In early January 2010, Catholic Digest managing editor Julie Rattey accompanied representatives from the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) to Kerala, India. The following are blog entries written by Julie during her stay.
Monday, January 11, 2010
The 10-day-old baby lay in a small crib, a pale green mosquito net draped over the crib’s edges as protection from annoyance and deadly disease. She stirred slightly, her small head tilting, her tiny feet curling. How beautiful and precious she is, I marveled, gazing down at her.
“Did you know?” someone asked. “The Sisters found her on the streets of Trichur. She was three days old.”
I let out a cry of dismay. Who was the mother? I wondered. Perhaps, like others I had heard about here in India, she had been led to believe she would marry her lover, only to be left, abandoned and pregnant with a child as well as with shame and fear. Probably her family would disown her if the truth were revealed. Probably she would never have any chances of marrying. Were her family to receive her, the shame might extend to her sisters, possibly ruining their chances of future security as well.
Whatever the circumstances, she had made a choice, or one had been made for her by someone else, and the Nirmala Dasi Sisters had made theirs. And part of their mission, as caring for abandoned children (and in some cases, their desperate mothers) at Christina’s Home in Trichur, was to prevent other young women from feeling pressured to make such a terrible choice again, and to enable hopeful parents to adopt a child from the home. Today there are 114 prospective parents on the waiting list.
I came to India with two primary images in my head — one of the India often depicted in Bollywood musicals, full of women in colorful saris dancing against lush greenery and romantic rainstorms, the other of the slums of Calcutta tended by Mother Teresa — barefooted and emaciated old men, wide-eyed children eating rice, and a tiny, but formidable woman trying to make a difference one person at a time. It’s only been two days since my arrival, and one since I began seeing the work of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) in the country’s southwestern state of Kerala, but already I have so many other images to process — cars, buses, and auto rickshaws weaving perilously close to one another along busy streets; women in saris and sandals riding sidesaddle on the backs of motorbikes; coconut trees and Bollywood billboards; colorful buses alternately boasting the names of Hindu gods and Christian saints. These touched my mind, but what I have seen today in visiting some of the institutions supported by CNEWA, an official agency of the Vatican, has touched my heart. The image of that tiny, vulnerable, beautiful baby is one of of these moving images that will remain with me. I can hardly do justice to them all in this blog, but here are a few others:
— At the Pope Paul Mercy Home in Trichur, a home for the mentally disabled and also our first stop, our group (myself, CNEWA U.S. Secretary Gabriel Delmonaco, CNEWA priest Msgr. Nevin Klinger; CNEWA donor Bill Doty, and India-based CNEWA staff) were greeted with an overwhelmingly warm and beautiful reception. A small marching band processed us through a green, tree-sprinkled yard to the steps of the complex’s auditorium, where young women clad in saris held out small, lit lamps and sprinkled flower petals as we ascended the steps to another young woman, who placed a traditional bindi, a small dot or smear made with materials such as sandalwood powder, on our foreheads. As we sat with the students in the auditorium, a group of mentally disabled young women from the home, clad in shimmering Indian garments of gold and white, performing a traditionally-styled dance. The welcome, and the dance, brought tears to my eyes. I feel incredibly humbled, and incredibly blessed.
— At the Mar Kundukulam Complex, a rehab center for HIV patients, an HIV-positive man lies on a bed with a leg so swollen with infection that its size resembles a log cut for the fire. The Sisters have placed small bowls of water beneath each leg of the bed, to prevent ants from crawling up to eat at the infected leg. Such a thing we could hardly imagine in a hospital here at home.
— At Mary Matha Seminary, approximately 169 men gather for prayer and words of encouragement from the visitors. Thomas Varghese, Regional Director for India for CNEWA, speaks to them about how important they and their vocations are to those CNEWA donors who support them in the United States. They think of them, he explains, as family. When a recent earthquake hit India, he recalls, donors were calling the New York office. “How is my son?” they asked worriedly. “Was he affected by the earthquake? Is he OK?
