CNEWA
ONE Magazine
God • World • Human Family • Church

One With the Urban Struggle

Two of Bombay’s impoverished suburbs benefit from the dedicated and driven Daughters of the Heart of Mary.

The Daughters of the Heart of Mary, or DHMs, were first drawn to India in the early 1950s and, recognizing that to improve India’s fortune they would first have to work with women and children, they ventured to establish a social service network in Bombay. The fruit of their labors, the Social Service Institute, has maintained a relationship with CNEWA for more than 30 years. And, through a generous perpetual endowment from CNEWA, the DHMs have expanded their network of diverse services to embrace Bombay’s expanding perimeters, including Chuim-Khar Danda and Bassein.

Chuim-Khar Danda is a sprawling Bombay suburb located about 11 miles northwest of the city. Known for its deplorable social and ecological conditions, Chuim occupies the spacious green lawns that once served as a golf course for the affluent. Nevertheless, the real estate, with its coastline and expansive views of the Arabian Sea, remains prime. Yet the majority of those who live there cannot enjoy the abundance of nature’s bounty. They struggle to make ends meet – quite a contrast to their middle – and higher income neighbors who live in the high-rise flats hugging the beaches.

The inhabitants of Chuim are a heterogeneous lot: most are Hindus, but there is a sprinkling of Muslims, Buddhists and Christians. Migrants from various rural areas of India, they have come to Bombay with the hope of opportunity. The vast majority of adults have little or no formal education. A substantial number of men work as unskilled manual laborers; others are cobblers, while a few are drivers and vegetable vendors. They work on a daily contract basis and earn below subsistence level wages. The women supplement the family income as domestic workers in the middle – and high-income areas. Danda is a fishing village and the women there sell fish, either door-to-door or in the markets.

The DHMs, a religious society founded during the sociopolitical upheavals of late 18th century France, arrived in Chuim in 1969 at the request of Valerian Cardinal Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay. The Cardinal requested their assistance to administer and teach in the parish school. Other DHMs involved themselves in pastoral work.

Following the example of Marie Adelaide de Cice (cofounder of the community), these DHMs had a deep feeling for the sufferings of the people of Chuim, for both their material and especially their spiritual distress.

Day-care centers were among the first programs to be set up by the DHMs. Without them, older children stayed away from school to care for their younger siblings while their parents worked.

Rohit, now a young man of 22, recalls that his mother used the DHM day-care services for him from when he was a year old:

“At work my mother was at peace because she was sure I was cared for well. My younger brother and sister went to day care when they were just three months old. This was because my mother was happy and pleased with the care I received.”

The day-care center now enrolls more than 80 children; their ages range from three months to three years. Four and five-year-olds go to the preschool, which prepares them to enter city, parish or private schools when they become eligible at the age of six.

The DHM-sponsored Chuim Community Center (CCC) offers a wide array of services covering all age groups. Besides day care and preschool, there are tutorials for 400 schoolchildren in English and in the local vernacular. The youth are also actively involved in conducting some of the tutorials themselves as their contribution to the community. Community festivals, sporting matches and tournaments are also organized with neighboring areas.

Since India achieved independence in 1947, overcrowded living conditions in Chuim have contributed to the many health problems incurred by the inhabitants of this impoverished suburb. Therefore, health services and health awareness campaigns targeting diseases such as tuberculosis, leprosy and AIDS are conducted at the CCC by specialized medical personnel and locally trained community health workers.

Over the years many migrant families have fulfilled their modest economic dreams. They are self-sufficient, they have the use of electricity and proudly enjoy a “colored television.” The community’s participation in city and state government has rewarded them with a much-needed supply of potable water, as well as rice, wheat, sugar, grains and household fuel sold at government-subsidized rates.

Even with better economic conditions the people of an urban slum like Chuim-Khar Danda are exposed to risk and insecurity. Within families women face domestic violence. From without, different minority and ethnic groups are harassed by organized crime, political gangs and real estate racketeers, who lure the poor with the promise of better housing and then deprive them of their huts.

