A priest's street mission takes flight
'I dream of a world where there are no beggars'
Father George Kuttickal
A chance visit to a bird sanctuary in northern India nearly 30 years ago changed the life and mission of Father George Kuttickal and has paid dividends for thousands of destitute people living on the streets.
As a young priest out to conquer the world for Christ he was deeply impressed by the naturalists he met at Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan, meticulously naming, numbering and maintaining health reports for each migratory Siberian bird they found.
“Their amazing concern and love for those birds of the air was a great moment of divine inspiration for me,” Father Kuttickal, now 58, told ucanews.com during a recent meeting of the destitute people in Kerala, southern India.
As he travelled on, he came across thousands of people abandoned on the streets.
“Although they too were created in the image of God, many died on the streets, unnoticed,” his says, his voice still choking with emotion all these years later.
For more than a decade after he was haunted by an inner voice asking, “are they not more valuable than the birds?”
The Missionary Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament priest says he took holy orders to serve the least as he had experienced the “bitter taste of neglect” as a child.
“I was weak in studies and games, so my friends kept me away,” he said. The experience left him yearning to help society’s forgotten and it was obvious to him he had to do something to help the orphans, mental patients and the destitute he saw on the street, but the question was, what?
“I could not do anything concrete.”
Then in 1992, he organized a retreat in Trichur, Kerala, where his volunteers brought 26 beggars and urchins.
Father Kuttickal asked others to give the beggars the first place.
“They obeyed. I wanted to change their attitude toward beggars,” he says.
After the retreat, the beggars reluctantly returned to the streets.
“They came back with more people for our monthly retreats. Unfortunately, we had to close the program after two months because of protests from the local people.”
Nevertheless from these beginnings, the social movement known in Malayalam as Akasa Paravakal or Birds of the Air, grew to rehabilitate the lost, “either wandering about like birds or dying miserably like dogs.”
In 1994, Mother Teresa opened the first official house for the Akasa Paravakal near Trichur in premises provided by Father Kuttickal’s congregation.
Akasa Paravakal now manages 116 centers across India.
“So far, we have rescued 10,350 people from the street,” Father Kuttickal says.
Among the centers, 20 are run directly by an ecclesial community while various congregations and lay people manage the remainder.
Volunteers trawl streets looking for the destitute who want to come with them.
“The volunteers bring them to our centers, feed them, shave them, bathe them and give them new clothes.
“After any necessary medical treatment, we accompany them to their home. If they have no one, we take care of them,” Father Kuttickal said.
Each center depends only on God’s providence. “After all it is his center. We are only our master’s servant,” he said with chuckle.
“We have no bank balance. Whenever there is a shortage, God sends someone to help.
“Often our food increased miraculously,” the priest says.
These days, Church leaders welcome the movement but it was not always that way.
“When I started this work, many priest commented that I was mad.”
While many of those attitudes have changed, Father Kuttickal still often faces hostility.
“In some places we have to face protest from the local people, because they consider our people a nuisance.”
He says attitudes are also hardening even as society in general becomes richer.
The priest finds the number of people ending up in the street increasing daily and blames it on a decadent society.
“We are satisfied by throwing something useless to beggars.
“In our society, the fittest exploits the unfit for his benefit,” the priest says.
“We are here to make the unfit more fit.
“I dream of a world there are no beggars, no sick and no mental patients on the pavements.”