18 January 2017
Sister Sumitha Puthenchakkalackal, from the Sisters of the Destitute, visits some of the people she serves in one ofthe poorest corners of India. (photo: John Mathew)
Writer Jose Kavi chronicles the inspiring work of the Sisters of the Destitute in the Winter edition of ONE. Here, he describes one surprising aspect of the people they serve: their joy.
The visit to Nat Gali (Dancers’ Lane) last fall was like a scene out of the movie “Slumdog Millionaire.”
The hamlet is part of Deendayalpuri, a resettlement enclave with more than 8,000 families, just 10 miles east of the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border. What strike a visitor first are children and flies swarming the place.
A child slept peacefully on a stringed cot outside a hut that sits the edge of a narrow lane with sewage water running on the sides. Flies buzzing around did not bother the baby, nor did the sniffing dogs. His mother was busy ticking lice with a group of women at one end of the lane while its father chatted with a bunch of men at the other end.
Some other women in tattered saris and heads covered cooked on an earthen oven using dried cowdung cakes as fodder outside their tiny huts. Men played cards or watched games on cellphones in street corners.
It presented a perfect picture of the life that India’s poor are destined to live.
Despite its proximity to the national capital, no vestige of city life has touched the people, who eke out a living from a plethora of activities: dancing at weddings and other functions, begging at places of worship and prostitution.
The enclave burst into shouts as soon as John Mathew, the photographer, Joshy Mon, a friend, and I entered the enclave with Sister Sumitha Puthenchakkalackal, a member of the Sisters of Destitute congregation. The nuns have been working in the area for more than 15 years.
As soon as John Mathew took out his camera, children crowded around him and took over the direction. They insisted he take pictures of their friends and siblings. They needed no prompting to pose for photographs. They also insisted previewing the photos and approving them.
Puddles of stagnant water on the tiny lanes and open drains that run along the lane gave out a foul smell. But hardly anyone seemed to bother about it. Filth and squalor have become part of their lives.
Laughter of children and shouts of elders filled the air and elders and youngsters greeted us with folded hands.
There were hardly any gloomy faces in those lanes.
How do people find happiness in such dreary existence? I asked myself. They seem to fit very well with the beatific life that Jesus preached: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
They have no social security, no healthcare schemes. But they lead what appears to be a perfect, blissful life. God has protected them so far — and they are certain he will continue to protect them and their children in future.
Maybe they are, indeed, “Slumdog Millionaires” — with priceless riches we can’t see.
Read more and discover why ‘My Great Hope is the Sisters’ in the Winter 2016 edition of ONE.
24 June 2016
A priest in a Dalit village in India leads a prayer service. India is facing new challenges in encouraging vocations to religious life. (photo: John Matthew)
In the Summer 2016 edition of ONE, Jose Kavi writes about how India is facing new challenges in recruiting vocations to the priesthood and religious life. It is a subject he knows intimately, as he reveals below.
How does a former seminarian feel when asked to write about religious vocation and modern challenges? Not so easy, to say the least.
First, he would find most ideas and views very personal, reviving old memories. Second, it would lead him into introspection.
Both happened in my case. I had left the Society of Jesus after spending 10 years in it.
As a child, I had never nurtured a desire to become a religious or a priest. There was no plan for the future, as I knew there is a limit to the dreams of someone born in a poor Syrian Catholic family in the Malabar region of Kerala. However, in my final year of school, I responded to an ad that Mission Home, a minor seminary in Palai, had inserted in a church publication. “Undecided about your future? Come to us.” There could not have been anyone more undecided about the future than I was. The response from Mission Home was to meet a Jesuit priest in Calicut, the nearest town to my house.
Life changed dramatically when I topped the school in the 10th grade public exams in 1971. I forgot about the Mission Home letter. Relatives, friends and neighbors insisted that I join a college. However, no one came forward with financial help, except my parish priest.
He offered to take me and my father to Palai, some 300 kilometers [nearly 200 miles] away from home, where some of our relatives lived. My father had his roots in that central Kerala town. The plan, as my mother suggested, was that I would stay with one of the relatives and study at St. Thomas College of Palai.
