Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Trip on behalf of CRS demonstrates that Christians are a ‘small but effective minority’ in India

by Scott Cooper, for the Inland Register

(From the March 17, 2011 edition of the Inland Register)

Traveling in India with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) last January offered a quick but profound snapshot of the scope of the Catholic Church in a country where Christians are a small, but effective minority. The Church’s disproportionate presence in education, health care, and social services was inspiring, and the clergy and lay ministers we met demonstrated great energy and joy in their work.

CRS is the U.S. bishops’ office for overseas development and emergency assistance.

Part of an immersion trip for CRS Diocesan Directors from five West Coast dioceses, including Bishop Sylvester Ryan, Bishop Emeritus of Monterey, Calif., I had the extraordinary opportunity to see firsthand the work supported by the American Catholic community through CRS. One local cleric was proud to tell us that CRS had been “on the ground” in India even before independence, since shortly after World War II. But recent changes in India mean that the ways in which foreign church organizations help the poor will have to adapt to new realities, too.

We began in Kolkata (Calcutta), India’s cultural capital, and a huge city that has not seen the same kinds of development as other Indian cities. Kolkata is also the home of Blessed Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, which CRS has supported with food commodities for decades. In Kolkata, we visited several facilities run by these Sisters, including an orphanage, a home for the dying, and a residence for the developmentally delayed. All of the Sisters we met were serene and joyful, as well as no-nonsense about their work. All of them thanked CRS for the years of food aid that supported their ministries.

Two from the Children’s Center in Jabalpur. (IR photo courtesy of Scott Cooper)

On our last day in Kolkata, we attended morning Mass at the Missionaries of Charity Mother House, and then paid our respects at Blessed Mother Teresa’s tomb.

CRS staff in Kolkata reminded us that their work relies on local partners, such as Religious orders, diocesan social service agencies, or local non-profits. These local eyes and ears know best the local needs and often work with CRS to develop a program to respond.

A good example is JDSSS, the social service society of the Diocese of Baruipur, a small rural diocese south of Kolkata, in a coastal area near the border with Bangla-desh. Through the local parishes, JDSSS identifies community needs and works with CRS to develop responses that integrate concerns about livelihood, agriculture and anti-trafficking aspects.

In the village of Mahamaya, residents greeted us with flowers and traditional Bengali dances, then proudly showed us their fields. With CRS support, JDSSS works with farmers to dig up embankments around their rice paddies, which protect those paddies from seawater surges during cyclones and which also allow a variety of vegetable crops to be planted and irrigated during the dry season. Tomatoes, cabbages and mustard (for the seed oil) were popular.

“In India, you’re never alone,” was a phrase we heard, and it was borne out even in the rural areas, where people were always in view in the many villages, in the fields and along the roads. India’s population of 1.2 billion is set to overtake China in 20 years as the most populous country on earth. And while it is true – and clearly evident in cities like New Delhi – that the Indian economy is sustaining 8-9 percent annual growth, it is also true that 40 percent of all of the world’s poor live in India, where life in villages has not received the same benefits of an expanding middle class.

The Church in India makes up only 1.6 percent of society, mostly Hindu (83 percent) with a sizeable Muslim minority (13 percent). But with 19 percent of the health care and 24 percent of the education, as well as extensive social services, the footprint of the Church is far greater than the numbers of Mass-goers would suggest. And while the Indian Church – which traces its roots back to St. Thomas the Apostle – serves without regard for caste, creed or color, it is from the most marginalized groups that new members come, especially the adivasis, or the “originals,” the tribal peoples living in remote forest areas of central India. The government has less presence in these areas, but after a three-hour drive through the state of Madhya Pradesh, we found that the Church is there.

A young Indian priest and five women Religious serve a rural parish network of 23 villages with liturgy and education from St. Michael Parish in the village of Dohanyi. They also serve as the point of contact for CRS-supported agriculture programs, such as watershed management projects we saw in surrounding villages, where the whole community turned out at mid-day to welcome us with garlands and dancing, eager to tell us that because of their five-year-old rainwater catchment system, they were able to harvest a second crop from their fields and had enough water for new household vegetable gardens and all domestic needs.

A percolation tank at Pipariya helps store up water for a variety of purposes, including crop irrigation. (IR photo courtesy of Scott Cooper)

Perhaps most significantly, they reported enough income to enable almost all of the girls to attend school. In a touching gesture, residents of the village of Pipariya cleared rocks from an overland path so that our cars could take us to see the percolation dam, which creates a pond to capture rainwater for crop irrigation, livestock, fish farming, and so forth.

Such projects are prime examples of CRS’s model of collaborating with local partners. The local parish and the social service society of the diocese of Jabalpur identify the needs and those villages with the capacity and leadership to take a sustainable role, and then CRS pays for the surveyors and hydrologists to scout the best locations for the ponds and dams. These ponds collect rainwater during the July/August monsoon, making it available for the community for many months to follow. When we saw theses ponds in mid-January, it had been months since significant rainfall, and the countryside was dry and brown. But the ponds had water and allowed a crop of wheat to start in fields that grew rice during the wet season.

Local farmers were also proud that they had almost entirely eliminated synthetic fertilizers, which greatly reduced their overhead costs. This is a pressing concern in a country where poor farmers often take out loans at the start of the growing season for seed and fertilizers, only to find themselves unable to repay the debt if the crop fails or the rains are too much or too little. This has led to an epidemic of farmer suicides, so that at least the government’s life insurance provides some income to the family left behind.

In and around Jabalpur, in India’s heartland, we visited small projects run by the local diocesan social service society. A small clinic for HIV testing and a home for people sick with AIDS was quiet and calm, while a home and school for so-called platform children (children as young as two found abandoned or neglected at the nearby railway station) was full of the noise and energy of boys.

Especially around Jabalpur, we heard that roads and wells built thirty years ago with CRS food-for-work programs were still in use and meeting basic needs. But after 60 years, the Title II food program of the U.S., administered by CRS in India, is ending this September. India now produces enough food to feed its own population and it no longer wants free food from outside the country interfering with the domestic market.

Food aid was a large part of CRS’s portfolio in India, as in other countries. So even as CRS scales back from direct food aid, the agency is capitalizing on the decades of relationship with local church partners to imagine new responses to the faces of poverty, malnutrition, illness, and increasingly, trafficking of men, women and children for low-skilled labor or the sex trade.

What we heard from local CRS staff, from Caritas India, and from the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, was that the models of delivering life-saving services to the poor are changing as India’s economy develops, but that the needs continue to demand a response from creative people of good will who will go to those neighborhoods and communities abandoned by society.

(Cooper is Parish Social Ministries director for Catholic Charities Spokane. No Catholic Charities Spokane or Operation Rice Bowl funds were used for this trip. His expenses were paid from a grant received from private funders for piloting a client database project in 2009 and 2010.)

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