tamil, established the first Tamil language newspaper, published the first comprehensive Tamil-English dictionary and founded institutions such as the Tellipalai Union College, Udivil Girl’s School and the Green Memorial Hospital, which I visited the last time I came Jaffna. The legacy of these actions and institutions is, I hope, a positive one.
Finally, I confess to a personal interest in this anniversary, independent of my standing as a representative of the U.S. government. I am also the grandson of Christian missionaries, John and Ruth Elder, who served in Iran for 40 years. My mother and her five siblings were born in Iran, and to this day they can sing “Yes, Jesus Loves Me” in Farsi. Like Samuel and Harriet Newell, Adoniram and Ann Judson, and Samuel and Roxana Nott, my grandparents gave the best part of their lives for a cause they believed in, something greater than themselves. I hope we can all admire the courage and conviction of men and women such as these, respecting their gifts to the people around them while acknowledging their flaws as well.
Friends, this is a new and hopeful time for relations between the United States and Sri Lanka. Our Embassy is committed to working with the people and government of this country to achieve lasting peace and intercommunal harmony based on meaningful reconciliation. We know this is a difficult task but as Secretary of State John Kerry said in Colombo last May, “true peace is more than the absence of war. True and lasting peace, especially after a civil conflict, requires policies that foster reconciliation, not resentment. It demands that all citizens of the nation be treated with equal respect and equal rights, and that no one be made to feel excluded or subjugated. It calls for a military that projects its power outward to protect its people, not inward to police them. It necessitates, as America’s great president Abraham Lincoln said, binding up the nation’s wounds, with malice towards none and with charity towards all.”
In that spirit, let me conclude by once again thanking the organizers for allowing me to participate today to mark what in many ways was the true beginning of the enduring relationship between the United States and Sri Lanka. Thank you.