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?