I will only let myself cry in the shower.
As I wandered the streets of a slum in Chennai, India yesterday, I pondered the many women in my life who were taking to the streets back home this weekend, marching. I looked around myself in a throng of women and realized that I was not absent from my friends who care about the dignity of every human person or about women’s care and protection. Surrounded by women and children who care about the very same things we do–faith, family, safety, home, respect for life–I walked alongside women who have so very many lessons to teach me.
It’s tempting in these pages and with my photos to share some sense of the calamity of this place. As you wander Chennai, you’re overwhelmed by challenging sights and sounds. Often our vantage point is from the inside of a bus and the sensations whirl past.
But yesterday, after a beautiful mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church (!), we traveled to one of the Unbound project neighborhoods. We were told that we would visit the homes of some of the sponsored children. This we did, being welcomed by mothers overwhelmed with pride and joy by the accomplishments of their children. They couldn’t say enough about how the project has aided their entire families.
“She is studying engineering!”
“He loves mathematics.”
“She will become a teacher…”
The mothers’ hope was palpable. Participation in Unbound has given their families not only financial support, but also a network of compassion that addresses so many of the profound societal pressures that rob families of hope. An all too common story here is the young mother, married in her early teens, whose husband is either unemployed, absent or remarried to another younger woman. With marriage comes increased security, so even some of the young program participants we met are tempted to give up their education and to marry.
I found it ironic that as Greg and I shop in Los Angeles for a new home, most of the homes I visited yesterday were no larger than the smallest walk-in closets in our new neighborhood. Multiple generations of families sleep together in the tiny space. Their kitchens are a hot plate and a bucket of murky water, toted in from a community source. They bathe and relieve themselves in the same place over a hole in the ground. If they are fortunate, there is a tiny amount of privacy. Their walls are often covered with holy images and makeshift shrines. There is very little light and improper ventilation. The circumstances are stark.
I wish my words could convey what strikes me most, which are the smells and sounds. Without an effective infrastructure, refuse becomes part of the scenery. Water is used and reused for multiple purposes. There is often no electricity. Many live in thatched shelters like the ones I see one Survivor (only without the “luxury” items). I wonder to myself what it must be like in those homes when the weather shifts and the rains come.
After the first few homes we enter, the narrative changes. With us as our guide is the Unbound social worker. She herself has an amazing story to tell. When her own mother became ill with cancer, she had to leave her convent of sisters after two decades of life as a Holy Family sister to care for mom. Her family needed her income, not her prayers. “J” shared with me through emotions of her own that the mission she has found working with the children of this slum, seeking to find solutions to their many problems through the resources of Unbound, allows her to continue to live the charisms of her religious congregation while she supports and cares for her mother in her final days.
“J” leads us from the homes of the few sponsored children into an even more challenging part of this little neighborhood. “She is on the waiting list for a sponsor,” J says, pointing to a bright elementary school girl who has already asked each of us our names and brightly repeated them to us. “He is on the waiting list,” she says of a boy who loves art so much that he draws on the family door because it is the only surface he can find to practice on. More children surround us, so many that I can no longer keep track of their numbers. They pull us politely into their homes, introducing us eagerly to their mothers who often hold another child on their hip. Some mothers point to “special children”, much older but who cannot work due to their physical or mental disabilities and who live as dependents. Here too there are grandmothers, who beam as their grandchildren introduce them.
The families are always so welcoming as they give us a tour of their tiny homes. With every step we take, the number of those children “on the waiting list for a sponsor” increases. There are too many. In my head, I do the math and wonder how many multiples of $36 per month my family could afford. I want to sponsor them all, to give them the hope I have seen in the neighborhood children who have entered the Unbound family and found such amazing success. My feelings alternate between joy at the sight of their smiles and the loving hugs I receive and despondency at the thought that too many of these precious little ones will likely never find a way out of the cycle of this place.
The tears begin to well up. There are too many of them, these children who wait for help. I stop doing the math and lose hope for a moment. But I will not let myself cry in front of them. I pose for selfies and say the few words I know in Tamil, “Vaṇakkam” (hello) and “Nanri” (thank you).
Hello, thank you for opening your home to me.
Hello, meeting you has changed my heart.
Thank you for your smiles and your love.
Thank you for reminding me of what matters most.
In a moment when I think I can no longer hold back the tears or the churning in my stomach, I glance sideways at a mural on the street, partially hidden behind a parked motorcycle and a random door. And there she is, Saint Teresa of Kolkata. I leave behind my worries for a moment, reminded that my duty here is not only to find more sponsors, but also to increase my own capacity for compassion. It was Mother Teresa who said,
“Let us not be satisfied with just giving money. Money is not enough, money can be got, but they need your hearts to love them. So, spread your love everywhere you go.”
The money worries can wait for later, I told myself. You can cry in the shower. For now, go spread some love.
You are not physically in India with me, but you are all in my hearts in this place filled with so many lessons. If your resources make it possible, I ask you to prayerfully consider becoming an Unbound sponsor. Too many little faces are on that waiting list. But even if this is not possible, I challenge each of us to “spread some love” in our own homes and communities today.
With love comes hope. With hope in Christ, all things are possible.
Be sure to watch here on the blog for my India Journal entries and follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to experience the fun. I’ll be using the hashtag #UnboundAdventure while on the trip. If you have tips for me, questions about this mission or Unbound or simply want to come along on the adventure, be sure to drop me a comment, tweet or message!
My patron saints for this journey will be the patrons of India: St. Thomas–called “Apostle of India”–who built India’s first church, St. Francis Xavier, Jesuit missionary to India, and our Blessed Mother in her titles of Our Lady of the Assumption, Our Lady of Bandel and Our Lady of Bandra. Please join me in praying for Our Lady’s intercession in the work of Unbound and for the wisdom and example of Saints Thomas and Francis in understanding how the Good News of Christ’s gospel calls me to be a servant in our world.
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Copyright 2017 Lisa M. Hendey