At 6:15 a.m. on 1 May, the fifth anniversary of the inauguration of my eparchy, I went to the cathedral to celebrate the Holy Mass together with my priests and seminarians. I was surprised to see around 25 people at the gate. I asked them why they were standing there.
“Bishopji, where shall we go? We don’t have any other place to go. Please help us.”
After Mass, I came out and talked to them. They shared their desperate situation, their difficulties. I saw a young man and a small girl standing off a ways, and called to them. When they came near, I realized he was blind and his daughter was guiding him by holding his hand. I also realized that both of them had not eaten properly for at least two days. I invited them inside and gave them a kit of food. I told the others I would try to help them, as well.
At that time there appeared a man in a wheelchair, who told me he is in difficulty and requested my help. I helped him also.
There are different plans and projects declared by the government for the well-being of the poor people. But there are also people who do not belong to the necessary categories for this assistance — namely, homeless people living on the streets, under the bridges, in the parks, on the pavements, etc., and people living in the slums who are migrants from many other parts of the country. The lockdown period has really broken their backbone. Day laborers have nothing — no work, no money — and they depend totally on the mercy of other people.
We started a community kitchen with the permission of the state government in the first days of the lockdown. Every day at noon, between 700 and 800 people come to the cathedral and wait under the scorching sun to get one package of cooked food.
From morning till evening, there are around 50 people in front of the church waiting for me, or a priest or a seminarian or a religious sister, so they can get one of our larger food kits.
This morning, when I was going to the community kitchen, I saw a group of people standing before the cathedral gate. The volunteer told me one lady was here for the fourth day in a row. When I inquired, she told me she is a widow and she finds it difficult to carry on. I told the others, “I don’t have enough food for all of you, but this woman is a widow and is in difficulty. Therefore, I will let her in and we will share what we have with her, and I will try to get more food soon.”
The people in the group told me, “Bishopji, please help that old lady sitting at the corner of the gate.”
I went to her and asked her where she lived. She started crying loudly. For all the questions I asked her, she answered with a loud cry. Then I waited for some time and called her inside and talked to her. She was also a widow, with nobody to turn to for help.
When I returned to the gate, a middle-aged man came to the front, making very little sound. I realized he was deaf. The group did not object when I invited him inside as well.
I made arrangements for all three to receive some food. The others agreed that they would wait.
These people standing in front of the cathedral make me think of the meaning of the mission of this local church, and the meaning of my role as its shepherd. God has called me to radiate his love and care for these brothers and sisters without looking at their faith, caste, color, language, etc. They find in our cathedral a place of consolation and comfort. In my visits to the slums, which I have been doing since the beginning of the lockdown, I have the feeling the people thrust their anxieties, worries and desperation to us, and they find support and happiness in our presence. When I brought toffees to their children, they danced around me saying, “Uncle came and brought us toffees!”
The people around us do not have any other place to go. There is no mosque or temple or gurdwara [a Sikh house of worship], nor any political leaders available to hear their difficulties. The time that I spend with them every now and then gives me an inner joy that this is my God-given duty to radiate the love of the Lord to these people. On one occasion I heard a woman exclaiming: “Bishopji, you are doing a wonderful work; you are helping us a lot. All people in this area say you are a man of God. That is why we wait here to meet you.”
Every day up to 1,500 food packets are prepared in our community kitchen. The larger food kits that we prepare and distribute — about 33 pounds each — number a couple of thousand. We give this support in all the 13 states where we have a presence. The Delhi government has entrusted to our care about 100 blind people staying in four places. Among them are children and elderly people who are sick and need treatment. We take care of all their needs. We also take care of migrant laborers. It is a matter of joy for all of us. Loading, unloading, food kit preparation, cooking, washing, cleaning — everything is done by our priests, seminarians, two sisters and some of our lay volunteers who stay close by.
After we prepare the food, we distribute it in front of the cathedral and send the rest out for the people on the street. We try to have the same food packets for all. Then we hold noon prayer.
This has become a period of grace for all of us. This grace gives us the strength to do all the work, including the hard work of unloading three tons of food every evening.
A curfew is in force and sometimes the people in front of the church forget about it when they see me or a priest. Our volunteers have to guide them home. But many are desperate. One person told me, “If we sit at home we will die of starvation. If we come out, we will die due to the coronavirus. Either way we have to die. We are ready for it; we don’t care.”
I asked one woman why she did not seek rations from the government. She replied: “Bishopji, I don’t have a ration card. I heard that the government is giving food materials for all if we have any identity card. I gave 100 rupees to a nearby shop to register my name in the computer and get the receipt. I did not get any response and even my money is lost.”
Hundreds of families in the nearby slums and in our missions are waiting for our support. They totally depend on us for their sustenance. These poor people are either not eligible for benefits announced by the government or they are unable to get it for various reasons. In this very difficult situation, if we share a little bit from what God is giving us, we can help many families and many will come to know the love of the Lord.
We may need to keep social distancing, but let us keep it externally only. Internally, let us instead increase our closeness with and care for one another. This internal closeness will give joy and happiness to many people, and bring us all closer to the Lord who gave his life for us.