FOCUS ON INDIA
India is a country that boasts a population of nearly 1 billion people, in which approximately 80% are of the Hindu faith, 13% are of the Muslim faith, and the remaining 7% belong to either Christian, Bahai, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, or other tribal religions. As a country whose average annual salary is just above $100/month, India continues to remain under severe economic hardship. However, amidst these hardships, India is also a country rich in culture and tradition. Many do not know that India's tradition includes the history of the Christian Church. Christianity was first introduced to India by the Apostle Thomas in 52 AD who preached the Gospel in South India. To our day this area is dominated by a vibrant Christian element.
Throughout its history, the Church in India has seen periods of stand still and periods of growth. However, this changed on Christmas 1980 when a Greek priest-monk, Fr. Athanasios Anthides, traveled to India to begin a systematic Orthodox Mission in the rural area of Arambah, in West Bengal. Fr. Athanasios, who had served as a missionary in East Africa, worked for ten years teaching and preaching the truth of Christ. In Arambah, he built a small church and worked on the translations of an Orthodox catechism, the Divine Liturgy and Service Book into the local Bengali dialect. Despite his old age and ailments, Fr. Athanasios journeyed on foot to the surrounding villages to form 24 clusters of believers, saying that the mission has to start from the villages where the ground is fertile. On November 28, 1990, the warm ground of West Bengal welcomed the body of Fr. Athanasios who died spreading the Gospel.
A year after the death of Fr. Athanasios, another priest-monk from Greece, Fr. Ignatios Sennis, came to Calcutta to continue to the mission that had begun in India. Fr. Ignatios' first work was to repair and open a church that had been built by Greek merchants in 1924. He then began travelling to the villages where there was an Orthodox presence to nourish the faithful and conduct catechism, though under adverse conditions. West Bengal is ruled by a Communist Regime that forbids any kind of missionary activity. This, along with the domination of Hinduism, presents great difficulties both for missionaries and the newly baptized that face contempt from both friends and family. In spite of this, the efforts have led to the conversion of hundreds of faithful.
When the Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia was created in 1996, the Orthodox Church in India became part the new Metropolitanate. Through the leadership of Metropolitan Nikitas there are now seven native priests who work side by side with Fr. Ignatios and 15 parishes throughout the Calcutta area and beyond.
Another vibrant ministry of the Orthodox in India is the philanthropic work. Following is a description of this work taken from an article published on the Metropolitanate's web page by Fr. Ignatios Sennis:
India is a third world country, poor in comparison with the western world. No matter how many years pass, the view of city life gives a sharp pain in our heart. Millions are homeless, living in the streets, with only some rags for their possessions. Like poor Lazarus in the parable, so do these people live in poverty, hunger and disease, side by side with dogs and rats, unavoidably thinking about the injustices in the world: others travel in spaceships to outer space, and others fight for survival in the streets, forsaken by all.
How can we sleep in peace when we hear a baby across the street crying because of fever, or when the monsoon rain falls mercilessly on a homeless family that looks in vain for a shelter? How can we rest in our cool room and comfortable bed when our brothers and sisters, creatures of God, are baking in the hot tropical sun in the streets and sidewalks for days, months, and years? Life for these people has no yesterday or tomorrow. There is only today. Are they going to survive today? Garbage which is plentiful everywhere, comprise a source of hope for people, animals, and crows. There they will find old scraps of paper that they will sell for a slice of bread. There they will discover something to burn in order to cook their rice so that they can fool their hunger. Wherever one's eyes turn, they witness indescribable despair and human degradation. How can we respond to this abyss of human suffering? Where do we start? Human efforts are limited, and we know that no matter what we do, it will be a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, we are still responsible to try with all our strength, with the hope that our all-merciful Lord and the God-fearing faithful from all over the globe will be our supporters both materially and morally.
