Imagine you are 13 years old. You are finishing up the eighth grade, excited about the summer ahead, and moving on to to high school, then your father tells you he got a new job and your family is moving. To another state, you think? Your father says you are moving to India. Aaaagghh!!!
My name is Lisa, and this is a true story. My parents, two younger brothers [in the third and fourth grade then], and I) moved to India in 1984 for one year so that my father could teach at Serampore College, founded by British missionary William Carey. Our parents wanted us to experience life in India. We moved not to beautiful, tropical and green Kerala, not to Delhi with fashion and Bollywood actor look alikes, but to Serampore, a small, simple, crowded town along the Hooghly river on the outskirts of Calcutta, today known as Kolkotta.
We left behind Atari, Saturday morning cartoons, kickball games in the front yard with the neighborhood kids, friends, swimming at the lake, Friday night tv those days were the best. Televisions back then were not common place in India. No more burgers, pizzas, pop music, or quiet country living. We left behind life as we knew it. In our hometown in Ruston , Louisiana, to get to school, we waited at the mailbox at the end of our driveway and the school bus picked up and took us in one trip, no changes, straight to school. Back then we knew French more than we knew Malayalam or another Indian language. We had no idea how different the world we were in was from the one we were going to enter. It was a new adventure.
In Serampore, to get to school, we were picked up at the flat (aka apartment) by a rickshaw driver to take us to the train station. (A rickshaw is a bicycle with a carriage in the back. A driver rides the bike with up to 3-4 passengers in the carriage.) We rode the train with a group of other students going to the same English medium convent school in the town of Bandel. From the Bandel train station we rode in another rickshaw to the school where the nuns stood sternly on guard for any mischievous behaviors of any of the arriving students. This was not like the public school we were used to back home.
On the way to school and back, while in the rickshaw, we passed many shacks. Shacks may be a crude word, but even shack doesn’t explain what these structures were. Pieces of wood or materials like old roof shingles or wall sidings held together by anything to make four walls about the size of a small camping tent and no greater than the size of the sheds that people in the U.S. keep in the back yard for lawn supplies.
Shack stacked against shack along side the roads, with no electricity, no running water. In the night the shacks glowed with lanterns. The roads were lined with ditches used as a sewer line for public toiletting, or for placing garbage. Every quarter mile or so there would be a faucet near the ditch where people would bathe in the street partially clothed, collect water in the clay pot vessels, or wash dirty dishes. In the early morning on our way to school we would see the residents of the shacks doing their morning rituals infront of their shacks. It was an eye opener for us. We take for granted access to clean water and adequate sanitation. We take for granted so much more.
At the train station, some small kids ran around with baskets on their heads holding some item to sell. Earning money for the day was more critical than spending a day in school. When the poor traveled on the trains they often didn’t have train tickets, and sat on the floor in the open doorway. They had the scent of hard work in their skin and their countenance reflected toil and hard labor, hard life, suffering, despair. Sometimes they were curiously looking at my brothers and me. Probably we were the only ones taking notice of them where others “knew their place” and ignored them, or maybe we looked as different to them as they did to us.
We would see these working poor in disheveled, dirty clothes. Nothing ornate or fancy by any means were worn by these people. By working poor I also mean people who hussle or beg. There is no welfare, no food stamps, and no social security disability for the physically or mentally disabled.
After a year there in West Bengal, spending two months the following summer in Kerala was like paradise. In Kerala with the lush green and the tropical flowers the air smelled clean and the rain gave everything a fresh, new look. We had come to appreciate and love Kerala because of what we had seen away from there. Even in Kerala in those days we had some family members who struggled financially, but not by the likes of what we had seen outside Kerala.
We travelled to other parts of India as well. Diversity was everywhere. Contrast was everywhere. Light skin to the darkest skin tones. Very rich to the very poor. Mansions to shacks. Desert to forests. Something from all experiences changed us from the inside. Material things were viewed differently. The desire for them was filtered with questions from our consciences. “Is this a want or a need?” “If I am not using what I already have can I give it to someone who needs it?”
However, the most important question after this time was what can I do to help someone else? After we returned to the States, things returned to the familiar. When I got my first job at 17 I sponsored a child in India through a Christian outreach program, and did that for a few years. There was something more I wanted to do than give to local or other charitable organizations.
It wasn’t until college and losing a cousin-brother, Monu, who was 16 at the time, that I followed my heart and found a career as a “helping professional”, a social worker. I didn’t know any other first generation Indian American who had chosen this career. I had seen too much in India and I had been moved too much by my cousin’s short life to that I couldn’t waste another day not doing a job that I loved, and have a life where I could touch people in a special way.
After a couple of years in the field, I was discouraged with the low paying career I had chosen. It wasn’t until a women’s retreat that I read Isaiah 58: 9-12 carefully after a missionary there shared them. When I heard them and read them, I had tears in my eyes. I understood my purpose in life. I was doing what God intended for me, I understood what I needed to do in other areas of my life, and I came then to have a personal relationship with Jesus. We are all called to be “Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings”.
First generation Indian Amercians can appreciate how our parents struggled to make our lives here in this country as good as possible for us. My brothers and I with God’s grace have never see or known for ourselves what tragedies people in dire straits in India face. It’s a meaningul experience to step outside of our comfort zones and work with, talk with, or spend time with people who are oppressed and rejected so much in their lives. With the tragedy in Haiti, remember the poor in India. They may have televisions in their shacks, but they are still poor. They need equal opportunity for education and job training to make as best a life they can for themselves.
I found someplace I believes makes a difference in the lives of others in India. I support a Christian organization in India which helps the people considered in India to be “untouchable”, literally.
The organization I support is a Christian one which provide “untouchable” children a school education in the English language and teaches the parents some working skills, all with the love and support of Christians who teach them and show them the unconditional, saving grace of our Lord. They come to know that Jesus heals our brokenness and that we are victorious in Him.
. The missionaries in India are doing fantastic works there to tell them about salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, though they live in fear that they could be persecuted any time for this. Pray for the missionaries. You, too, can find a Christian organization in India to support. As your observe lent please pray all the poor and oppressed across the world, for the Dallas and Mckinney homeless shelters, and those on the brink of poverty due to recent job loss. You, too, will be called Repairer of Broken walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
6 "I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,
7 to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. “
R. Lisa Samuel