— At St. Anne’s Charitable Institution, a girls’ orphanage, a series of dance and song performances by the girls is followed up by a request that I sing a song. My very un-warmed-up voice manages to survive a verse of O Holy Night and, as our group prepares to leave, I am completely swarmed by a mob of eager young girls wanting to pinch my cheeks (perhaps due to the different shade of my skin?) and shake my hand and know that I will pray for them. Again, I feel humbled and touched. Who am I that these young girls, so hopeful and joyful despite all that they face, are so excited to see me? I do promise to pray for them. I pray that you, our readers, will too.
As I write this entry, it is after midnight. I’m going on four hours of sleep and have a long day tomorrow, but I look forward to what it will bring. Thanks for joining me on my journey. Until then, good night and God bless.
Tuesday, January 12
It’s early afternoon. Going on four hours of sleep (again!), I’m wondering how well I’ll hold up today, but I have particular reason to look forward to this afternoon’s itinerary. Our group will visit St. Joseph’s After Care Home in Pulincunnoo, which is supported by CNEWA and which offers vocational training to poor and orphan girls. Fortunately, this home is located an hour and a half boat ride away from our present location, which means we will also experience one of the top tourist attractions of the area: a houseboat (kettuvallam) ride on the backwaters of Kerala.
No sooner do I step aboard our betelwood, twine, and bamboo-covered kettuvallam, and join similar vessels gently cruising down the winding waterways, than I am completely enchanted. Coconut trees laden with fruit, interspersed with betel trees and cherry-red hibiscus flowers, line both sides of the waterway. Partially-clothed men and women walk the few steps from their homes to bathe in the water while others slap or scrub wet laundry on the nearby rocks. A man in a coconut tree harvests its sap-like substance from the stem, while another ferries passengers in a small, long boat across the water. Birds are calling, flapping elegant wings as they fly over the gleaming green water.
It seems an incredibly picturesque place to live — small, colorful homes (though others are more plain and ramshackle) line the small strip of land separating the water from the rice paddy fields beyond, where one or two people in umbrella hats are bent over in labor. There are a few shops, temples and churches, schools, even power lines (!) in the community. Equally attractive is what’s missing, points out one of my travel companions: no traffic, no honking car horns, no pollution from factories.
But come June, when the first Indian monsoon season begins, this seemingly idyllic place grows dangerous. It is not unusual then — and even more so now, with global warming — for the waterways to overflow, leaving the residents with flooded or destroyed homes. In this season, a passerby might witness a backwater family sitting on the roof of their house, waiting either for the flood to recede or help to arrive.
Nor is the area exempt from social challenges, as the presence of St. Joseph’s After Care Home and its affiliated orphanage attest. But like the waterways themselves, they are also havens of natural beauty — the beauty of the people who work and study here.
On our arrival, after being presented with coconut milk straight from the coconut (a straw sticks out from the middle for drinking), we proceed to a medium-sized room where girls from the orphanage (and some of their mothers) are gathered, dressed in a myriad of colors and clapping rhythmically to welcome us. Several of the girls — including two pint-sized, adorable twins — perform for us. Particularly lovely were the traditional dances, such as one in the Thiruvadhira style, a folk dance from Kerala. Clad in beautiful white and gold saris and with small artificial white flowers trailing down their long, dark hair, the girls dance in a circle. We are delighted by their youthful elegance, the joy with which they dance, the pleasing slap of bare feet on the cool floor, the delicate jingle of rhinestone bracelets on their arms.
As I think how graceful and talented these girls are, and how, thanks to St. Joseph’s, they are able to take their many talents to another level, I am reminded of another girl, 14-year-old Sandhya. I met Sandhya earlier today at the Home of Faith for physically handicapped children run by the Preshitharam Sisters and supported, also, by CNEWA. Sandhya was abandoned by her mother at age 3 and, though suffering from a missing right calf/foot, a deformed left foot, and partially deformed hands, learned to dance while watching local performances and got up the courage to enter a competition herself, winning the prize for best performance. She danced for us this morning, her dimpled cheeks glowing with joy, her feet — one real and slightly deformed, one prosthetic — as light and airy as those of any healthy girl.