The DHMs, together with the CCC staff, are addressing these issues through family counseling and other such services. They also act as liaisons between domestic workers and their employers, secure housing projects and even approach political parties, thus ending the political isolation of the residents of Chuim.

A hopeful sign of the success of such programs is the joy and sense of achievement of former day-care students. Many are now young men and women, educated, employed in skilled work, happily married and settled. A number of these young adults, the first in their families to receive an education, were once sponsored children – graduates of CNEWA’s Needy Child Program. All have their own appealing stories to tell.

Richard and Michael are brothers. Their father was unemployed and their mother, a domestic worker. As children, Richard and Michael were in the day-care center. Both had tuberculosis and were often hospitalized. Although young, Richard observed that the other poor children in the ward had no money with which to buy medicine; he was quite aware of the poverty that surrounded him. Richard and Michael were sponsored through the Needy Child Program and, occasionally, their mother received financial assistance from her employer.

Richard is now employed in one of the Persian Gulf countries and sends funds to his mother in Chuim asking her to look for children in need of medical assistance. Richard is giving to those in need what was once given to him. What a wonderful example of Christ’s command: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

In 1986, two DHMs, full of hope and zeal, arrived in the lush fields and gardens of Bassein, another Bombay suburb located 40 miles northwest of the city. Bassein provides not only a feast for the eyes, but a feast for the stomach – it is the vegetable bowl of Bombay.

Bassein is also considered a stronghold of Indian Christianity; many of its families have integrated their Hindu cultural heritage with their Catholicism. Most are farmers by occupation, while those who live along the coast fish the abundant sea.

The city population has gradually invaded this region; Bombay’s boundaries are swallowing vast expanses of land. There has been a steady rise in trade and commerce, thus real estate agents and contractors are grabbing land for the housing that will soon replace the fields. These rapid changes have affected the lives of many families, particularly the youth, who prefer white-collar jobs to the agrarian work of their parents. Now fields and farms, almost the entire ecology of Bassein, lie in danger of pollution and, ultimately, destruction.

The church has stood with the people on matters of environmental, as well as exploitative, concern. Groups like Harith Vasai, or Green Bassein, have developed not only to defend the natural beauty of Bassein, but to safeguard basic amenities such as pure drinking water, which is now being diverted for commercial use.

The urbanization of Bassein has spawned the need for basic faith formation. Bassein’s parishes are large and spread over a tremendous area. Clergy and laity alike realize the need for smaller Christian communities, which encourage a lively prayer and liturgical life. The church has initiated Basic Christian Communities, or BCCs, to revive the faith of people now drawn away from the life of the church to the often sordid allure of city life. BCCs also serve to counter the proselytizing efforts of sects, Christian and non-Christian, that prey on the disillusioned.

Holy Cross parish, in which our DHMs work, is divided into three zones. Each zone comprises a group of villages. The DHMs have been allotted a zone in which each woman establishes contact through regular village visits.

“We are happy to have you come and pray with us,” one woman said to a DHM. “We like coming together to pray.”

With the encouragement of the BCCs, there is better participation by the laity. Liturgies and community feasts are organized and planned by the community. Josephine, a member of the DHM community working in Holy Cross, is actively involved with her local BCC and, at the diocesan level, she works with the bishop’s team and coordinates BCC training programs and rallies.

There are a variety of DHM-staffed programs offered at the parish school. Cecilia, a DHM from Bassein, teaches full time. Gracie and Greta conduct preschool classes. English is offered for the youth, there-by enabling them to gain better job opportunities in the city. During extended summer vacations, activities are organized for various groups of children. These activities provide healthy and appropriate forms of recreation and the students look forward to such programs: “Sister, when will there be another program?” The parents too appreciate these activities and the opportunities they provide.

The DHMs, in Bombay, in 19 Indian states, indeed throughout the world, work with people of goodwill for a world where justice will prevail, “opening our hearts to everyone, living the spirit of the beatitudes and radiating peace” (Constitutions of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary).

Dr. Gracy Fernandes is Research Director of the Institute of Social Service, Bombay.

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