It was in 1972 that I ran into Joan de Mel, while visiting relatives in Kurunegala. We met over lunch and shared thoughts on common social issues that seemed to bother her. Little did I suspect that this meeting would lead to a relationship that blossomed through a period of more than 36 years.
Marriage had brought Joan to Sri Lanka the year before, in 1971, and she was already busy studying Sinhala in order to become a useful member of the local community. Two years later, when she resolved to devote time to suicide prevention work in Sri Lanka, she met with me in Colombo, along with her late husband, the Metropolitan Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Lakdasa de Mel, who predeceased her in 1976.
Thus began our long journey together. Although the de Mels were deeply entrenched in the service of the Anglican Church, they were liberated spirits. When it came to social issues, personal convictions did not matter. Joan de Mel taught me that labels did not matter; what mattered was the person who was in need of emotional support. When it came to human distress, divisive thinking was not acceptable.
Falling back on her long experience as a volunteer with the Samaritans in London, she introduced the art of listening and befriending to the local community by founding the organisation known as Sri Lanka Sumithrayo in 1974. In a country where counselling was a luxury, the training of volunteers who could give emotional first aid by way of listening and befriending was Joan’s special gift to Sri Lanka. Today we have Sumithrayo centres in many parts of the island. Those bowed down under emotional stress can drop in at any of these centres and unburden themselves, in strict confidence, to a trained befriender, free of charge.
Joan de Mel introduced the Sumithrayo way of life to hundreds of volunteers. A strict disciplinarian, she found it difficult to understand the Sri Lankan lack of respect for punctuality. Yet the foundation of Sri Lanka Sumithrayo is discipline and selflessness. As the years went by, it became increasingly difficult to recruit volunteers possessing these two important qualities, but Joan was determined in her commitment.
She made her Horton Place residence and land available for Sumithrayo services. Almost all of her income was channelled for the purposes of charity. Her life was simple and uncluttered. She absorbed the Sri Lankan culture, and she thought the way Sri Lankans do, although she found it difficult to behave the way we do. Rather than misuse her wealth, she simply made it available to support the needy.
Joan de Mel passed away on December 27. Hers was a private funeral. She wanted to depart in the same silent way she had worked in Sri Lanka for the previous three-and-half decades. At a time when people are more interested in material assets, Joan took on the challenge of awakening the community to values that money cannot buy. Love, compassion, tolerance and sharing were the cornerstones on which her life was built.
There are hundreds of volunteers trained by the organisation Joan founded who will bear witness to the impact she has had on their own lives. There are thousands more who have benefited from the organisation and will no doubt continue to gain relief in the future too. Joan de Mel has been truly immortalised through the Sumithrayo service.
Sri Lanka Sumithrayo – Colombo