Unfortunately, we reached Palai a day after the college closed admissions. The principal, a priest, refused to make an exception for someone who scored at the top of his class. “Rules are rules,” he thundered.
I left the place with my father, feeling dejected and worried. We decided to walk to the relative’s house so that my father could show me places associated with his childhood. He had migrated to Malabar in the 1940’s looking for better prospects.
As we came down a hilltop after visiting Lalam’s new church, I noticed written on a gate: St Joseph’s Mission Home. I told my father about the letter I had received and he said, “Let us go inside.”
We saw a two-story building ahead of us behind a large statue of St Joseph holding the infant Jesus. The place was quiet and we found an old priest with a flowing white beard seated on a chair on the verandah. When we told him about the letter, he asked us to see the rector, a Jesuit priest named Ignatius Vellaringattu. Later, I learned the old priest was Monsignor Jacob Vellaringattu, the rector’s elder brother and founder of Mission Home.
The rector looked at my certificates, opened his table drawer and placed them inside. My father planned to leave me behind. I was not prepared to join a seminary. I was coming out of my village for the first time and wanted to meet my numerous relatives living in central Kerala. The rector gave me two weeks, and then expected me to come back.
We then visited all our relatives in Palai and Idukki area. Everyone was happy that I was joining a seminary, but I had my doubts about my vocation.
With those doubts, I returned to Mission Home. I was told to sit with others in a large hall on the second floor. After some time I got bored. I was never used to such discipline at home. I went to the balcony and watched the trees and flowers that surrounded the building.
Soon, a senior student, looking very serious, came and told me that the monsignor was calling me. Having no clue why I was called, I went to the elderly priest’s room. He scolded me for being undisciplined and threatened to send me home. It took me some time to realize that I had violated a cardinal rule of the place: never waste study time.
The incident took away my home sickness and soon I joined the crowd, obeying all rules and attending prayers. As days passed, it dawned on me that I also could become a priest. Watching some of my companions, I thought: “If he could become one, why can’t I?”
Within five months, I was sent to Patna with five others to join the Jesuits there. Life moved on and I went to novitiate in 1975. In the quietness of that place and during long hours of prayer and reflection, doubts about my vocation returned. The words from the Bible, “Many are called, but few are chosen” rang in my mind. When I shared my doubts with the novice master, he said they could come from the evil spirit, and he asked me to pray earnestly.
But the doubts continued, so at the end of the two-year novitiate I asked for six months to decide about taking vows. When I shared my doubts and anguish with other novices, they said they too had the same problem, but they trusted in the Lord. After six months, I took my first vows and became a full-fledged Jesuit.
Yet, vows did not dispel my doubts and dryness. They became all the more acute during annual retreats. Meanwhile, I spent some months in mission stations before joining a college in Ranchi for English studies.
During the three years at the college, I wrestled with my doubts. I had recurring nightmares in which I was asked to decide my future. I felt insecure to leave the comfortable seminary life.
At the end of college, I was listed for a philosophy course in Pune. I went for a personal retreat directed by a Jesuit priest, a friend. I shared with him my inner struggles and doubts. He then advised me to leave if I really felt that I had no vocation. The longer I linger in the seminary, he warned me, the worse my life would become.
I decided to leave finally, even though it was like a jump into the dark. My spiritual director and provincial tried to dissuade me from leaving. I stood my ground and signed my papers. And peace came into my heart.
That was 34 years ago. Over the years, I have grown to appreciate what my 10 years in seminary had taught me. I have no hesitation to acknowledge that who I am today is entirely because of those formative years. The interesting part is that I have never stopped feeling my Jesuit-ness.
Did I really lose my vocation?
Read more in On a Mission From God in the Summer 2016 edition of ONE.
14 January 2016
Sisters watch over some of the students playing basketball at the Ashabhaven School. Jijoman Mathai, center, was chosen to compete in the Special Olympics. (photo: Jose Jacob)
In the new edition of ONE, writer Jose Kavi visits a school for children with special needs in India — and comes away with some memorable impressions of the children and the exceptional women who care for them:
I would never forget my visit to Ashabhavan school in Nedumkandam, a remote village in Kerala, in southwestern India.
