Children of God

In mid-December, as part of an expression of Week of Compassion’s partnership with Foods Resource Bank (FRB), I traveled to two very different states in India,  Bihar and Meghalaya, to see some of the results of the food security programs we support through work with local on-the-ground partners and members of FRB’s ecumenical network.  From the sleepy mountain town of Shillong  to the chaotic bluster of Kolkata, India’s diverse people, landscapes, and cultures absorbed my attention, begged many questions, and gave me much to ponder, even weeks later.

In the Northeast state of Meghalaya, where it was mountainous and lush, we met farmers from several indigenous groups, all of whom were learning new agricultural techniques to help provide consistent food to their households, grow food in more sustainable and efficient ways, and grow vegetables-not only to provide nutrients for their families but to provide farmers with new products to take to market.  From small landholding farmers to landless people working on leased lands, all of the farmers shared stories of success:  enough rice to last a year instead of only a few months, tomatoes that sold well at the local market, and a new sense of dignity.  Farmers told us of their joy, their newfound hope, and how they even shared their new techniques with their neighbors.  

The projects in the drier, less fertile state of Bihar were similar in scope, including agricultural development and the launching of “Self-Help Groups” for women, which encouraged women to save money for their families, taught basic literacy, and provided a mechanism for small loans for household needs.  The women involved in these projects come from either indigenous cultural groups or are designated as “Dalits” in the Indian Caste system.  “Dalit,” a term that connotes their lack of caste status, roughly translates as “Oppressed,” or “Crushed.”  If you’re like me, you learned another term for this group in middle school social studies: “ The Untouchables.”  The cultural groups that make up the Dalit designation have long faced discrimination and have historically only found livelihood in menial labor.  Though the Indian constitution protects the rights of all people in India and land reform provided some Dalit Indians, such as the families we met in Bihar, with land, they still face prejudice deeply woven into their culture and often struggle mightily to make ends meet.  To meet Dalit women who spoke of being able to feed their families year round, and to hear them say how learning to sign their own names has given them a dignity they never before had was powerful, and inspiring.  

In both of the areas we visited, I felt proud of this unique partnership and the opportunities it gives us, as North American Disciples. By supporting this work, we get to make a difference, to help contribute to not only food security but human dignity-to help people once called “Untouchable” live into the name Gandhi used for them: “Harijan,” or “Children of God.”

As I’ve spent the last three years partnering with all of you through the ministry and witness of Week of Compassion, I’ve often considered that there are two dimensions to our work.  The first, as a Mission Fund that supports partnerships and provides relief both in North America and around the world, is technical:  mission stations are built, grants to meet needs are provided, programs training small stakeholder farmers in ways to increase their seasonal yield.  Problems are identified, and what is broken (as best we can, with a lot of sweat, donations, and prayer) is fixed.

But there’s another aspect of our work-we are an expression of Jesus’ vision of the Realm of God:  the longing hope given expression in both Testaments-that one day the wolf will indeed lay down with the lamb, that those who are hungry will be fed, that every tear will be dried, that all will be well.  

In other words, there is the Gospel work-which is not about the technical but the spiritual.  It is about reminding our sisters and brothers that they are “Harijan,” not “Untouchable.”  It is about how partnerships built on mutuality and trust reminds people that they are whole-and holy-even when they have been told, from their first breath, that they are broken, less-than, and not worthy.

And when the two aspects of our work coalesce in the eyes of a mother who signs her name in dignity and who can provide food for her family year-round, we, as a movement of Courageous Compassion, see hope where there was once shame.

We see the sacred hope of the Harijan.

May this hope be our gift, as well.