Later today, as the houseboat makes its lazy way back down the waterways and the setting sun glows orange against the coconut trees, I reflect on the beauty that exists here and all that it signifies: What amazing work these Sisters, and groups like CNEWA who support them, are doing each day in caring for these handicapped or disadvantaged children and giving them encouragement, hope, and a forum for their talents. And how blessed I feel to witness that talent and share in their joy, and to have the opportunity to pass that on to you, our readers. We hear so many bad stories in the news each day. But here, the bright faces and elegant, dancing feet of the girls of Kerala tell a different story — one of hope, one with a future. These girls, like their predecessors before them, may graduate from the Home Care program and succeed in obtaining a career — of the 87 who have graduated, some are nurses, one an engineer, lab technician, and so on. And one day, they may return — as one program graduate did today, with her children — to watch the next generation dance.
Wednesday, January 13
Early each morning, the women of the small mountain village of Kallupalam would rise from their beds and leave their children in the care of their husbands to fetch water for the day. Carrying plastic pitchers of water in their hands and on their heads, they would walk in sandaled feet on unpaved, uneven dirt roads for more than two miles to a natural reservoir. Sometimes, if their husbands returned late from work, they might set out late at night or in the small hours of the morning. Even in the dark, walking without streetlights through this high altitude village on the border between the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the people know their way. Step by step, the women would make their way back to their homes, arms perhaps aching with the weight of their burden. The next day, it would have to be done all over again.
That is, until last year, when the Catholic Near East Welfare Association decided to step in and provide running water for the community. The reservoir was expanded and a pump added. Pipes now bring the water to a tank at a high altitude, and from there, other pipes carry the water, by gravity, to the village homes. The women no longer have to make the arduous journey each day, and can spend more time with their families.
Today, our group drove four hours to Kallupalam. The road wound again and again up the mountains, affording beautiful views of lush greenery, yucca and cardamom plantations, a small waterfall, and, once, a small family of monkeys on the side of the road. At the parish church we were ushered into 4x4s and began bumping up and down the rough dirt and rock roads to visit the water project, as well as some of the villagers benefiting from its installment. Even in January in this high altitude place the air is steamy, and the sun is beating down as we are geeted by a group of men in long dhoti — a type of loincloth — who help show us the site. When asked how they felt when they learned that someone was going to install running water in their community, their faces immediately brighten with smiles.
“People have lived here for more than 40 years [without running water], so this is a blessing for us,” says Benny Thomas, a villager in his mid-thirties. He, like his companions, works in the cardamom plantations, earning about $3 a day. Thinking about living under their former conditions, I can’t help think of my showers at home. Imagine simply washing up each day in a bucket, and having to use no more than a few plastic of pitchers of water each day for all your daily needs!
This is one example of how you never know what will strike you on a trip like this. Another came this evening, during our last stop for the day, to a CNEWA-supported boys’ orphanage run by — who else? — a group of Sisters. After the boys had performed some songs for us, and while they were being presented with small toys that CNEWA US Secretary Gabriel Delmonaco’s son, Alessandro, had generously given from his own collection, one of my traveling companions gestured to one of the boys. “This is the one whose father was from Nepal,” he says in a low voice. “He abandoned him and now the boy is here in the orphanage.”
This, though very sad, is no news to me. I have visited several impoverished countries and seen many orphans and disadvantaged children. But tonight, for some reason, looking at the shining face of this sweet little 4-year-old boy, who just moments before was singing for us, my feelings rise to the surface and I have difficulty suppressing them until I can be alone. My face trembles and tears come to my eyes. My shirt cuffs are suddenly very busily employed trying to blot the tears escaping down my face. Though an understandable reaction, it’s unexpected and also embarrassing, even though there’s sufficient activity in the room to conceal my emotion from most people present. Gabriel notices and puts a hand on my shoulder.
“It happens,” he says reassuringly. Then, a few moments later, “You are here for a reason.”