The car stopped in front of an L-shaped building and Jose Jacob, the photographer, and I got down to ask someone directions to the principal’s room. We had hardly spoken when we saw a nun in habit and veil rushing out of a room. She jumped over some rose plants on the side of a corridor and rushed to our car, opened its rear door and pulled out a little boy from inside.
Nobody had seen the boy getting into the car — not even the driver who was still at the wheel fiddling with his cellphone. The whole incident — the boy slipping inside the car and “the sister act” — happened in split seconds.
As we stood bewildered, the nun, barely five feet tall, came to us still holding the boy’s hand. “Hello! Good morning. I am Sister Elsa, the principal,” she said with a smile. Seeing our puzzled look, she pointed to the boy and said, “Oh, he is Shiyas Shamanas. He suffers from autism.”
We had telephoned her before coming, so she knew the purpose of our visit. “Come let us go to my room,” she said as she led to the corridor. This time she took the stairs.
The 49-year-old sister was still holding Shiyas’ hand as she took her seat behind a glass-topped table with a few neatly arranged books in a sparsely furnished room. The boy then saw Jose Jacob’s camera and freed his hand and rushed to him. Sister got up and dragged him back. This act continued several times during our hour-long interview.
Sister Elsa, the principal, said the school strives to teach the children self-reliance.
(photo: Jose Jacob)
The principal explained the boy was brought to boarding school only a day earlier and it would take some time to subdue his hyperactivity. “Until then, he needs special attention. He may even slip out of our compound,” she said.
As we were completing the interview, Sister Sneha Moorkkenthothathil, one of the four Sacred Heart sisters working in the school, came and took charge of Shiyas. Like other staff, she came to the school with a degree in teaching differently abled children.
During our visits to the school over a period of three days, we met half a dozen children who had to be attended by staff members individually.
“They need constant attention,” said Sister Sneha, whose first name means love.
Love for the weak and differently abled was evident everywhere in Ashahavan (Home of Hope) as the staff, including sisters, served meals for the children, arranged them for the school assembly and oversaw classes and games.
Mood swings are common among the children. “Oh, I have received many hits and punches,” Sister Sneha said. “But they are so loving. They notice even a slight change on our face and get worried. They are so innocent, unlike the normal people,” she added.
Over three days, we had also become close to those children. As we left the place, we promised to visit them again.
As we drove back to Kochi, some five hours west, Jose Jacob and I agreed: Ashabhavan would not be remembered as just another reporting assignment.
Read more about “Kerala’s House of Hope” in the Winter 2015 edition of ONE. And if you’d like to continue making schools like this thrive in India, visit this giving page.
30 October 2015
Demonstrators in Bangladesh protest anti-Christian assaults throughout the Indian subcontinent. (photo: Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/ZUMA Wire/Corbis)
In the Autumn edition of ONE, writer Jose Kavi writes on the persecution of Christians in India. Here, he reflects on his experience of reporting on anti-Christian violence in the country for more than 30 years.
Christians in India seem to be jittery these days. They feel helpless amid unprecedented attacks they have been facing for some time now.
Reporting these attacks now has given me a feeling of déjà vu.
I started reporting persecution of Christians in 1982, the year I joined South Religious Asian News, a news agency, as an in-service trainee.
That year Christians and Hindus clashed in Kanniyakumari, the southernmost district of India. Police firing on clashing groups had led to several deaths. The news agency ran stories for months about sectarian clashes involving both Christians and Hindus. Hindus then formed 49 percent of the district’s population and Christians 46 percent. The rest were Muslims.
Several probes by government and independent bodies blamed a group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (R.S.S., “national volunteer organization”), for dividing people on the religious lines.
R.S.S. was formed in 1925 as a charitable, educational, volunteer, Hindu nationalist non-governmental organization. However, its main agenda is to create a Hindu theocratic state in India. It has now become the umbrella organization for all rightwing Hindu groups in India. Its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P., “Indian people’s party”) now heads the federal coalition government.
Attacks on Christians and other minority religious groups in India have happened in proportion to the growth of R.S.S. and its affiliates in the country.
