Saints of the
New Millennium
Faith stories of ordinary Catholics in Asia

An Indian tea-seller’s love for God and his family

Despite years of hardship, Joseph is happy and confident in life due to his unwavering trust in divine providence
 Chakkalakkal Varghese Joseph (center) is pictured in his tea shop at Neerikode in Ernakulam district in India in November 2023.

Chakkalakkal Varghese Joseph (center) is pictured in his tea shop at Neerikode in Ernakulam district in India in November 2023. (Photo: Fabian Antony / UCA News)

By Fabian Antony

Chakkalakkal Varghese Joseph hardly ever gets five hours of sleep. His roadside tea shop in the southern Indian state of Kerala opens at 5 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m.

Joseph is used to the hard life. As a teenager, he began working as a mason and, a few years later, became a carpenter and is now the owner of the tea shop.

In between these unending struggles, he married Mary in 1992, and they are happily busy eking out a living and bringing up three children.

“I have strong faith in God,” says the 55-year-old Catholic.

Joseph had been a carpenter for some three decades and also ran timber mills that cut logs into smaller pieces for carpenters to work with.

He began the teashop after his businesses collapsed due to extended lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, the tea shop remains the primary source of income for the family.

Customers, mostly day laborers and commuters rushing to their faraway workplaces come for hot milk tea, coffee and snacks that Joseph sells at a crossroads in his sleepy Neerikode village.

“My life is full of struggles. But I am happy. I can say that with confidence. These problems will come and go,” says Joseph with a smile.

Besides tea and coffee, Joseph also sells fritters fried in fresh coconut oil. But his bestseller is congee (rice porridge) with vegetable curries that dozens of people buy on their way to the nearby market.

He wouldn’t reveal his average income. “I make just enough to survive,” was all he said with a smile.

Inside his tin-roofed tea shop, Joseph works alone most days. His wife Mary comes to help him only occasionally as she is busy with the household chores.

“I am proud of our children. The bond that I have with them is my greatest strength,” Joseph said.

The eldest is Anu, who is now married and lives with her husband. Their son Anfin recently started working in a private firm and the youngest son Akhil is preparing for university studies.

From right to left, Mary, her husband Joseph and one of Joseph's friends, who helps at the tea shop after Joseph's injury, are pictured together in this November 2023 photograph. (Photo: Fabian Antony / UCA News)

Hard work, prayer for future

Joseph says he makes it a point to talk to the children often. “They may have a lot going on in their minds, and if they know that we are there for them.… Then it makes a big difference.”

Mary agrees, recalling how their elder son would shut himself off when facing a problem or under pressure. “I always helped him open up by sending him smileys, emojis, and messages to show how much I love him. It worked always,” she said.

As Joseph had to drop out of school in the eighth grade, the couple prioritized the education of their children. Joseph says all his hard work is aimed at educating his children and helping them secure their future.

Besides, he also wants them to develop a “strong faith in God, because it is a power which does not let our children drift away.”

Their youngest son, Akhil smiles a lot having inherited this trait from his father.

“They mean a lot to me, and I can tell them anything I want,” he said.

Both the parents say daily prayer is essential to keep them happy, along with the hard work.

It is a family custom to say the rosary together every night before dinner.

“We don’t miss the daily rosary, even if we are late. Sometimes, we pray the rosary late at night, or even when it is past midnight when we reach home after work or travel. Even if the kids are tired and dozing off, we stick to it. The prayer is for us and them, and we cannot break that custom,” Mary said.

The parents also never miss Sunday Mass in St. Joseph’s parish, which has some 3,000 Catholics, most of them belonging to middle-class or lower-middle-class families.

The parish comes under Verapoly archdiocese, based in Ernakulam, a city some 20 kilometers south of Joseph’s village. 

Both Joseph and Mary notice a growing disconnect between children and their parents, more evidently in the nearby city. But prayer life can help, they say.

“Spirituality is essential to survive these tough times,” says 51-year-old Mary.

Joseph is seen setting up the blade of an industrial planer at a workshop. (Photo: Fabian Antony / UCA News)

See-saw life of a carpenter

Joseph’s family has been through both good and bad times.

From the 1980s till 2017 Joseph worked as a full-time carpenter. In 2017, he leased two timber mills in Varappuzha, hoping to expand his business. 

However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Joseph was forced to close them down, plunging him into a financial crisis. 

He started the tea shop in October, a month after a motorcycle accident injured his right ankle.

Despite the persisting pain and swelling in the ankle, Joseph takes a break from the tea shop only on Sundays.

The only luxury he allows himself is hiring a tuk-tuk for his travels to the city.

“If things do not work well [at the tea shop] then I may return to carpentry work at a local workshop that may need experienced hands,” Joseph said.

Joseph was born into a poverty-stricken family as the third of five children. He has two elder brothers and two younger sisters, one a Catholic nun.

The family lived in perpetual penury. "My father used to drink alcohol almost every day. Sometimes he used to create a scene after getting drunk,” Joseph recalled.

His mother Reetha would take care of the children and also helped them grow in faith.

“She used to take care of our food, clothing, studies. She taught us to pray the rosary, which has been a family practice,” Joseph said.

At the age of 13, soon after he dropped out of school, he began working as an assistant to a mason to support the family. It was his father who encouraged him to start working.

He also started working as an assistant to a carpenter and was also asked to cook for the team of laborers as he was the youngest among them.

Joseph (right) and his youngest son Akhil (left) are seen working in their tea shop located at Neerikode in Ernakulam district in India in November 2023. (Photo: Fabian Antony / UCA News)

Confidence giving faith

Joseph says his wife stood by him during the several challenges that came their way.

Their marriage was arranged by their families when Joseph was 28, while Mary was a few years younger.

As a carpenter, he had to travel to distant places, and always took his wife along.

“It is important that we stay together as a family. People don’t say it, but the moment someone leaves home to go far away for work their hearts feel the pain of separation,” Joseph said.

Husbands and wives should stay together as much as they can, he stressed. “It is the language of love,” as he put it.

The Joseph family now lives in a concrete-roofed house, which was completed in 2013 after around eight years in the making. He constructed it in parts, depending on the availability of funds.

“I have enough to live happily the rest of my life and have taught my kids to be self-sufficient. I don’t have to depend on anyone,” Joseph says confidently.

This confidence, he says, comes from his unwavering trust in God’s providence.

“God decides for me and does what is right. He provides for me. That is more than enough. I will never falter,” Joseph said with the trademark smile on his face.

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