ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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

The Silver Lining Behind the Clouds

A member of the Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary comes to the rescue of the poor of Bombay.

“When a dying man says, ‘Save me!’, you can’t be afraid to give. His need is so great and so immediate. And if he doesn’t give thanks immediately, I don’t feel that this is so important. It might take time. When we were children our parents provided us with everything they could offer, but it was only later that we fully realized their sacrifice and expressed our thanks.

“Helping people can be like that. Only after they get their heads above water will they realize what has been done for them. But right now a man is struggling simply to survive.”

The speaker is Dorothy Baker, Director of the School of Social Work at the Institute of Social Service in Bombay, India. The day is hot and steamy, with early monsoon rains bringing only infrequent relief. Like the rains, Miss Baker’s words come in short, sporadic bursts, but they are nonetheless refreshing. As the monsoon promises renewed life to the people of India, her thoughts and work likewise promise life anew to many.

Miss Baker, a native of Albany, New York, came to Bombay twenty years ago because she “wanted to do what God wanted.” Though commonly called Miss Dorothy Baker, she is a doctor of social work and a sister belonging to the Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary.

Having sensed my befuddlement with her title and with her secular appearance, Miss Baker told me: “No, we never wore the clothes generally associated with religious societies, and that has been with us from the very beginning. The order was started in France in 1790 by a Jesuit priest named Father De Clorviere. It was the time of the French Revolution and the subsequent religious persecution. As a result, the order began as a way to follow the religious life without fear of immediate reprisal. Today, of course, that does not apply. But I do feel that we are better able to mix in society. Besides, the exterior is not what is necessary.”

I nodded in agreement. We were speaking in Miss Baker’s office in Nirmala Niketan, the building which houses the Institute of Social Service. When translated from their Sanskrit roots, the words mean “House of the Pure.” Miss Baker explained that ‘Nirmala,’ meaning ‘pure,’ was the closest word that could be found to represent ‘Our Lady, Mary.’

The School of Social Work at Nirmala Niketan is affiliated with Bombay University. Miss Baker and her very able staff provide a rigorous and innovative course of professional studies leading to bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work. The students include members of Miss Baker’s order as well as lay men and women. Their goal is to foster social and economic well-being through urban, rural and family development. The hallmarks of the graduating students are dedication, hard work, and a thorough understanding of societal problems that enables them to meet every challenge resourcefully.

But directing the School for Social Work is only a part of Miss Baker’s responsibility. She also supervises the effective use of funds provided by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association Sponsorship Program.

“We take the family-centered approach,” explained Miss Baker. “You cannot isolate a child from his family and ignore the family problems. You do not want to. You cannot uplift one without helping the other. That is why we must take everyone into account. If a father has to undergo rehabilitation for a handicap, then we involve ourselves there. We also provide skill training to mothers and older girls with the aim that they become self-employed. Furthermore, we have established day care and health centers so that if both parents have to work to keep the family alive, the older siblings will not have to remain home as baby sitters. They will have the opportunity to attend school.

“The poverty of the people we work with is so great that we must tackle problems from all directions. Without the generosity of those who contribute to the program from the United States, our children would have to work to help support their families. India already has the highest incidence of child labor in the world. But as a result of sponsorship, we are able to give children the chance to experience a real childhood while still preparing them for a more rewarding adult life through education.

“Real help will generate self help, and we think that it already has. We know our sponsored families intimately enough to have followed their progress. That is why I say that you can’t be afraid to give.

“I believe that there is a great affinity between the American and the Indian people,” Miss Baker says. “I am so touched when I read the letters coming from America to the children in our program. The Americans are not just giving, they really care. I am especially moved when they mention that they are praying for the child and his family, and when they ask about the well-being of a father who is ill, or a brother or sister who may be experiencing difficulties.

“I think that Catholics should be concerned about what happens in the world. Concern is the essence of love and charity. I do sympathize with those Americans who cannot give, however, and I realize their problems. But there should always be concern in prayer if not in material assistance.”

For five days I observed Miss Baker and her staff at work, and talked to the people of the Bombay slums. The agonizing squalor and deprivation that entraps their souls seems to condemn all hope. The monsoon, swollen with thundering fury, fell unremittingly and cast a pall of doom around children, shuddering with cold, who stood peering from doorways. I was sure that the rains had become the collective tears of India’s poor, and in the mud and mire that quickly deepened and engulfed their misery it seemed little could grow to healthy maturity, still less to a promising future. It appeared that only a miracle would work.

But to wish for a miracle is not the way of Miss Baker or her staff. Theirs is a slow process of patience, dedication and hard work. It is enhanced by the keen will to live and to strive for a better future that is reflected in the ungrudging civility of the people of these slums. Gradually I began to see the silver lining behind the foreboding clouds on the horizon; the miracle was happening, and it was manifested day by day in the mutual concern and endeavor of both worker and recipient in the war against poverty – a war that one cannot be afraid to fight.

How does this slow struggle begin? With the generosity of contributors and the dedication of her staff, according to Dorothy Baker. Concerning her work and her fellow workers, Miss Baker says: “If I simply doled things out I would only be entertaining myself. The Institute of Social Service and all its work must be localized and Indianized to know the valid needs of the people. My staff is so great and so dedicated. I am just one of them, thank God. I am just a fixture on the wall here.”

Miss Baker is a humble person who is happy to do the job that God wants her to do. She serves many people everyday as sister, Ph.D., director, principal, professor and social worker. She says she is “not needed,” but that is her way. Ask the poor of Bombay if she is needed, and you will receive a very different answer. To them, Dorothy Baker and her staff are bringing the miracle of hope.

Richard C. Walker is a professional photographer who served in India with the Peace Corps.

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