Why am I here? I am here to share all this with you, our readers, that is certain. But how else might God use this trip to affect my faith, my life? On the long ride to the village today, Regional Director Thomas Varghese spoke about the incredible dedication of the Sisters here, and about what it truly takes to do this kind of work. “When is a man a missionary?” he asks. It is not when he is member of the Congregation of such-and-such. He is not a missionary because he can recite Scripture. He is a missionary when he dies to himself. When he no longer lives. When he can tend to the wounds of another, when he can carry that person. Then he is a missionary.”
Not all of us are called to be missionaries in the usual sense. Not all of us are called to be a Sister in India who sleeps under a tree for weeks while ministering to a remote mountain village until a church is built or a community center established. Not all of us are called to devote our lives to social service. But we are all called to do something, to be Christ for each other every chance we get. And when I think of that small boy tonight, I know that I play a role in all this, and that what you and I do — from what we buy to the values we teach our children to how we support the incredible work that people and organizations like CNEWA are doing here in India and around the world — truly matters. It takes $5000 to run one of those village schools for a year. $5000 — that’s it. How can I live my life, I ask myself — financially, spiritually, morally, etc. — in a way that is truly mindful of these children, these Sisters and priests and charity workers, these beautiful and joyful and vulnerable people, and in a way that treats them as my neighbors, which they truly are? In what ways am I holding back from God and from God’s people? In what ways do I need to die to myself? I don’t have all the answers. But this trip is certainly going to make me think about these very important questions, both now and after my return.
Thursday, January 14
As I write this entry, and as Gabriel writes his, both of us seated across from each other in the lobby of our hotel, it’s 11:30 p.m. and we can hardly keep our eyes open. I’m going on four hours of sleep; he, perhaps a bit more. We have extra reason to look forward to bed tonight: This afternoon, Gabriel, Bill Doty, and I joined a group of 14 and 15-year-old boys — orphans and day students — for a game of soccer at the Sacred Heart Boys’ Orphanage in Mookanoor.
For me, it was 40 minutes of fun, sweat (it really is hot here, considering it’s only January!), and, considering that my last appearance on a soccer field was probably in grade school gym class, mini prayers of petition that I wouldn’t get smashed in the face with a flying soccer ball. or kick and miss, falling flat on the dirt field (which, by the way, the other players played on in bare feet). The first time the “home team,” the orphans, got a goal, the crowd — uniformed students seated on low walls and on the dirt all around the field — let out a wild cheer. Gabriel scored a goal for our side, the day students, but we didn’t get nearly as rousing a response. Taking mercy on us amateurs, and making way for further play among the boys, the coach ended the game ended early in a tie, 1-1, and I was content to have achieved my humble twin objectives of avoiding bodily injury and keeping the ball away from our own goal — or at least, not kicking it towards ours — whenever it came my way.
Earlier today, at the Little Flower Seminary in Alwaye, Monsignor Klinger spoke to the seminarians about the will of God. “He will take you to places you never thought you would go, and He will ask you to do things you never thought you would do.” Certainly I never thought I would someday find myself playing soccer with a field full of boys and men in a small town in southern India. I never expected that my work for Catholic Digest would take me to India, or to Oberammergau, or to Greece, or to any of the other incredible and inspiring places I’ve been so blessed to travel to through my work. I never even expected to be working for a Catholic publication prior to the time, seven years ago, when I saw the ad for an editor at Catholic Digest and, shortly afterwards, began my career here.
Monsignor Klinger is right: God takes us to places we may never have imagined we would go, and invites us to do things we might never have thought we would do. Sometimes what God asks of us is scary. Sometimes it is exciting. Often it is a little bit of both. But what an adventure our faith is, whether it takes us on journeys down the street or around the world. Tonight, I invite all of us to think this thought: Where has God taken each of us in our life? What adventures has God created for us? And, if we are fully open to God, if we bend our will to his, what further adventures might God still have in store?
Friday, January 15
What would it be like to live for more than 50 years inside cloister walls? To never embrace your family except through the convent grill, to spend most of your day in complete silence, and to support your community by making Hosts, soap, candy, candles, cards for inhabitants of an outside world you will never see?
