Sunday, April 14, 2013

India 2013: Poverty's Prison

I've been staring at a blank screen all week, an empty slate, a white canvas...  I have been praying for the words only He can lend me that can paint the picture that I want to share with you.... the picture that my camera, my skills, my gifts can't capture on their own.  I have been broken silent and yet my heart is crying out loud for what my eyes have seen, my ears of heart, my arms have held...

The words have brewed all week, all month...  when He gives me something to write, He gives the words to me as He gives the earth snowflakes, seemingly random and haphazard yet you know they grow heavy and hurl fast to the ground and you can't catch them all, know them all...  they increase in intensity as the storm brews near, falling closer and closer together in a blizzard of thoughts and emotions and memories and right now, as they form on the ground, settling into first sentences, then paragraphs...  I will interpret the scenery before me, so that it will stand before you, unheard until now, from God's paintbrush and inkwell, through my hands, to your screen...

I have no idea how He will share this, what it will look like when it's done... much less how to hold my heart together long enough to put it to life, please bear with me, and gently stay a while...  we need you.  He needs you.

We arrived, unannounced as there is no way to communicate our arrival other than to simply come, as we are, to meet them there, as they are, where they are.  We walked down a beaten path, far from the road, through groundnut fields.  The sun beat down harshly on our backs as we walked single file towards the simple house.

We had heard of this woman, Amutha, from Pastor Michael, hearts broken over her story.  Her husband had run away from their marriage, left her for another woman.  Leaving Amutha to care for their two disabled children, a boy and a girl.  I had met both children briefly, but I wanted to do more than meet them, I wanted to see them, hear them, understand their situation and partake in their suffering.

I thought she was perhaps 10, with her bright green dress and her wild hair pulled back, scarred legs fidgeting restlessly, impish grin shining of innocence.  Her hands flapped as she fretted back and forth, pacing excitement and perhaps anxiety, she couldn't say, and we didn't know...

She was like a bright butterfly of a girl, one minute exploring, the next squatting quietly by the front door, studying us, it seemed.

We waited by the door to come in, and if I had not been watching at that very moment, I would have missed Amutha's embarrassed face as she swooped low with a dirty rag to wipe the trickle on the floor that had been left behind, before humbly and quietly ushering us into her home.

It was at that very moment that I connected with Amutha, even though she may never know the depth of my understanding and compassion.

Eleven and a half years ago, I gave birth to a precious little girl with a hint of red hair to go along with her more-than-subtle hint of intensity.  By the time she was a few years old, I knew something was different about her... but having had two boys, and both boys being different from each other as well... I simply pushed aside the gnawing feeling and told myself "boys are different from each other and girls are different from boys... she's just intense in a way her brothers weren't, and she's just her own quirky, unique self..."   That would explain her lack of fear, her inability to answer a question, her hyper-sensitivity to sensory input, her delayed development, her inexplicably late toilet training... her selective mutism... her thirst for spinning around and around and around and around...  her intense energy and spirit...  right?  

By the time she started school, I could no longer accept that "girls are just... different like that".  She was the one child rocking under a desk, self-soothing to cope with her inability to function and integrate herself in the world around her.  She couldn't speak most of the time, had no bladder control, could not brush her teeth, comb her hair, had no impulse control...  and the list went on.

As a mother, I needed help, I cried out to Him, overwhelmed...  and God provided, in abundance.  Specialists began to reveal after months of testing, that my daughter, Jillian, was on the autism spectrum, and that would come to explain so much about her intensity, her quirkiness, her hardships.  Her teacher came alongside of me that year, and taught us both how to cope, how to embrace the differences and work with them, how to help her reach her best potential, how to draw her back out of her shell and into a world made safer for her.  

Back in India, I stood before this woman that was me... me years ago, except Amutha had not one but two special needs children, both profoundly disabled, and she was completely on her own.  Her little girl is not ten, nor is she a little girl...  she is 21, trapped inside the broken body and mind of a young child.

Their government housing was miles from anywhere, specialists were not at Amutha's disposal for her daughter or her son, she had no award-winning teacher blessing her with guidance and solidarity, her mother does not live nearby, she had no spouse to bring her relief...  no neighborhood mom's group to rally support from.  No Small Group.

There was no one but her, God, and this precious shepherd -- Pastor Michael.

My heart convulsed.  I felt sick, not understanding how mercy and grace alone can have two women in such an eerily similar situation, and yet have such profoundly different outcomes.

Years of therapy and intervention, of specialists and provisions at our fingertips...  and now?  Last Friday morning, Jillian, now eleven, got herself dressed, made her lunch, confidently did her hair and chit-chatted as she prepared herself for school.  Skipping out to to the bus stop, I called her back to the door so that I could kiss her on the nose and wish her a great day at school.  She grinned and said in a singsong voice "Oh mommyboo...  I love you!" 

There are days with Jillian that I had to choose which battle to fight -- but this woman before my eyes, this woman's daily choice made my own battle seem like child's play.

Every day, Amutha chooses whether or not provisions are worth poverty's prison.

