Church of Scotland minister recalls life-changing Boxing Day tsunami

The Rev John Purves outside St Andrew's Scots Kirk in Colombo, Sri Lanka

The Rev John Purves, 66, had been in Sri Lanka for little over a year when the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami struck on December 26 2004.

It claimed the lives of about 230,000 people in several different countries and prompted unprecedented levels of charitable giving.

Living in one of the worst-hit countries, the Scots minister found himself at the centre of relief efforts in his community after the natural disaster struck.

"It's in these circumstances that you know what life's about," he said.

"Most of the time you're just cruising along. It's only when something like that cuts across the day-to-day that we think about what our priorities are - what really matters, what do we really need to survive and what can I do to be of some help to somebody else?"

A decade ago, Mr Purves, now retired and living in North Ayrshire, was the Church of Scotland minister of St Andrew's Scots Kirk in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

A few months into his placement, he had been in hospital with a fever and was told to take things easy for a while.

"It was fairly soon after that that the tsunami struck," he said.

On the 26th, a Sunday, he gave a morning service before setting off with his wife for a beach holiday on the other side of the island.

Throughout the six-hour drive, they were unaware of the tragedy which had struck the coastline.

He said: "It was only around 6pm in the evening, as we arrived at our beach resort, that we discovered there was no hotel.

"Like many other hotels on the coast of the island, it had been swamped by the wave.

"Some people had drowned, everything was damaged or destroyed.

"There were boats halfway up the driveway, there were cars on rooftops, sofas and bed frames in the tennis courts, there were fishing boats in the trees."

He and his wife found temporary shelter further inland and eventually managed to phone their son in the UK to let him know they were safe.

Remarkably, it was Mr Purves's second experience of being caught up in a natural disaster. The first when he was in Jamaica the 1980s as it was hit by a hurricane.

"Your first emotion is one of unreality, that this is not true," he said.

"The second feeling I had was one of being very sad for the people who had suffered. It was apparent that people had lost their lives and there was a huge amount of damage.

"The third feeling was that this (relief and recovery effort) is going to take time."

When he got back to Colombo, which was largely untouched by the tsunami, the church hall had been turned into a warehouse for collecting donations of emergency supplies.

Mr Purves said: "People were bringing things, they were asking, 'What can I do?'

"The next three months we just worked every day, all day."

Over that time, the church community helped to take food and clean water, medical supplies, baby milk, bedding and towels to some of the worst-hit communities in Sri Lanka.

The minister also lost one person he knew, a young American woman with Sri Lankan roots who had returned to the island to share her love of the violin with others.

Following the tragedy, the best of humanity came to the fore, Mr Purves believes, in the form the influx of charitable donations and support from aid workers.

He said: "There was tremendous loss of life, at least 30,000 people (in Sri Lanka) and 300,000 made homeless.

"But the positives were that everybody was in the same situation and people were very helpful towards each other.

"The tourists who lost everything were then dependent on the local people for shelter, food and help. It was one of those strange role reversals.

"At the beginning of the day, the tourists were the wealthy people and the local people were poor. By the end of the day the tourists had nothing and it was the local people who came to their assistance."

As for his faith, he admits having felt "a bit resentful" at being caught up in a second disaster but found comfort when the kindness of others shone through.

Mr Purves said: "In the immediate aftermath I perhaps wobbled a bit but then, from past experience, knew that it was a situation in which we could prove God's goodness."