A new Regional Secretary for South Asia: getting to know Savithri

Nov 03
Posted by Penny Vinden (03 Nov 2016)

We’re very pleased to announce that Savithri Sumanthiran has been appointed Regional Secretary for South Asia. We talked to her about growing up, how she got to know IFES and her time as General Secretary of FOCUS Sri Lanka. It was fascinating! Here are some highlights of that conversation so you can get to know her too.

I was born into a Christian family. My grandmother, who was a Christian, died very young at 54, so my mother made our family base her father’s home which is where I had my early childhood years.

My grandfather was a Hindu but like all good Hindus the important thing for him was having a good character. All his children were brought up in the faith of his wife.

When I was a little girl I was ill and had an experience of being prayed for that was my first trigger towards a personal faith. My response to this experience was to memorise the Anglican liturgy!

The following years would see me practicing what I now call a committed nominal faith until at the age of 15, I became a Christian for myself in a Methodist youth fellowship.

When I was seven the student insurrection of 1971 took place. There were a few students from the university who moved into our home and every time there was a knock at the door we wondered whether the army had come for them. It was an early example of living with tension.

When I was 19 there were ethnic riots. The day the riots started, we clambered over our back wall and took shelter in a neighbours’ home. Our house was badly damaged and looted. As Tamils, we were on the wrong side of the ethnic divide.

These riots for the Tamil community of my generation became the marker of life for many of us. We thought of our lives as before 1983 and post 1983. I had just finished my A-levels and started on CIMA - a British-run professional accounting qualification. I raced my way through this course but had to finish in England because of the political situation in the country. So I never went to university!

Within a month of coming back to Sri Lanka one of my friends said, ‘I’m going to a graduate camp. Would you like to come?”

I think it was Vinoth Ramachandra [IFES Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement] who was doing the teaching and something clicked within me. I knew I had found the group of people that made sense to me as a community of faith because they were attempting to link their faith to all of life and with their minds. It was the first time I had come across people like them.

I had been introduced to FOCUS Sri Lanka! The teaching connected faith to character, lifestyle and work; the conversations were times when we applied what we were discovering and these young graduates knew how to laugh!

Much later I became General Secretary of FOCUS. I thought of my time as bridge building and giving confidence to the staff team. I felt that my role was in building a sense of community in FOCUS between the first generation of graduates, the younger graduates and the students.

What is my vision as Regional Secretary? I’m not sure yet! For FOCUS I had a vision. As Regional Secretary it is still a blank sheet. There are some challenges. I am a woman in a male-dominated world. I come from FOCUS which is a tiny movement in relation to the other established ministries in the region.

But having been General Secretary of FOCUS will help. I have met the other general secretaries before. They were supportive of me during the years I was the GS of FOCUS and have communicated much support in these months since my appointment.

I’m a very cautious person usually. I’m not adventurous. I have conversations with myself inside my head! The usual me is asking ‘what do you have to bring to this job’ and the other part of me replies ‘In your weakness God’s strength will come through.’ So while most of me is apprehensive about this new role, a little part of me is looking forward to experiencing what God is about to do!

Please pray for Savithri as she gets to know the region and its needs in the months to come, and for wisdom as she seeks to unite and grow the IFES movements in South Asia. Savithri is married and has three children, two of them in university and one yet in school – please pray for her family as well.

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About Penny Vinden

Penny is a former member of the IFES Global Communications team.

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