Most reported incidents of violence against Christians in 1998 occurred in Gujarat; it was the same year that the B.J.P. came to power in the state. The year began with an unprecedented hate campaign by groups espousing Hindutva (the ideology of Hindu nationalism). It culminated with ten days of nonstop violence against Christian tribal people and the destruction of churches and Christian institutions in the southeastern districts at the year’s end. Human Rights Watch investigated these attacks in the Dangs district in southeastern Gujarat. The events were preceded by escalating violence throughout the state in which many police and state officials were implicated.
Ten years later, Kandhamal district in Odisha, an eastern Indian state, witnessed much worse violence against Christians. Violence erupted upon the impoverished Christian minority in August 2008. A series of riots led by radical Hindus left roughly 100 people dead, thousands injured, 300 churches and 6,000 homes destroyed, and 50,000 people displaced — many forced to hide in nearby forests, where more died of hunger and snake bites.
The violence was carried out by mobs adorned with saffron headbands, a sign of right-wing Hindu militancy, and shouting slogans such as “Jai shri ram!” (victory to the Hindu god Ram) and “Jai bajrang bali!” (a tribute to another Hindu deity). Attackers wielded rods, tridents, swords, firearms, kerosene and even acid.
The same year, as many as 24 churches, including the chapel of cloistered convent, were damaged and several Christians were attacked in Karnataka, a southern Indian state.
All these incidents occurred away from New Delhi, India’s political capital. However, this ancient city also faced an unprecedented anti-Christian violence six months after the B.J.P. took over the national government. Over three months, at least five churches and a school were vandalized and the blame went to R.S.S. and its affiliates.
The Delhi incidents put the government in a bad light internationally. The attacks stopped suddenly and all churches in the capital were given police protection.
However, attacks now continue in villages far away from Delhi — giving me no respite from reporting on anti-Christian violence.
Read Jose Kavi’s report, ‘There Will Be More Martyrs’, in the Autumn 2015 edition of ONE.
11 September 2015
Tags: India Violence against Christians Indian Christians Indian Catholics
An Adivasi child carries his brother in the village of Bhatpal, in the Bastar region of India.
(photo: Jose Jacob)
In the Summer edition of ONE, Jose Kavi reports on the challenges facing sisters working in the conflict-stricken “Red Corridor.” He offers here some additional impressions of covering that story.
A sigh of relief went up from me when my train crossed over to Odisha from Chhattisgarh, two neighboring states in India’s central-eastern region. My four-day stay in Chhattisgarh was one of the toughest periods in my 35-year-old reporting career.
Chhattisgarh was one of the few of India’s 28 states that I had not visited until a reporting assignment took me there in March. It would be an understatement if I say I was not anxious or worried to visit that predominantly tribal state.
Gathering my wits, I boarded the plane to the Chhattisgarh capital of Raipur, some 750 miles southeast of New Delhi. The aircraft was full but only a couple of the passengers were tribal. The others were non-tribals: politicians, government officers, contractors and employees of transnational firms — all outsiders who lived off the mineral-rich state.
Their presence reminded me what I had read about Chhattisgarh, one of India’s states that struggled with a plethora of problems.
One of the problems was the stranglehold of Maoists over several pockets in the state.
In the past 20 years, the revolutionary Communist group that follows the ideals of Chinese leader Mao Zedong has killed more than 12,000 people in nine states, with Chhattisgarh topping them all.
During the nearly six-hour drive from Raipur to Jagdalpur, my host Father Augustine Vadakkedom explained that the Maoists had entered the state in late 1970s to help the poor tribal and Dalit communities who had been oppressed. However the protectors mounted a full-fledged war against the government and its security forces and the two marginalized communities soon found themselves caught in the middle.
Now I was wading into this troubled corner of the country. My assignment was to study the works of two Catholic women religious congregations serving Jagdalpur diocese that covers the Maoist-infested Bastar region.
Father Augustine and the sisters from the two congregations took us to places where we were told the Maoists were quite active. While passing through a forest road to go to a mission station, Father Augustine stopped at the spot where a landmine explosion two years ago killed at least 27 people, many of them top political leaders in the state. A red crumbled car stood in front of the nearest police station as a mute witness to that incident.