For many of us, this life would be a great sacrifice, possibly even great misery. But for others, it is the life that God calls us to, and, if we embrace it wholly, a life of joy.
This morning, the last day of our official visit, we visited the cloistered Carmelite convent at Malayatoor. A group of nuns — some younger, some older — gathered at the grill to speak to us. What struck me was the joy they exuded — through their smiles, their laughter, their conversation. It wasn’t a great surprise: I’ve never thought of nuns as unhappy. But during my stay in India it has been refreshing and thought-provoking to see so many young nuns and Sisters. Many of the Sisters I’ve met during my life thus far have been older, and so, quite honestly, it’s been harder to relate to their way of life. But here, seeing some of the younger faces at the cloister, and the very young (approximately 20 years old) novitiates in Kanjoor, fresh-faced and giggling and clad in pink saris, I’ve been able to understand more clearly what it might be like to live as a Sister or a nun — how the bonds of community could be comforting and fortifying; how the mission work could be inspiring; how, in the cloister, the path to God might feel clean, bright, and freer of daily distractions than the life I currently live.
I don’t have plans to become a nun (despite receiving some half-serious invitations during this visit): I know my calling is elsewhere. Nor does my newfound appreciation for Sisters mean that I have difficulty seeing the worthiness of my own vocation. But seeing the joy of all the Sisters and nuns I have met on this trip, and witnessing the work that they do, has nurtured in me a desire to delve more deeply into my own faith, and to remind myself each day to cultivate that same peace, love, and joy that they wear so clearly on their faces.
At the novitiate today, CNEWA donor Bill Doty spoke to the young women gathered.
“I’ve been very lucky to travel all over the world,” he said, and I’ve seen many poor countries. Everywhere I’ve been, wherever there are poor people, or sick people, or people who need help, the people who are there are always the Sisters. And I’ve never met an unhappy Sister. So while I may be financially wealthy, you are richer than I.”
This afternoon I met Syro-Malabar Catholic Archbishop George Valiamattam of Tellicherry and asked him what he thought one of the greatest strengths of the Church in India was. He looked at me with an almost slightly amused expression, as though the answer was obvious.
“It is our faith!” he said. “We live by faith. That is the most important thing.”
As I write this final entry and prepare for my departure, I reflect on how this trip has invited me to delve deeper into my faith. We have so much to learn from our fellow Catholics, from how they hear and respond to God’s call to how they serve others around the world. I feel closer now to the Church as a universal entity than I did at the beginning of this trip, and when I return to the US, I hope I will carry with me this desire I feel to grow closer to it still.
I was surprised and pleased when I learned that several of the priests and Sisters I met on this trip had read Catholic Digest. You, our readers, are united with them in many ways. You share some of the same struggles and the same joys. You turn to your faith when you face loved ones struggling with addiction, with children who fall away from the faith, with economic and personal difficulties. And you are also united in prayer. When you pray for the Church, you are praying for the young novitiate in Kanjoor who feels called to help heal broken families. You are praying for the 10-day-old orphan rescued from death on the streets of Trichur. You are praying for the disabled children getting a chance at life in a school in Kakkanad. And you are praying for people like my traveling companions from CNEWA, who spend time and effort and money making life better for people of all ages and all faiths in India and elsewhere around the world.
We may speak English or Malayalam, we may wear suits or saris, but we are all working for the same mission and sharing in the same love for God, and for our neighbor. I hope that my journey with you has helped you feel closer to our fellow Catholics here in India and around the world, as it has for me.
Thank you so much for joining me on my visit to India. Please pray for safe travels for me and my companions as we return — some of us tonight, some of us later this weekend — to our respective destinations. And know that you are prayed for in return. en to God, if we bend our will to his, what further adventures might God still have in store?
Photos by Julie L. Rattey
Read more about Julie and CNEWA’s trip to India at CNEWA U.S. Secretary Gabriel Delmonaco’s blog, Better to Light One Candle