ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

Finding Family Among the Tribals

A Christian mission strives to lend a hand to remote tribal villages in India.

In the thick jungles of southern India’s Adelabad District, tribal villagers have always been wary of outsiders, who often try to exploit them in the sale of their crops. Their young men stand guard over their fields on tall platforms which serve as watchtowers. With food scarce and people plentiful, the villagers suspect any intruder. All are met as potential enemies, with spears in hand.

The remote Christian mission of St. Paul in Utnoor is a unique presence here. Its staff of religious missioners has been accepted in the tribal villages spread out over 300 square miles. St. Paul’s mission provides shelter and food, plus the advantages of education, to the children whose parents have brought them to this boarding home. Though often a great sacrifice, this arrangement frees their children from the confines of ignorance and poverty.

In St. Paul’s family atmosphere, togetherness is carried to its fullest meaning. The Sisters of Charity of Trichur have the girls staying with them in their crowded, unfurnished convent. The boys live with Father Mathai Kulumpully, the director, in another equally crowded building. Its large, bare, open rooms serve as school during the day and as the boys’ dormitory at night.

Because of their service to the children, the priest and Sisters of St. Paul’s have become regular welcome guests of tribal families. The village children accompany them on these short visits in an old jeep, the only means of transportation through the forests. One day the children of the Ghond tribe journey home. Another day the Langadi children will travel to their village. Each journey is demanding, with brooks to ford and precarious drops over boulders. Frequently, all hands are needed just to push the jeep out of ruts in the trail. Finally, long after the forest prevents further driving, the children expertly guide the way into the village through fields of high maize on paths they alone seem to see. After a few hours of reunion, they must retrace their torturous route to Utnoor.

The whole village comes out to greet the visitors. Women sport long, heavy, lantern-like earrings and colorful, loose bangles which cover their arms. They share their modest meal of hard peas, slightly warmed.

During the visits Father Mathai sits outside and speaks with the men. (Male outsiders are not permitted to enter a hut with women.) Meanwhile, Sister James gathers the women. She gives each of them time to relate any medical problems she might have. Sometimes they simply gossip while the children enjoy their brief family visit.

Education is vital to Father Mathai’s pastoral role. To teach villagers who neither read nor write, he produces dramas and dances. The small boys play biblical characters or other roles from literature. Often the actors and audience change places so that the “lessons” are shared by the children with their parents. (Your religious training has a serious lack if you have never seen young boys dance the story of “The Good Samaritan” amid much giggling and shoving to determine which ones will be the donkey to carry the wounded man to the inn.)

Among the Sisters of Charity of Trichur, Sister James holds a special place in the hearts of the villagers. Her spiritual gifts are as respected as her practical sense. She has come to serve, and serve she does! Her roles vary: counselor, nurse, confidant, agricultural specialist, cook, pharmacist, homemaker, and always a woman of faith. Despite physical danger, Sister walks miles from village to village to conduct classes in health and hygiene, nutrition, child care, and catechetics. Her nursing skills have the active help of the other three Sisters from the boarding school. Lively and friendly, Sister James knows everyone in the local areas. The tribals have come to accept her fully as one of their own. She is trusted.

Catholic Near East Welfare Association can occasionally supply St. Paul’s with essential funds, but the native religious and people of India make the mission work. People such as Father Mathai and Sister James have “lost themselves” in the villages of India. Their quiet, noble work for the Church is done not with sermons but with a loving witness to Christ. Their service helps the villagers find strength together in facing their shared problems with greater courage and hope, while offering their children the community spirit and education needed for their future.

Sister Christian is a Sister of Mercy serving on CNEWA’s mission staff.

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