It’s a safe bet that the Rev. Shariya Molegoda, the new rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, is the first person in that position to have spent time in a national park in Sri Lanka researching elephant and water buffalo populations.
It’s an even safer bet that she is the first St. Andrew’s rector to have come out of a national park in Sri Lanka after researching elephant and water buffalo populations only to discover that the country had entered a long civil war.
That’s probably the most dramatic event in the long journey—both geographical and spiritual—that has brought Shariya from her childhood in Sri Lanka, an island nation located off the southern coast of India, to a small church on the shoreline of Connecticut. It’s a story that illustrates the values both of community and of solitude.
Shariya was born in 1958 to English-speaking parents who each came from one of the two ethnic groups that would eventually go to war. Her father was Sinhalese; her mother is Tamil.
Shariya, the eldest of three children, attended an Anglican girls’ school that had daily religious services.
“My mother’s family is Anglican,” she says. “My father’s family is actually Buddhist, so we grew up not just in a household that was mixed ethnically but also religiously.”
Like the English language, the Anglican Church, or Church of England, is well established in Sri Lanka, which is a former British colony.
Shariya’s mother and the children attended a local Anglican church, which was fine with her father.
“He would go on special occasions,” Shariya says. “He was also the one who took us to Sunday school and things like that.”
Shariya’s parents had international backgrounds. Her father, who worked for a company that exported tea and other commodities, had served in the British Navy during World War II and had traveled widely. Her mother had trained as a dairy scientist overseas.
“She did some of her studies in Wales and some in South Dakota, of all places,” says Shariya.
“I think I kind of grew up assuming that the world was my oyster,” she says, “and I decided when it came time for college to just explore all kinds of opportunities, and I applied to this little liberal-arts school in Decatur, Georgia, and ended up going there.”
Although the school, Agnes Scott College, is all female, one would assume that the transition to the United States in the ’70s would be jarring.
“It was wonderful!” says Shariya. “I think just being in the liberal-arts milieu, it was kind of not a huge transition for me—apart from the fact that it was half the world away. My four years as an undergraduate were just absolutely delightful.”
The break from her family, from daily religious services, and from her local church had a paradoxical effect on Shariya.
“For the first time in my life I wasn’t worshipping communally regularly,” she says. “Being out on my own halfway across the world and not worshipping with a community allowed me, I think, to develop interior resources in terms of prayer and laying claim to my own connection with God.
“In my junior and senior years,” she says, “I sort of had this hankering for the church, and felt the stirring of what might be termed a call to life in the church.”
After graduating with a degree in biology, Shariya moved back in with her family in Colombo.
“I was thinking of ordained life in the Anglican church in Sri Lanka,” she says, “so I worked for a short while for the diocese, doing research about their endowments and trusts and things like that, but I had my agenda.
“My agenda,” she says, “was really to discover whether there was a possibility that the church would ordain women. I did have a meeting with the then-bishop of Colombo, and he was very nice, but he said, ‘You know, it’s not going to happen for a few decades.’
“So having discovered that I could not really begin to work toward that vocation,” she says, “I went on to my second love, which is ecology.
“I went to graduate school in Sri Lanka, in environmental science with an emphasis on wildlife biology, which is why I was in the park when the war broke out.”A Family Divided
“When the war began,” Shariya says, “I was blissfully unaware. I was cut off from communication with the outside world. And I emerged from the national park to take a bus back to Colombo, and partway though the journey I realized that something was terribly wrong, and saw burning buildings and mobs stopping cars. They were setting cars on fire if they found that the drivers were Tamil.
“Our bus got stopped, and they asked if there were any Tamils on the bus and for the driver to turn people over to the mob, and so it was very frightening.
“By the time I got home,” Shariya says, “my dad was out. Because he was Sinhalese, he was able to get around a little more easily, and he was gathering my mother’s relatives, to bring them back to our home.
“It was a very frightening time,” Shariya says. “For 25 years, there was this horrendous civil war, and it was an ethnic war, and very baffling and painful for those of us who identified with both groups.
“There’s plenty of blame to go around,” she says, “but it created the need for many people to leave the land, the island, and so many of my mother’s relatives live as a diaspora now.”
Despite the war, Shariya earned a master’s in environmental science in Sri Lanka. She decided to pursue a Ph.D. in the wildlife-biology program at the University of Georgia. The program sent her off by herself again.
“I was living on Cumberland Island, which is one of the barrier islands off the coast of Georgia, doing some research on the feral-hog population,” she says. “I had a lot of solitude, because in the winter, there weren’t many visitors. I was removed from practically every aspect of community.
“I had a lot of time for prayer,” she says, “and I kind of knew that the call to serve God in the church was just not going to go away.
