Activist narrates Indian women’s bravery at Vatican meet
By Matters India Reporter
Vatican City: Montfort Brother Varghese Theckanath was the only speaker from India at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of “the Populorum Progressio,” Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on “the development of peoples” and that the economy of the world.
The occasion also saw the opening of the new dicastry (department of Roman curia), merging the Vatican Offices of Justice and Peace, Health Care, Cor Unum and Migration. The new department, Dicastry for Promoting Integral Human Development, is headed by Cardinal Peter K A Turkson from Ghana, Africa.
Around 300 people from around the world, including Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle from the Philippines who heads Caritas Internationalis, attended the April 3-4 meet in the Vatican’s Synod Hall. Others present were Vatican Secretary State Pietro Parolin and Cardinal Ludwig Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
India was represented by Archbishop Bernard Moras of Bangalore and Father Stephen Fernandes, secretary of the Office of Justice and Peace under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
Besides Brother Theckanath, Cardinal Tagle and Chin-Lon Lin, a Buddhist, were the only speakers from the Asia-Pacific region.
Brother Theckanath presented the following paper in the afternoon on the concluding day. Later Cardinal Turkson introduced the Indian brother to Pope Francis.
Negotiating Development through peace-building in the context of the urban Poor – A Testimony
Your Eminence, Honourable Chair, Fellow Panellists, distinguished gathering in this august Assembly,
I shall bring before you this afternoon a few of our women in the slums from our cities, and their audacity and courage to build peace and development across differences; I shall talk to you about the dire need, of more such people across the world; I shall also talk you about how you and me, can learn from them, and how each of us can do what they do to usher in peace, that Blessed Pope Paul VI prophetically said is the other name for Development.
Let me narrate to you the stories of two women, and a child: Manju, Heena and Radha.
I first met Manju on the Christmas morning of 2008. I met her at the partly burnt down Pastoral Centre in Naogaon village of Kandhamal district. The region, had witnessed the worst violence on Christians in the history of India. Only to indicate one incident, earlier that year a nun had been marched nearly naked through the streets of the village, and raped in public.
Manju told me her story. Her husband was the local catechist. One morning in August, she saw a mob in saffron enter her village with torches and weapons. The people of the village, who could escape, ran into the forest behind their huts. But they took her husband. They brought him, to the central courtyard of the village, shouting, yelling and cursing his religion. Manju pleaded with them to spare her husband for the sake of her two children, both of whom she was holding in her arms: one a two-year-old toddler, and the other their polio stricken 12-year-old daughter. The crowd asked her husband to forsake his religion, or be killed. But he chose to die, rather than to betray his faith. They chopped him part by part, each time he refused to relent. First they cut off both his feet, then above his knees, and finally his torso, even as Manju and the children watched in horror.
Heena Begum had stopped her madrasa education when she was only eleven. She wanted to go to work with her mother, Shaik Beebi, as a domestic worker. She was placed to work in the family of Shankar, a businessman. One evening, Heena’s mother received a phone call from the employer, stating that Heena had met with an accident. On rushing to the hospital, the family saw her lying there with severe burns. Seeing her mother, Heena, writhing in pain narrated how her employer along with two other men had raped her, and then set her on fire.
Radha was married off when she was still a child. Her much older husband was an alcoholic, and died leaving behind two children. Driven out of her marital home, Radha turned to sex work to feed her children. Both her own people, and her neighbors isolated her. Radha experienced the worst of taunting and humiliation, ostracism and isolation.
Unable to stand the continued threats and insecurity, Manju migrated to the city. She lives in a slum with her children, and works as a domestic worker. Today, she is a leader of the workers we organize in the city. Manju believes that no one else should ever suffer what she went through in her life. She speaks against prejudice, hate and violence on every platform she can. Manju has metamorphosed from a victim of intolerance and violence, to a heroic grass-roots peace builder.
Heena died soon after her mother met her in the hospital. But the experience transformed her mother, Shaik Beebi, into an activist for child rights; into a woman of courage and conviction, who believes that the best place for a child to work is the school. Shaik Beebi has not received justice for the untimely and cruel death of her beloved daughter. But she does not hate Heena’s murderer. Rather, she talks of the need for people of all faiths and backgrounds to live in harmony. She is an advocate of the rights of domestic workers in her town.