Amutha is strong and healthy enough to work, has experience with agriculture and brick work, wants so much to be able to provide for her family, and can scrape together a meager existence for herself and her two children when she does work.  She's not seeking wealth and abundance, she's simply seeking enough -- enough food to out on the tabble, enough provisions for the children's needs and hers... nothing more, nothing less...

...  but in order to do so, she must do the unthinkable...

...  in order to work when her children are not attending class, she must lock them alone in the house to keep them safe from predators, safe from wandering, safe from themselves.  The lock that dangles the front door keeps the predators out, and keeps the children in.

After a hard day's meager wages, Amutha comes home to a ransacked house every single time, as the kids, left to themselves, destroy their few household belongings.  Furthermore, the children, left for hours at a time, can not relieve themselves outside, so they must relieve themselves in the house.  No one to swoop down and patiently wipe the floor with a dirty rag.  There are no bathroom facilities, no running water.  No nearby stream.  Miles by foot for the nearest water source -- beyond a locked door.

Barely a way for her children to communicate with her when she is home -- never mind when she's nowhere near the house and working to provide for them.

One must wonder if a day's wages is worth the discouragement of coming home to heartbreaking conditions, heartbroken children, and a mother's breaking point...  but is starving a better choice?

There is a yoke of oppression and burden weighing heavier on this woman than her thick cotton clothing under the sweltering Indian sun....  there is a shackle of poverty that can be loosened and broken...

Poverty is a prison.

We were given the keys.

And the command to use them.

Feed My sheep, He said.  
Loosen the chains...

Undo heavy burdens...

Set the oppressed free...

Break every yoke...

The key is simple...  

A sponsorship of only twenty dollars a month provides for Amutha and her household so that she no longer has to make that heartbreaking choice until a better option is available to her and her children -- until she is able to work from home or begin a business.

Help unlock poverty's prison...

So that she won't go hungry and can tend to the needs of her children without resorting to locking them up.

So that she can pour her strength into her children's well being.

So that she experience God's provision like never before, and share of Him with all who have ears.

So that the hopelessness of poverty's prison will no longer hold her and her children captive.

To be that key, please consider a Family Support sponsorship of $20/month, or a general donation in any amount (indicate "Family Support" in the notes).  One time donations earmarked will be equally divided amongst Family Support program families who do not yet have a sponsorship. Tax receipts available (U.S. only).

Please note that one hundred percent of funds provided towards the Family Support program goes directly to the families in need.

To learn more about the Family Support program, see also this post.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

India 2013: Feed My Sheep

Each day, as the afternoon tutoring program went on in full swing, we would individually call the children into the pastor’s kitchen, where they would be interviewed and assessed in order to update the sponsorship reports.  We only had a few days in which to make sure we had updates on all the children.  With so many children to assess and a program to run, it had to be done in such a way as to minimize the children’s time out of the program, and maximize productivity. 

As the children came into the kitchen, their name would be written on a small whiteboard, which they would then take with them as they climbed the backstairs to the open roof.  It was on the roof that they would have their sponsorship photos taken, after which they’d head back downstairs to be interviewed. 

The roof was a perfect spot for photos, as it would draw less attention to the children, and the soft glow of the late afternoon light would be ideal for photos.  A handful of older children from the program helped us by escorting the children back and forth and translating for us. 

 Six year old Vimal

A few evenings into this routine, I had just finished taking photos of a child when I heard a mother’s distressed voice speaking in Tamil.  I turned around to see a mother with her daughter, next in line to take photos -- but something was clearly wrong.  Thinking perhaps she was upset with me, I approached her gently and asked in English what was happening, hoping someone could tell me.  The mother grabbed my arm in a fierce grip that can only be described as desperation, and her words tumbled out as tears ran down her cheeks and despair etched itself deeper into her beautiful life-weathered face. 
It took everything I had to hold back my own tears.  Then, and now. 

I began to piece the story together – she was in pain; her hips, shoulders and back were hurting... but beyond that, she seemed life-worn.  One moment she would wring her hands in concern, the next she would place them together in broken prayer and praise, her pleas to God and to us breaking my heart.  

Then, she began to put her hands to her mouth, pleading with her eyes…  the message transcended all language barriers -- she was not talking about food, she was talking about hunger.  

Wanting to understand the situation, I turned to the older children, and asked them to help me understand this woman’s situation. 

By this point, the mother was sobbing loudly in my arms, shoulders shaking, hands clinging to me, while forcing the rest of her story out in rapid-fire Tamil in between sobs.  My heart was pierced for her long before the words in English could follow.

Through bits and pieces of broken English, I learned that this woman’s youngest daughter was disabled and took part in the sponsorship program.  Her older children had grown up and gotten married, and now that they were no longer living at home and helping to support her, she struggled to feed herself and provide for her daughter’s needs.  She moved slowly, her body wracked with pain, and kept asking for healing and for help.  She had reached the end of herself… 

… but not the end of God’s provisions and possibilities.

Not the end of hope.

As I wrapped my arms around her, the children surrounded us while I prayed with her as she prayed in Tamil.  I don’t know all that was said, but I know God heard us both and that something would be made new from all these broken pieces.

