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Indian Christian community learns new lessons in aid

Franciscan uses education as key to development

Indian Christian community learns new lessons in aid

A dynamic team of Franciscan teachers at the village school are helping the community find renewed purpose reporter,Bilaspur, Uttar Pradesh

December 19, 2013

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Jakub Masih’s small courtyard is well prepared for Christmas. The clay soil in front of his simple, low house has been swept meticulously. Under a thatched roof in the kitchen, rinsed plates and cups of sheet metal shine in the sun.

Masih, 65, sits in front of his belongings on a wicker bed frame, his cap pulled low over his lean face as he speaks about the day when his family was saved. "Led out of bondage, as the Jews were out of Egypt," he says.

In the 1950s,  a few years after independence, his father was working as a day laborer in Punjab, working in foreign owned fields. Then he heard about a Christian settlement where people could live a better life.

People were talking about a missionary from Italy who had come to Joseph Nagar, a village near Bilaspur in Uttar Pradesh, and who helped day laborers escape from their misery by giving them land. This Father Pius, a Franciscan, had bought 400 acres (162 hectares) and gave it to Christians who wanted to settle in his community. 

"We went there, got five acres [two hectares] of land and were able to settle down," says Masih. "From then on we were no longer slaves. Seeds, tools, tractor – everything we got from Fr Pius. "

To the people in the village, Fr Pius is a saint. They pray at his tomb, have set up a Francis figure in their church and decorate it with garlands of flowers.

This Italian missionary shaped their community, worked with the people and shared their simple ways. In the end, though, he paid with his own life. He died in 1982 from a poisonous snakebite.

Fr Pius was a pioneer. Old photos show him with a full beard and work clothes on a motorcycle, laughing at the camera.

As a true Franciscan he shared the life of the poor. In and around Joseph Nagar he built churches and schools, founded a hospital and – ironically – set up a clinic for snake bites for workers attacked by cobras in the surrounding fields. It still operates today.

Since then, life has changed little. Families still live in simple huts molded from clay. They rear cattle and live hand to mouth.

But things are not as good as they could be. The hospital is still equipped just as it was in the 1970s. During the monsoon it is sometimes submerged under water. There is no money to invest in it because very few patients can pay for their care.

Families have grown in numbers but the amount of produce they grow in the surrounding fields has stayed the same. Farmers have not evolved their methods. Many are uneducated and are lacking the energy to help them mechanize.

Underlying it all is a general malaise. Many feel that, as they own land, they don’t need to work. Idleness, alcoholism and apathy has paralyzed the community.

This does not play well with today's notions of aid, especially with aid providers.

“In the private sector of development aid, the strategy of empowering people has changed a lot in recent decades,” says Mehul Chauhan, professor of social entrepreneurship and corporate responsibility at the Xavier Institute of Development Action and Studies in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.

“Organizations don't give donations without any expectations anymore. Instead they will ask the receivers to put in a certain amount of effort in cash or kind so that these efforts lead to sustainable development.”

Anna Dirksmeier, India secretary for  Misereor, the German Catholic bishops’ organization for development, says the key is getting the right balance – India needs to release its latent economic power to help the poor and serve distributive justice.

“Of course, that should not endanger self-determination,” she adds.

Meanwhile, in the community set up by Fr Pius, a third generation lives on the land once given to their grandparents for free, and a something-for-nothing attitude can be detected.

Sweety Margret, 18, has just finished school and says she would like to become a nurse. But her family is large – her six siblings already have 18 children themselves – they live almost solely from farming and cannot afford the fees for nursing school. Sweety is therefore stuck in the village, she says.

In neighboring Martin Nagar, Moses, 20, has just dropped out of 10th grade at high school – he found it “too exhausting” – and now drives up and down the village’s dusty roads like most of his friends.

But a new burst of energy is starting to make its presence felt in the form of another Franciscan: Fr Justin, pastor of Joseph Nagar. He says he recognizes the problems and insists that the solution is to invest in education.

Shortly after his arrival two years ago, he set up an English-speaking branch of the parish school. “It broadens the horizons of the children,” he says. “They should get an idea of what options education could open for them, so then they set goals.”

A group of 10 teachers, some of them Franciscan sisters, teach the 200 children who attend St Thomas Convent School. It's old and the classrooms are cramped, but most of the children enjoy coming because it livens up their day, says Fr Justin. 

“If the kids are running around, they will look at the boards – that will make them memorize the letters,” he says as he attaches colorful signs showing the alphabet on a fence around the playground.

For some students, these efforts are bearing fruit. Raguthomas, 24, attended the school, then high school and went to the capital New Delhi to be trained as a draftsman at the Don Bosco boarding school.

He speaks English well and is now looking for work overseas.

"My brother is a teacher, my sister an accountant at a hospital in Delhi,” says Raguthomas. "They have helped me in many ways – taught me English, paid the school fees. They were my role models and have always supported the family."

He comes from a small family by local standards of just four children.

“We always wanted the children to learn,” says Ragrani Mesin, Raguthomas’ mother.

Although the children have gone away, his parents think it is for the best. Raguthomas regularly returns from New Delhi to see family and friends.

“Our children will still provide for us,” adds father Tarsem Mesin. “Besides, they are in God’s hands.”

Once a month, the villagers gather for a prayer meeting. In a courtyard, people sit in a circle with their pastor – parents, children, old people – with a low table covered with a blanket on one side topped with a picture of Mother Mary, flowers, incense and two candles.

While the night lowers over the village, people pray the rosary together. The priest reads from the Gospel according to Luke and preaches on Christian charity, a selfless form of giving that does not strive for modern-day balance.

Later they eat freshly baked sweets and discuss community problems together.

“Church has to be like that, never from the top down,” says Fr Justin. “Fr Pius has exemplified that with his life.”

Understanding about how missionaries do good, however, has changed radically since his time.

Father Justin puts it this way: “We must give hungry people fishing gear, not the fish,” he says.

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