ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A New Home With a New Family

A village community is providing hope for homeless in rural India

Ajith, 7, and his brother, Ranjith, 10, used to eat dirt to stave off hunger pangs while living on the streets in a remote corner of India’s southwestern state, Kerala. The diet of the two boys, who had been abandoned by their parents, greatly improved, however, after they found a home in a village established two and a half years ago by a Syro-Malabar Catholic priest, Vincentian Father Anthony Plackal.

“We had no food, shelter or clothes, but now we are happy and well-fed,” Ranjith said. “We even attend school.”

The village, located in Vettikkuzi near the Christian heartland of Irinjalakuda, provides much-needed shelter and a new sense of “family” to local homeless people, young and old, healthy and infirm. Ajith and Ranjith live with 80 other residents, or patients as they are called, in six brick homes scattered across the gardens of the community’s 13 acres.

Local demand for the services of the project, dubbed Sacred Scripture Social Message Into Living Experience, or SSSMILE, is growing. The constant devotion of local religious and the construction of a new dormitory, built with financial assistance from CNEWA, will enable the village to help even more of those in need.

Family living. Poverty, disease and disability had isolated most of the residents from their communities, but housing in the village is not segregated by age or disability, thanks to a decision by Father Plackal to encourage community interaction.

Healthy and wide-eyed children like Ajith and Ranjith run freely on the grounds among the elderly and those with mental and physical disabilities. Young and old of the same gender also share living quarters in the village’s homes.

“We used to keep the children separate in one house, but now we mix them with the others and give residents a chance to mingle,” said Father Samuel Kanathuka, a recently ordained priest and newcomer to the village. “The children help the older people. They dance and the old people enjoy it.”

The village was built on a model developed by a Canadian university professor living in France, Jean Vanier, who in 1964 invited two men with mental disabilities to set up a home with him in Trosly-Breuil, northeast of Paris.

The home was dubbed L’Arche, or the Ark, a biblical symbol of the covenant between God and man. The home’s model of assisted living has been copied throughout the world, drawing those in need together under one roof where they can receive the help they require.

Hope for a better life. Like Vanier’s model home, the SSSMILE village is a place where the most disadvantaged can start a new life with a new family.

Unni, 11, was born to a single woman and was rejected by the man his mother would later marry. He lived on the streets with an elderly man who used him as a begging prop until a few Catholic sisters found him and brought him to the village one year ago.

Unni now dreams of becoming a soldier. “I want to protect my country,” he said.

Catholic sisters also brought Sunil, 11, to the village. “My parents live on the streets and are too poor to look after me,” Sunil said, “so I lived in a tent near the Kottayam railway station with other beggars.” The station, Father Kanathuka said, was infamous for its drugs, prostitution and child abuse.

Sunil has spent two years at the village, excelling both at school and in sports. He said he dreams of becoming a police officer, “so I can catch criminals.”

Many of the boys at the village speak fondly of the adult residents, many of whom have been touched by tragedy and have no one to care for them. Especially popular is Henry, 42. He is a cheerful, intelligent man despite being bedridden due to a spinal injury.

In English, he described the life he knew before falling ill. “I had been a hotel receptionist in Karnataka for 10 years. But in 1991, I caught typhoid fever and suffered serious side effects, probably from the medicine I was told to take. It left me crippled.”

With no mother or father to support him, Henry moved into a home for the sick in Calcutta, but later moved to the village. “Everybody here is kind and I am not thinking about my problems,” he said. “I am just praying to Jesus Christ. Sometimes I go to the liturgy, but often I can’t make it.”

Sinn, 17, is a badly scarred burn victim. Her alcoholic father, in a fit of rage, set her on fire, leaving her with disfiguring lesions on her face and arms.

Her injuries make her daily life difficult, but SSSMILE is arranging for her to undergo plastic surgery at a hospital in Ernakulam, which occasionally offers free services to village residents.

Also living at the village is Mary, 46, who has a university degree and worked as a teacher for five years before developing a debilitating mental illness that forced her to quit her job.

“My father is old and unhealthy, my one sister is married and my mother is dead,” Mary said. “There was no one to look after me and I had no place to go. I didn’t know where to turn. That’s when I came to the village.”

She smiled as she spoke of her new life at SSSMILE, praising the care and love she has received from the village’s residents and caretakers. “It’s so wonderful.”

Pitching in. SSSMILE is run by 2 priests and 11 sisters from four congregations. They are assisted by 7 lay workers. Many of the patients who are able to help do so by cooking, cleaning vegetables and working in the gardens.

Ashore is an unmarried woman who bore a son fathered by a relative when she was 16. Her father gave her a stern warning not to let it happen again, but five years later she became pregnant by another close relative. This time the family rejected her.

A religious sister said Ashore’s presence at the village has been a welcome addition. “She will live here all her life with her children. She has changed her attitude and helps a lot, especially those who are mentally ill.”

Born a high caste Hindu, Balarishanan, 78, is a volunteer but said one day he will be a resident seeing out his days at the village. Meanwhile he is healthy and helps by feeding, serving and washing patients.

Even those with severe disabilities do what they can to participate in the work of the village.

Achuthan, 40, is paralyzed from the waist down, after falling from a coconut tree while trying to tap the sap. Rarely leaving his bed and hooked up to a catheter, he sat upright and cut beans for a village dinner.

Religious devotion. Fathers Kanathuka and Plackal and a number of sisters oversee daily life and work. Father Kanathuka insisted that the village community is not a tool of evangelism. “We do not try to convert or baptize people who need to come here.”

Sisters Achama and Leela work with great devotion at one of the houses. They were professed as Martha Sisters of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, but joined another group who call themselves Sisters of the Merciful Love of Jesus Christ, who are more involved with charity work.

“We have always been inspired by efforts to look after poor, abandoned people,” said Sister Achama. “From as far back as I can remember, I had the will to serve the poor. I wish to spend my entire life with people who have no one to care for them.”

Father Kanathuka was ordained as a religious rather than a parish priest, taking on the additional vow of poverty before coming to the village. With Father Plackal away seeking medical care, Father Kanathuka leads the daily celebration of the Divine Liturgy in a small chapel. He also leads SSSMILE residents in an evening prayer service.

Standing on the roof of the tallest building in the village at sunset, Father Kanathuka looked out across the coconut trees and small river that surround the property. Sweeping his hands across the horizon, he described the area as “God’s country,” referring both to the beauty of the lush, green state and to the fact that Kerala, where St. Thomas the Apostle had arrived almost 2,000 years ago, is more than 30 percent Christian.

Father Kanathuka said his work in the village is inspired by a saying from Mother Teresa: “I cannot transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, but I can touch the broken body of Jesus.” Fortunately for the village, Father Kanathuka can do both.

Sean Sprague travels the globe for CNEWA WORLD.

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