“Daddy, what’s that?”
Paramesvaran looked toward the ocean. Curiosity turned to horror as a 30-foot wave bore down on the man and his 5-year-old son, Kirubasan. He grabbed the boy and ran.
But it was too late.
The wave lifted them off the ground and tossed them back down. Paramesvaran’s son slipped from his grasp. The water swept Paramesvaran along until he could grab hold of a palm tree. Clinging tightly against the force of the waves, he felt the rough trunk rip into his arms, leaving gaping wounds.
Almost five years later, one glance at the jagged scars stretching along his arms like tattoos can transport him back to that day — Dec. 26, 2004. The Indian Ocean earthquake, which triggered a series of devastating tsunamis, was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history.
As the tsunami waters receded, Paramesvaran stumbled home in shock. He found his wife, Choodamani, sitting on the second floor of their house. The waves had topped the retaining wall around their house, located less than five minutes from the beach, and flooded the first floor.
What about Kirubasan and daughters Rakshanya, 12, and Karunya, 9? They and seven out-of-town relatives who had come to visit for Paramesvaran’s 40th birthday had gone to the beach with Paramesvaran that day. Paramesvaran had not seen any of them. The rest of the day he searched the beach for his children, joined by panic-stricken neighbors also searching for loved ones. They later learned that more than 225,000 people had been killed by the tsunami that struck 11 countries.
By midnight Paramesvaran had found his children’s bodies and the bodies of most of his relatives. He found Kirubasan “lying like a stone statue” on the beach. Rakshanya was floating face down in the ocean. The waves left Karunya’s body entangled in a thorn bush.
The next morning he buried his children together in a grave he dug by hand.
Local Hindus said he and Choodamani were being punished for converting years ago to Christianity. His own brother taunted him, “Where is your Jesus?”
Reeling with grief, the couple considered a suicide pact. Paramesvaran was haunted by thoughts of letting go of his son’s hand. Choodamani was angry that her husband had taken the children to the beach so early that day. It was Sunday, and they should have been getting ready for church.
God began to comfort Choodamani in those first few days following the tsunami. She realized how blessed she was to still have her husband and to be alive.
“God talked to me in a very crystal-clear voice;” she says. “[God said] ‘don’t be upset. So many people died, and yet, your husband is alive … have some purpose in your life: It’s why we are still alive.”
Paramesvaran, however, continued to sink deeper into depression and thoughts of suicide. “I went to my wife and asked her, ‘Can I drink any poison?’” he says. “Can I commit suicide? I don’t want to live.”
Choodamani attempted to comfort her husband by sharing what God had revealed to her. Instead, he became angry. He didn’t feel God’s comfort; he couldn’t hear His voice. Paramesvaran pushed his wife out of the room, locked the door and collapsed to his knees. “I was beating my hands saying, “Oh, Jesus, speak to me,’” he says. “I asked God why He hadn’t given me a word.”
Grasping old photos of his children and gently caressing their faces, Paramesvaran suddenly could hear them comforting him. “They said they were safe with Jesus,” he says. “They said, ‘Daddy, don’t cry. We are OK, Daddy.’”
That day, Paramesvaran says, he felt “enormous strength” from God. He also began to feel a deep burden for the orphans in a nearby village.
A New Burden
More than 60 children in the village lost their parents in the tsunami. With no one responsible for them, they wandered from house to house, relative to relative, begging for food and living under blue tarps that served as temporary shelters.
“If we would have died,” Paramesvaran says, “I could have seen my children in this group.”
The couple initially took four children into their home. Over time the number has grown to 20 — six girls and 14 boys.
“[God said] you were a mother for three, but now you can be a mother for so many,” says Choodamani, who has given birth to two sons — Shemaiah, 2, and Micaiah, 1 — since losing her first three children. “Without God we’d never made it through this.”
The financial burden on the couple, however, took its toll in the beginning. Though Paramesvaran works for a gas company and Choodamani is an accountant, they struggled to make ends meet.
They turned to IMB representative, Cole Elbridge,* who was leading relief efforts along the coast. Southern Baptists gave more than $17 million to help tsunami victims. From a portion of those gifts, Elbridge was able to provide the couple with kitchen appliances, beds, clothes, books and school supplies, plus meet other needs for the children. The funds also provided food, shelter, boats, nets and supplies to the community.
“There were so many needs that Southern Baptists helped us with,” says Paramesvaran. “Through that [support] we were able to spread the gospel. Many people came to Christ.”
That support also allowed the orphaned children, all from Hindu backgrounds, to hear about Jesus for the first time.
Today, all of them have a relationship with Christ. Some are preaching the gospel alongside Paramesvaran in the community.
Healing in India
Residents along much of India’s eastern coast still have scars and pain from that tragic December day.
A faint waterline is still visible around the perimeter of the couple’s house. Here and there, collapsed buildings block the beachfront. A rusty barge rests in the sand where the tsunami waves abandoned it. There are now lakes and ponds where there were none.
Most of the wreckage and damage has been removed or repaired.
Broken hearts, however, aren’t as easy to mend. But the love of Christ shown by Indian Christians such as Paramesvaran and Choodamani has brought the good news into areas that were once unreceptive to Christians.
Since tsunami relief began in India, more than 1,400 house churches have been planted, 12,000 people have accepted Christ as their Savior and 4,000 have been baptized. With training and support from Elbridge, Paramesvaran has started two churches and vocational training centers in his community.
Paramesvaran and Choodamani can see God’s faithfulness through all they have experienced.
Some have compared their story to that of Job — a man who suffered great loss yet remained faithful to God.
“I read [in the Bible] that Job lost everything on the same day;” Paramesvaran says. “I used to wonder how it was possible. Now I understand that it is true because it happened to me. When we think about our children, now, I can see the grace of God. God has given us a second life.”
*Name(s) changed for security
Originally published as “Southern Baptists’ response to the tsunami: Dollars sent, needs met, gospel spread, churches planted” by Shawn Hendricks, CommissionStories, Winter 2009, p. 12-13.