Radha joined our group of domestic workers hesitantly. Initially, she would sit by herself, away from the group. Gradually Radha was accepted into the group. And today Radha is the vice-president of the Domestic Workers Union of the Telangana state. She provides leadership to over 8,000 of her co-workers. She, a Hindu by faith, was elected unopposed to this exalted position by Christians, Hindus and Muslims. Radha is a sign that another world is possible. Indeed, it is already here.
I told you the stories of Manju, Heena and Radha, because the horrors they experienced in their lives did not defeat them, but rather made them resolute and bold. They usher in a new world, a world where it is possible for all– no matter what one’s religion, caste or color — to live together with dignity, respect and rights.
I have been a pilgrim among people in the slums for the last 27 years. Eleven of these were spent living in the worst conditions of urban poverty, among my Hindu and Muslim brothers and sisters, waking up at mid-night with them, to collect the two buckets of water each that we could gather at the public water post; standing in front of bulldozers and armed police with them to stop evictions of our hutments; being arrested along with them; teaching their children to read and to write; and the youth to help find work.
I started my work in slums in 1990. A year later, Hyderabad, my city, witnessed the worst communal riots ever. More than 700 women, men and children were killed, lynched by the rival mobs. There were cases of infants lifted by their legs, lashed against the wall, and thrown into the fire of their burning homes. I have witnessed horrors that are hard to recall, and still be sane.
But happily today, thanks to our intervention, people of many of these communities are no more mutual enemies. But rather, their fight has turned against their common enemy: abject poverty, pervasive unemployment, lack of basic needs like water, sanitation, and housing. We have Trade Unions of Domestic workers; we have federations of slum people fighting evictions; we have Children’s Parliaments, debating issues of importance to their families, their communities, to their country, and the world.
In this process of humanization, building communities and nurturing communion among people of different faiths, I came to discover the meaning and identity of my vocation as a Religious Brother. I realize that to be a ‘Brother’ is not an honorific title, but a responsibility to build bridges across differences, far beyond the boundaries of the Christian faith. My specific vocation gives me the freedom to be foot-loose, to embrace territories that few in the Church, generally enter.
I believe that our prophetic responsibility today is to foster communion – communion within individuals who are fragmented by the belief that my faith, my caste, my nation, my race is better than that of others, not realizing the uniqueness and the immense possibilities of each to humanize the world. Our vocation is to foster communion in the ordinariness of the lives of people – at the community water post, in the wayside market place, at the community toilet even as people wait for their morning ablutions, at their work place…; Our vocation is to foster communion with the nature around, in our case, to regenerate the river Musi on the banks of which many our slums are located, and has turned into a poisonous drain.
I believe that if such relationships are fostered, then communion with God will a necessary corollary.
The biggest challenge for the world today is not lack of food or water. It is not even the impact of climate change that threatens to neutralize the very human existence, and all bio-diversity. The greatest disease that is eating away into the innards of humanity, is hate nurtured by fear of the other.
The Christian task, nay, the task of humanity for a future for itself is clear. It is to build communion: to meet people who are different from ourselves without fear, to accept them, to love them, and make them part of our own lives. This is the good news for today.
It is not always achieved through meeting of leaders in dialogue. The real dialogue has to happen in the daily struggles of human existence. In the common struggle to find decent work, a house to live in security, education for our children, adequate health care…all of these are needs all of us share, whether one is a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist; or whether one is black, white, brown or yellow…
It is achieved in eating together, praying together, walking together to protest injustice, stepping into the sacred spaces of others with respect, celebrating together one another’s identities and festivals, safeguarding the dignity and rights of one another…
All of us are capable of such gestures. People like Manju, Shaik Beebi and Radha have shown that such crossing of barriers is possible to embrace the other without fear. If they can, we too can. …. beginning not tomorrow but today; at this very moment, even as we file out from this very Synod Hall. God be with us in this task.