During the trip we met women such as Sister Julie Mathew who were caught in the crossfire of Maoists and security forces. Sister Julie had close encounters with Maoists at least three times. Once, she and another sister were blindfolded and taken by the outlaws to their hideouts deep inside the forests for questioning. She also told how she and some 50 hostel children faced death when Maoists attacked a police station that was adjacent to their convent.
The sisters explained how they had to reluctantly close village dispensaries under pressure from the Maoists, who wanted the church people to perform abortions and carry medicines for them.
But there were rays of hope in this dismal scenario.
First, there is the quiet revolution the nuns’ presence is stoking among illiterate men and women in remote villages. In one village, an aged woman shared how the people used to cower at the sight of even an office assistant in a government office. But the sisters are giving the people a sense of dignity and confidence. A few days before I met them, thought, the villagers had marched to a district collector as a group and gotten him agree to give them electricity to their village.
The villagers also admitted that they had strictly followed caste barriers until the sisters arrived. Now, they all sit together and seek solutions to their common problems. The sisters have taught them that is that there is strength in unity.
And the task is not over yet. That is why women like Sister Julie say they would remain, whatever the price they have to pay.
I let out a sigh of relief as the train chugged out of the last station in Chhattisgarh. I was comforted by the thought that there are still some people out there who are willing to risk their lives to improve the lives of others.
But reminders of the risks they face are never far away. Just a few days after I left the region, the newspapers reported another ambush by the Maoists that killed at least five security persons.
Read more about how sisters are working to change lives by “Serving in the Red” in the Summer edition of ONE.
And to support their work, visit this page.
12 March 2015
Tannu, blind and confined to a wheelchair, is one of the girls receiving education and care at
San Joe Puram in India (photo: by John Matthew)
Jose Kavi reports on a remarkable village for children in India in the Winter edition of ONE. Here, he offers his impressions of one young resident in particular.
One of the most cheerful persons I have met is Tannu.
The 14-year-old wheelchair-bound girl is a star at San Joe Puram Children’s Village, one of the few institutions in India for inclusive education.
With her withered legs dangling from her chair, Tannu greets everyone with a smiling “Jai Yesu” (“Victory to Jesus”) in Hindi.
There is always a rush around her when she comes out of the chapel or a classroom.
Young and old jostle around her, competing to push her wheelchair to Rani Sadan, one of the seven houses within San Joe Puram. The orphan girl lives there with eight other differently abled and four normal girls under the guidance of four sisters of the Franciscan Clarist Congregation.
“One finds Tannu smiling always,” says Sister Jesmy Paul, a physiotherapist nun who had brought the girl as a three-year-old child from Tihar Jail, India’s largest prison, situated in New Delhi. “We have no details about her parents,” she added.
Tannu says she feels great there. “I hope to walk one day, because Sister Jesmy Paul is giving me physiotherapy,” she said optimistically when I met her.
Sister Paul said Tannu was indeed walking to school when she left San Joe Puram on transfer eight years ago. “We had massaged her legs day in and out from the day she came to our house. She responded well and managed to get up and walk.”
After Sister Paul left, there was no one to continue physiotherapy and Tannu’s condition worsened. So, the nun was called back to resume physiotherapy.
But all this does not worry Tannu.
“I want to be a teacher,” she said. She was quite sure of her future.
She said she could be at the top of her class if she could write a little faster. “In school I find it hard to write, so I am a bit behind,” she said.
Tannu came to talk to me from the TV room, where she was watching the live telecast of the canonization of two Indians at the Vatican.
She could speak Hindi, English and “a little bit” of Malayalam, her mentor’s mother tongue. However her favorite subject is English.
She is sings well—mostly Christians hymns that she picks from the church. After a little persuasion, she sang with a quivering voice: “Lord, come softly and take me into your bosom. Stay with me and give me great happiness. Let peace bloom within me.”
Tannu, who is a Hindu, says her only desire is to be baptized. Her reasons are simple. “Jesus died on the cross for our sins,” she told me. “He loves children a lot.”
On Sundays she goes to the main chapel with others for Mass. She also attends Mass on Thursdays, when it is offered in Rani Sadan.
