The Rev. Mathew Vadakkekuttu is director of the Prachodana Social Service Society in the Diocese of Gurgaon, New Delhi.
Lockdown, quarantine and coronavirus have become some of the most common words these days. Amidst this unprecedented situation in our times, social media is replete with songs, videos and a number of artistic expressions of our optimism and positivity. It is heartening to see all that.
But in a country like ours, there are much more serious things which we might miss: the daily wage workers struggling to earn bread for their starving children; the migrant workers making a mass exodus back to their villages barefooted, in this heat, without food and water; and the scores of people on the streets and slums around us, who were already lacking food and shelter. They are probably affected most by COVID-19, even before the disease might actually hit them. In these circumstances, it was most pressing that we continue the distribution of food on a daily basis. For this, the Diocese of Gurgaon, through its social service society Prachodana, obtained permission from the Delhi government and started the community kitchen soon after the lockdown began.
With the help of our friends and well-wishers, we collect food materials and cook food in our kitchen and prepare food kits to be distributed to the people around us and in our missions who need immediate help. Soon after we started, more people began collecting at the gate of the cathedral where we distribute the food. In the beginning, almost 500 people gathered at noon and in the evening. Some stayed until we ran out of provisions. When we ran out, their disappointed eyes made us to find more supplies for the next day, to help feed as many as possible.
It was the diocesan anniversary day on 1 May and the 10th anniversary of the “Food for Hungry Program,” though without any sort of celebrations this time. About 30 people started lining up by 6:15 in the morning, to be able to get a food kit. While talking to them, we saw a man in his late 30’s standing with a small girl. Seeing them stand like this for a while, we called them up. They looked exhausted. We learned that he was blind and his 11-year-old daughter guided him here to get the food kit.
A little later, when numbers increased in front of the gate, we saw a rather weak man in his old wheelchair who had managed to reach here, hoping to get food. He was also given a food kit.
These poignant experiences have now become regular for us. The lay representatives, sisters, seminarians and the priests who help us prepare food during this lockdown period have only more work to do, day after day. A good number of men, women and children who line up for hours in front of the church’s gate here in Neb Sarai often come from far away. Some said they have no daily labor, and no other government or social center to give them help in this region. Quarantine rules have blocked their only means of daily food.
We are continuing to distribute some of the prepared food on the street in other parts of Delhi, as usual. However, now we also try to include even the laborers who are moving back to their villages. The situation in other slums we visit is also very grim. These days we come across many widows and single mothers who come to receive the daily meals for their children at home. The sight in front of the church shows so many people have nothing. We are the only ones who can give them something to eat. Another day, the number grew so much that the police had to intervene to control them. Some of the people even got beatings for not following the rules; nevertheless, they stayed. They didn’t want to return to their hungry children empty handed.
As it is known, during these times it is very difficult to get supplies like vegetables, rice and flour in enough quantities to prepare food. We need to go to different vendors and markets to buy. We also bought vegetables from one of the vendors, named Hemanth, who sells them on his small cart in our Neb Sarai area. Since we needed food in large quantities, he began to give us discounts, seeing that it going to be distributed freely to the hungry. One evening he gave us all of his vegetables for free, even though we insisted on paying. He said, “These vegetables become food for my starving brethren. I am only happy to do this.” Every day after his daily business, he comes to our church and leaves the rest of his vegetables for us to distribute. Help comes, sometimes, in ways you don’t expect.
And it is certain that, without many such small hands, we won’t be able to provide for the scores of people who gather now, almost 800 people daily in front of the church, plus hundreds on the streets of New Delhi.
This lockdown has already taught us many lessons. One of them being, that more than the fight against coronavirus, we must strive incessantly to take care of the people in need around us. Food is distributed every single day in front of our church, irrespective of caste or creed. In all the states within our diocese, we are trying in whatever way possible to provide food and essential help. Probably, the missionary diocese of Gurgaon has to do its evangelization ministry in this way, much more than ever. We realize this as our vocation. It may be just a packet of cooked food or a kit of food materials. But for these individuals and families in need, it is the answer to their prayer for “their daily bread.” Each time a stomach is filled, a prayer is heard. Isn’t this what the Lord wants us to do for “the least of his children”? Isn’t this the time we realize that we are humans first and that my smallest hand can be the greatest of help to some hungry person waiting desperately just for a meal?
In return, what we get are the tearful smiles of gratitude from those people who thank us with folded hands and hearts full of prayers and blessings. One day, an aged woman received her packet, blessed us and asked us not to stop this service. “It means life for many,” she said.
We won’t stop. We’ll do our part. We may be able to do only a little, but we will give our best. We hope to get all the help we can, because it is not just social work. It is something we must come together to do. Every single penny would mean a lot for some unknown person struggling to just have something to eat to stay alive.
Along with the brave doctors and nurses who are fighting this war against this unfortunate disease, we request everyone to join hands, in whatever way possible. It is not just an effort to feed a few people. It is an effort to preserve the humanity in us, by reaching out to our brothers and sisters, until love, care and unity become the most common words we hear.