One of the first programs we instituted was the daily rationing of morning breakfast consisting of milk and biscuits for the poor children of the area. Very early in the morning they come and wait outside the gates, until the time when the gates open and they quickly come and sit in the courtyard and anxiously wait for their morning meal that for many is the only meal of the day. Often they show us their scars infected by disease and other health problems. If we look to see where these children live, we will be beyond words. Most of them live in an abandoned Muslim burial site. The dark graves are their homes, full of mud, garbage, rats and cockroaches. No one cares for these people. There fore, we decided to help them as much as we could. We chose some of the most desperate and poor families, about 400 families by now, and gave them cards which they use every two weeks in order to collect a ration of basic substances like rice, sugar, beans, oil, soy, soap and matches. Every Monday, the courtyard fills with the blind and the lepers, paraplegics and skeletons who wait for the distribution of food. A pair of crutches is a luxury item as most who are crippled are condemned to crawl on the ground, looking at us with sadness and supplication as their only hope of survival.
Along with poverty and hunger, the health problems that people face are many and insurmountable. There are very few hospitals, and they are in terrible condition. Doctors are too expensive, and so is medicine. Very few can afford either. That is the reason why one of our first concerns was the building of a clinic with Indian physicians who would give free medical care. Today we have three such clinics, one in Calcutta, and the other two in distant villages of West Bengal.
The care of children, and especially of their education, comprises an integral part of our mission. For a child to attend school, money is needed for tuition, books, uniforms, etc. Many children are from poor families and cannot afford school. We try to cover some of their expenses. Very soon, two schools will belong to the Church, one in the area of Katal, and one in Avamgal, where tuition will be free.
We also have under our care an orphanage which houses 50 children, for which we provide food, cloth clothing, schools supplies, toys, and whatever other need they have so that can live a human existence. Every time we visit them is a special day. We depart early in the morning before the traffic and the heat becomes intense. On the way we stop to buy some fish for their lunch. If we do not bring them that fish then their lunch would be the usual plate of rice with some yellow sauce. For breakfast and dinner there is also rice. We wonder how these children can grow just on rice.
After three hours we are there. On the side of the road some of the children are waiting for us and climb on the car. The rest of the children encircle us asking for a hug and to show us their love. The children, in an orderly fashion, come and receive their small gifts and thank us from their heart. Afterwards, some go to play, while others get a haircut from the barber we brought with us. Then lunchtime comes, and after a short prayer, the rice is accompanied by a little bit of fish. In a little while comes time to depart. They surround us again, begging us to return soon. We promise them that we will, and as we are leaving, we glorify God for His great care, in that He did not let these children perish.
Moved by the same motivation to help as many people as possible, especially the orphan children which are abandoned in the garbage dumps of Calcutta, we decided to build our own Orthodox orphanage in the outskirts of Calcutta in order to accommodate about 100 children. The plans also see for a clinic, a school, workshops, and a chapel. The aim is that the education of the children will revolve around worship life and Orthodox teachings.
Words cannot contain what one will feel when he or she witnesses the misery and suffering of the people that surround the mission. What is important is that in every possible way the word of Christ is preached.
Let us ask ourselves: Are we responding to God's Will responsibly and honestly? The ways we can help are many. God presents us with plenty of opportunities when there is good will. Maybe not all can serve in the distant lands of mission, but they can all offer an equally valuable asset. Even if we pass the word to our fellow man about the mission, that is a valuable offering. The most needed offering one can make is heartfelt prayer for those who are serving missions around the world, and for those not in the Light, so that they too can become members of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Note: Each Summer the OCMC sends a small mission team to Calcutta to work with Fr. Sennis, ministering to the poor and offering catechism lessons. Monthly support for the indigenous clergy of India is provided through OCMC's Support a Mission Priest Program (SAMP).
For more information regarding the Metropolitanate of Hong Kong, refer to the monthly publication the "Censer," which is printed by the Metropolitanate and can also be found on the Internet at: www.cs.ust.hk/faculty/dimitris/ metro/hkmetropolis.html
Vol. 15, No. 1 (1999)