Tannu said she likes to pray. “I talk to God about whatever comes to my mind. I pray mostly for help in studies. I also pray for my companions and those helping them.”
Like others, she also gets up at five in the morning. “I manage everything myself,” she said. “If I find something difficult to do, I get help from others.”
She does feel sad during vacation, when others go home. “I have nowhere to go. I have an uncle who visits me occasionally. But he does not take me home because his wife does not like me. She scolds me a lot.”
She does not remember her parents. “I was told that I had a brother and my mother gave both of us to different people when we were infants.”
Sister Paul says they are trying their best to make Tannu walk again. “If physiotherapy does not work, we will find if she could be helped through surgery.”
With such an optimistic mentor, perhaps it won’t be long before Tannu is able to walk to her future singing, “Lord, come softly and fill me with peace.”
Read more about “A Place of Promise and Providence” in the Winter edition of ONE.
28 August 2014
Mahinder Singh sits with neighbors in their tiny village in Gangapar. (photo: John Mathew)
In the Summer edition of ONE, writer Jose Kavi explores the life and times of “untouchable” Christian Dalits. Here, he offers further insight into what he saw while covering the story.
I was happy when I was asked to write an article Dalit Christians. The Indian Church has been demanding justice for its Dalit members for nearly 65 years.
An estimated 70 percent of Christians in India are of Dalit origin, mostly in the Latin Catholic Church and Protestant denominations that were introduced in India by Western missionaries.
The presence of Dalits among the Eastern churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, is around some 20 percent, concentrated mostly in Kerala, the church’s base in southern India. It is hard to identify these people of former low-caste origin, since they are well integrated into the mainstream churches.
So to write this story I turned to northern India, where the Syro-Malabar Church has several dioceses. Both Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Eparchy of Faridabad and Bishop Aboon Mor Barnabas Yacob, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church’s apostolic visitor to North India, said their churches are currently focusing mostly on their people, who have migrated to northern India from Kerala. However, they do support the church’s Dalit struggle.
Photographer John Mathew and I asked priests in the Bijnor Syro-Malabar diocese if they are doing anything for the Dalit people. They said they have a few local converts but were not sure if they belonged to any Dalit communities. The diocese covers Uttarakhand state and parts of neighboring Uttar Pradesh.
We decided to try our luck and set out to Gangapar-Birbhanwala, the diocese’s newest parish, in Uttar Pradesh. And it was a journey into new world. After traveling about five hours, we left the highways to enter a narrow dirt road. It took an hour to cover the 12 miles. We stopped at a bridge in Dhampur built over the Ramganga, one of the tributaries of the Ganges. Its blue and clean water gave us our first shock of the trip. The Ganges we have seen downstream at places such as Varanasi and Patna is no better than a sewage drain. The new government is planning to spend billions to clean up the river Hindus consider holy.
The Rev. M. J. Joseph, the young parish priest who came to the highway to guide us, said the river had changed its course only five years ago after a flood. The flood had washed away the road to Gangapar. We negotiated through farms and gutters and reached a tiny shed in the middle of an open field as the sizzling summer sun blazed above us.
“It is the parish church,” Father Joseph said with an apologetic smile. The tin-roofed shed has no cross, a normal sign of a church. There is no altar. The only Christian reminder is a painting of Jesus on the shed’s only wall. There was neither electricity nor running water. Our driver had to go to the nearby forest to answer nature’s call, as the place has no toilet.
Jarnail Singh, the church’s caretaker who lives in a room attached to the church shed with his wife and two children, asked his daughter Pinky to bring us water, which she did from the hand pump near the entrance.
Jarnail’s wife, Malkeet Kaur, readied the lunch by the time we finished exchanging pleasantries and conducting a few interviews. The special dish for the visitors was scrambled eggs.
After the lunch we set out for the villages. Most people live in thatched mud huts. Piles of cow dung cakes used as fuel and haystacks welcomed us at every entrance. Water buffaloes were tethered to poles near the huts. You could see charpai, the traditional cot that doubles up as sofa and bed, kept in the front yards.