As we finished praying, I took her face gently into my hands, held her worried gaze with my eyes, and told her hope was here… God had heard her cries and He would provide healing for her body, and He would satisfy her hunger…  this was the beginning, not the end...  I thanked her for trusting me enough to share, and told her once again to hang on to hope.  God would come through.  His mercies would come.

Long after the photos of her daughter were taken…  long after the sobbing silenced...  long after she had begun her trek back home with her daughter…  my heart was raw with ache for this woman who had wept in my arms.

Having poured so much of my life into breaking the cycle of poverty and slavery, I knew that this mother and her child were at risk, and the thought of it made me sick.  In desperation for food or finances, would she end up making a deal with a brick factory, where she and her daughter would spend the rest of their lives in bonded labor?  Would her daughter be at risk for child trafficking? 


The raw ache pressed into my heart uncomfortably until I spoke with Jamie later that night.  After much prayer, the idea was born to approach Pastor Michael about the possibility of a Family Sponsorship program for families in a vulnerable situation like this. 

He was very open to the idea.  He explained that families with single moms or grandmothers as the sole caretaker, especially when the children are disabled, suffer above and beyond the usual hardships of extreme poverty.  Unable to work full time because of the child care demands, or due to age and health, the financial strain of providing for their families often brings these women to the breaking point.   It often leads to the women having to pull a child out of school in order to send him or her to work, further perpetuating the cycle of poverty into the next generation.  Desperate times all too often lead to desperate decisions.  

It doesn't have to be this way.  "Do you love Me?  Feed My Sheep", He said...

We asked what would be best – for her to receive food and the basics needed, or for her to receive funds to obtain the basics on her own.  Pastor Michael said that in this situation, there was no concern with providing the mother with money, in that it would be used as it is intended – for survival.  Research backs it up -- mothers in extreme poverty will spend over 90% of their financial provisions on the basic necessities that take care of their family, often before their own needs. 

We asked how many families with children in the program were facing extreme circumstances such as these.  He named three.  We had met one – an older single mom of a disabled child unable to work to provide for herself or her child.  We decided to visit the homes of the other two families to assess their situation in person, interview them and learn more about their needs. Each story made my heart raw with ache for this broken world...

The second family consisted of a young single mom with two profoundly disabled children, Manikandan and Sathya, both of whom are in the sponsorship program.  

The mom could work, but only occasionally, as her daughter was too disabled to attend school regularly.  

Even her clothes told the story of her situation – she wore a heavy cotton sari wrap in the crushing heat while doing chores at home, rather than a lighter material that may have cost a few extra dollars.

Two years ago, she lived with her two children in a mud hut shelter built for keeping livestock.  The government had stepped in and provided a solidly built one room house, improving her living conditions considerably but still leaving her without enough. 

The last family consisted of a grandmother and her two grandsons.  

(Jaya, grandmother raising two teenaged grandsons)

The boys’ mother had died in a tragic kitchen fire accident, leading the boys’ father to flee the responsibility of raising two sons on his own.  Their care was left to the grandmother, who struggled to meet their needs on her own after her husband passed away.  

The only work she was able to do was to harvest rice when the fields were dry; this was seasonal work at best.  

The grandsons were in their teens and at risk for leaving school too soon in order to find daily wage work to support the family.  She was living in a rented home, and if she were to pass away, the boys would be immediately evicted.

At best, working full time in manual labor (rice fields, agriculture, brick work) in this area, these women could earn approximately $15-20 a month if working full time.  Full time work is rare.  The grandmother receives an old age benefit of 500 rupees a month from the government, the equivalent of $10 a month, but the basics of food, shelter, transportation and school costs an average of 2500 rupees a month – $50 -- far out of reach of what she can earn with her ailing health and body.  Many young, able bodied women do not earn that much. 

School fees are provided for by the sponsorship program, and food is provided daily to the children.  This helps alleviate the financial strain on the families, but still leaves a gap. 

After much discussion and prayer, we determined that with a sponsorship donation of $20 a month, supplemented by any work that the caretakers can manage, the heavy burden that breaks the backs of these women could be lifted, and the raw wounds left on our hearts by these women’s stories could begin to heal.

When it was time for us to leave, I turned to give Jaya, the grandmother, a comforting hug.  She wept openly in my arms, in the middle of the street in front of her tiny house, as everyone looked on and prayed.  

It took a long, long time for her to look up and look into my eyes to find hope.  I prayed she wouldn’t see me at all, but would only see Jesus... and I kept repeating the same message to her over and over again, in English...  “Hope is here – his name is Jesus…  He is here.  Hope is here....  Hope is here.”

Hope IS here.  God Himself sent us.  

To love Him is to give.  To give is to love Him.

To share from your abundance and provide hope to these families, please consider a Family Support sponsorship of $20/month, or a general donation in anyamount, (indicate "Family Support" in the notes).  One time donations will be divided equally amongst Family Support program families who do not yet have a sponsorship.  Tax receipts available (U.S. only).

He commands us to go, to serve, to give…  He connects us to the people who need His provisions…

Now that we know, how will we respond?