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‘I thought I was in Bethlehem’

Atwater man recalls magical Christmas in Sri Lanka

By Scott Thoma

Delwin Mahn wears one of the many shawls he was given by the Tamil people of Sri Lanka as he sits at his home northwest of Atwater. Photo by Scott Thoma

As Delwin Mahn looked up at the stars during an outdoor Christmas Day service during one of his mission trips to Sri Lanka, he suddenly felt as though he was in another place.

“I thought I was in Bethehem,” said Mahn, who grew up north of Atwater and now lives on Diamond Lake northwest of that city. “It made me feel like it was the true birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.”

The outdoor service at Faith Lutheran Church in Labookellie, Sri Lanka that Mahn described occurred in 2012. That service included near-perfect weather that allowed the stars to emerge, young children performing a live nativity scene with live animals and a baby Jesus, and a choir singing old-fashioned Christmas carols.

“It was a rewarding experience that will remain with me the rest of my life,” he said, while looking away as though reflecting on that moment in time.

Mahn was a volunteer missionary for 30 years. During that time period, he traveled to every continent except Antarctica. These travels included places such as China, Slovakia, Israel, Latvia, Russia, Kenya, South Africa, South America, North America, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand and Sri Lanka.

After graduating from high school in Atwater in 1968, Mahn went on to college and earned a double major in Elementary Education and Art.

Mahn presents one of the children of Sri Lanka with a gift during a Christmas celebration in 2012. Contributed photo

He got his first teaching job in the tiny town of Spring Hill, Minnesota, which now boasts a population under 100 people.

“It was part of the Melrose district,” Mahn explained. “I was the only man in the building.”

He taught there 12 years before the school closed and consolidated with Melrose. He then taught mainly first and second grade in Melrose until retiring in 2006.

While teaching, Mahn wanted to do find “something more exciting in life.”

St. John’s Church that Mahn attends is part of the Missouri Synod Lutheran. So Mahn made a call to the St. Louis office to inquire about a place he could do some mission work.

After getting a few options in the United States, Mahn chose Alaska where he taught Vacation Bible School during the summer from 1987-92 to Native American youth.

From there, Mahn ventured to other countries around the world to teach English and Bible studies. He taught all ages of kids in these countries, and even 30 professors at a university in China.

In many of these countries Mahn spent, he offered: “I learned more from them than they learned from me.”

Mahn’s last mission trip was in 2015.

“God put me on this earth to do that mission work,” said Mahn. “But I just can’t take the 21-hour plane rides from Minneapolis to Sri Lanka anymore. I really miss it, though.”

In 2003, Mahn found himself teaching English at a Lutheran Seminary in South Indian to pastors from South India and Sri Lanka.

Pastor Arul presents Mahn with a shawl and a lei as part of welcoming him to Sri Lanka in this 2012 photo. At left is Pastor Nadaraja and Pastor Deva is at right. Contributed photo

It was during that time that Sri Lanka pastors urged Mahn to come to their country to teach. Finding the offer intriguing, Mahn made a call to the Missouri Synod in St. Louis and was able to work things out.

He then spent five of those 30 years in Nuwara Eliya and Labookellie, Sri Lanka, teaching the Christian Tamil people proper English, as well as the word of God.

“Most of them could speak English,” Mahn said. “I was teaching them grammar and things like that.”

Sri Lanka, an island country in South Asia known as the Tea Capital of the World, is 70 percent Buddhist, 13 percent Hindu, 10 percent Muslim and only seven percent Christian.

“When I first arrived there, it was incredibly hot,” Mahn recalled. “But then I got in a van and rode nine hours up the mountain where it was gorgeous.”

While teaching in Sri Lanka, Mahn often gave gifts to the children of the Faith Lutheran Church where he taught.

“The gift they gave me was their love, kindness, hugs and warm Christmas wishes,” said Mahn. “They did place a shawl on my shoulders and put a lei around my neck. What a love these people gave me, as they have nothing else to give. They treated me like royalty there.”

St. John’s Church helped Mahn raise money to assist the underprivileged people of Sri Lanka. The people there often work 12 hours a day in the steep fields picking tea for $4-$6 per day.

Mahn and several Sri Lanka students celebrate Valentine’s Day in 2014 with a cake and by making cards. None of the male students wanted to participate in the celebration. Contributed photo

“There were five pastors that preached at more than one church and they had no means of transportation because they were poor,” Mahn said. “St. John’s raised money in order to purchase motorcycles for each of these five pastors. My church here also gave money for the people of Sri Lanka to build (rustic) and repair churches.”

Mahn again spent Christmas in Sri Lanka in 2014, but under adverse weather conditions, so they were forced to be inside.

“They sang songs and read scriptures until midnight,” said Mahn. “Following that, we all wished each other Merry Christmas, hugged, and kissed on both cheeks which is their custom. What a memorable Christmas, which never involved any gifts. It was the true meaning of Christmas; the birth of our Savior along with people who had more love to give than anywhere else in the world during my 30 years of volunteer mission work.”

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