Despite such dreary existence, everyone we met, including the aging Mahinder Singh, looked cheerful. He described his escape from Pakistan when the Indian subcontinent was divided. “I was so thirsty and went to drink from rivers, but they were filled with corpses. Then I went to wells, there also were dead bodies,” he recalled.
We asked him, “What makes you happy?”
“Prabhu Jisu” (“Lord Jesus”), he answered.
What more needed to be said?
Read more about Dalit Christians in Caste Aside from the Summer edition of ONE.
20 May 2014
Tags: India Indian Christians ONE magazine Indian Catholics Dalits
Archbishop Kundukulam greets the children at St. Christina’s Home in Trichur.
(photo: Sean Sprague)
Writer Jose Kavi reports on the legacy of India’s “Father of the Poor” in the spring edition of ONE magazine. But he notes here that he approached the assignment with skepticism.
Each writing assignment for CNEWA makes me think about the many blessings God has given me and my family. The assignment to study the legacy of a Catholic archbishop in Kerala was no exception. However, this time Jose Jacob, the photojournalist who takes pictures for the articles, also said the experience was profound—and I had my own epiphany, as well.
I knew the late Archbishop Joseph Kundukulam had done lots of philanthropic works in Trichur, his archdiocese in southern India. Several of his priests and former seminarians often told of incidents where the genial prelate went out of his way to help the poor and marginalized. I had also heard that he was a great orator who spoke for hours without boring his listeners. However, let me admit I was not a fan. I could not support a protest he led in 1986 against a drama that allegedly ridiculed Christ and his teachings; the drama was eventually banned, but I believed the artists have the right to freedom of expression. Also, the archbishop’s reported association with some political leaders of Kerala also did not go down well with me.
So, it was with a critical mind I went to see various institutions the archbishop had established during his 27 years in Trichur. I didn’t expect that the three days I spent observing the institutions and people working there would make me a die hard admirer of Archbishop Kundukulam. The first eye-opener was the visitor’s room of the Society of Nirmala Dasi Sisters, a congregation the archbishop set up to manage his institution. The small room doubled as the office of the superior general and included a dining table for visitors. Simplicity was writ large on every corner of the place.
Sister Kochumary Kuttikatt accompanied us on our tour. The first place we visited, Pope John Paul Peace Home, bowled us over. Jose and Bineesh, our driver, later shared the same insight: we never expected some 150 people there suffering various types of handicaps to be so content. Some have been there for more than a quarter century and still had no complaints. With all our limbs in proper order, we felt like cripples because we complain about little inconveniences in life. Bineesh, a Hindu, said he had run out crying from the hall where he was talking to a youth, who could not move his limbs. The young man was more interested in Bineesh’s welfare than his problems. Jose said he had a tough time holding the camera steady because he was so overwhelmed by emotions.
The place was spotlessly clean, no smell and no dirt, something remarkable for such a place in India where filth and squalor are common in institutions like this.
Adding to my surprise was the behavior of the nuns and their coworkers attending to the patients. They knew the names and histories of all residents and responded with love and kindness. “We come to them after Mass in the morning and we never know how the time passes,” said one of the sisters.
We concluded our visit in a slum near the Trichur railway station where two of the sisters are spending their lives serving the poorest of the poor. The stench was overwhelming; the huts there have no septic tanks or running water. But the smell and dirt hardly bothered Sister Elsy and Vimala who were all smiles as they served tea for us seated on a cement platform inside their one-room convent. The platform, we learned, also served as their sleeping place at night. The sisters joked about how they had spent several damp nights there in the last rainy season, water seeping down the walls and filling their “cots.” “We walked around carrying our sleeping mats,” they said.
After leaving the slum, we could breathe normally only after we reached the main road, where the belching smoke from the vehicles smelled much better than the air the nuns and their companions breathed round the clock.
What makes those nuns continue to stay there? Love for Christ and the poor can help you overcome any difficulties in life. That is what Archbishop Kundukulam taught and what the sisters now experience.
And I have had my epiphany in Trichur.
Read more about Remembering India’s “Father of the Poor” in ONE magazine. And if you’d like to learn more about supporting Archbishop Kundukulam’s legacy among the poorest of the poor, visit this page.