“I’m still living off the riches of that period,” she says.Following the Call
Shariya applied to divinity school. She had completed all of the requirements for her Ph.D. but her dissertation. She says she told herself, “‘Oh, I’m going to do that while I’m in seminary.’ And of course it never did get written.”
Shariya earned a master’s from the Yale Divinity School. While there, she reestablished a religious connection from her youth.
“I had grown up around the Sisters of St. Margaret, an Anglican order, a group of women who were affiliated with a parish that I belonged to. It was a small order that began in England and spread to just a handful of places around the world, Colombo being one of them and Boston being one of them, and so while I was in seminary, I began visiting the sisters in Boston.”
After graduating, in 1993, Shariya entered the order’s convent in Roxbury, Massachusetts, staying for five years.
“St. Margaret’s is what’s called an apostolic order,” she says. “We met in the chapel for prayer five times a day, but you also go out and have ministries.”
Shariya worked with Head Start and with the order’s summer camp while completing the process to become a deacon and then a priest. She had jobs at the Episcopal cathedral in Boston and at St. Anne’s in-the-Fields, in Lincoln, Massachusetts.
The latter parish offered an unexpected benefit to Shariya.
“I loved the proximity to Walden Pond,” she says, “because I had grown up reading Thoreau, and so it was just wonderful to be walking in the area.
“It was when I was at St. Anne’s and taking time to be at Walden Pond that I realized that I was being tugged more fully into parish life,” she says. “The sisters really needed me to be doing things at the convent, and so it was a very hard and painful discernment for me.”
At age 40, Shariya went through a process that most adults experience in their early 20s. She had given up most of her possessions when she entered the convent; leaving it meant a fresh start.
“You divest completely,” she says. “But I had also lived most of my life as a student then, so my life has always been very simple.”
Nonetheless, she says, “just having choices again, even over little things, like food, was strange.”
Shariya’s first job after leaving the convent was as an associate at Christ Church, in Cambridge.
“It’s right there on Harvard Square, which is kind of a great place,” she says. “What I loved about that parish was the way it lived so fully in its context. It had really great outreach to the homeless population, to the hungry. You could look out, and there sitting next to each other in a pew would be some very august scholar and someone who was actually there to be warm.”
Shariya’s first experience running a parish was as priest in charge, a temporary position, at the Church of St. Mary of the Harbor in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the end of Cape Cod.
“I was there for a little over three years,” she says, “and I was ready to be a rector, but I decided not to stay at St. Mary’s. We had lots of diversity and great strengths, but we didn’t have many children.”
Shariya became rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Jefferson City, Missouri, staying for nine years.
Asked why she left, she says, “Well, if there was one thing, it was what some people might consider fairly superficial. I’m an islander at heart. I grew up on Sri Lanka and kind of in close proximity to the ocean, and something about being by the sea kind of calls me to fuller life, and I missed the ocean. I missed the smell and the sound of it and the feel of it, and so it was nine wonderful years at Grace Church, but I felt a little bit like an exile from the sea.”The Path to Madison
Looking back at her various parishes, Shariya says, “Truth to tell—and I’m not Pollyannaish—I think they’ve all been fruitful ministries. I’ve certainly grown in each of those places.
“You know. St. Augustine talks about a holy restlessness. ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee’ is the saying from the Confessions of St. Augustine. Being somewhat itinerant can be a faithful way to live.”
As for her plans for St. Andrew’s, Shariya says, “My leadership style is very collaborative, very much listening. I’d like to think that we could listen to God together and to be unafraid to be together, even when we don’t see things in quite the same way.”
She praises the church’s commitment to causes such as Habitat for Humanity and its support for Ugandan orphans and says she hopes to add some new ventures.
Additionally, she says, “I’m one of those people who believes that we never stop learning, and so I’m eager to discover whether there are opportunities here for adults to continue to be shaped and formed by study and prayer.”
And she would like to see if the church could do something reflecting her own interests in the environment and ecology.
She would also like to increase the Madison community’s awareness of St. Andrews.
“Our outdoor chapel and memorial garden are beautiful places,” she says. “We don’t have Hammonasset, but we’ve got something much more humble but almost as beautiful. I have a vision of trying to encourage people to come, wander through this place, and to pray here. I want this to be an oasis for people who are just looking for a little time to be immersed in God’s splendor.”
Recently, St. Andrew’s parishioners have experienced rather rapid turnover in the pulpit. Asked if she believes she’s going to change that, Shariya smiles and says, “Despite what I said about itinerancy, I think they and I are hoping for a good, long season.”
To nominate a Person of the Week, contact Tom Conroy at t.conroy@Zip06.com.