Kerala’s Mother Teresa a mother to homeless
It’s called Bethlehem. It’s a home for the homeless, a refuge for those rejected elsewhere, and it started, well, not in a manger, but in a poultry shed.
The Bethlehem Abhaya Bhavan was set up 20 years ago by Ms Mary Esthappan, a mother of three who lives in a quiet rural area that is a half-hour drive from Kochi airport in Kerala.
Now that her daughter and twin sons are grown up, she devotes all her time to the home, where, over the years, she has cared for more than 1,000 people.
It houses some 500 people – the number varies from day to day – mostly vagrants picked up from the streets, almost all of them with mental health issues.
Ms Esthappan, 59, takes in whoever is brought to her, by strangers, family members or the police, and tries not to turn anyone away.
A local magazine recently reported that she picked up a dying man from a rubbish dump and moved him to a hospital, giving him some comfort in his final hours.
How this housewife became “the Mother Teresa of Kerala” – as some have begun calling her – is a remarkable story of compassion, courage and determination.
The saint of Kolkata has clearly been an inspiration. Her portrait hangs in Ms Esthappan’s office.
And the compassion goes back a long way, to childhood in another village about 15km away.
The story is told of how little Mary, the eldest in the family, and her siblings would have only their mother at home with them when their father was away working as a bamboo cutter in the hills.
The mother would tell them Bible stories to keep their spirits up, a favourite being the one about Jesus’ birth in a manger in Bethlehem.
One night, there was a knock on the door. It was a young woman carrying an infant, less than a week old. They had seen her in the area but did not know her.
She said that her husband had got it into his head that the baby was not his and had thrown them out of the house. At that time of the night, she had nowhere to go and no idea what to do.
Mary’s mother baulked at the thought of taking her in, but as she was about to close the door on the woman, Mary, then about 10 years old, asked softly: “Is there a manger anywhere nearby?”
That was enough to change her mother’s mind, the Malayala Manorama newspaper said in a feature on Ms Esthappan.
After she was married, Ms Esthappan moved to her husband’s village, Koovappady.
She was socially active and at one point toyed with the idea of going into politics. She filed her nomination papers to stand in a local election. But she was not sure about her decision and, taking her three young children, she went for a week-long retreat at a Christian meditation centre.
On her way home from there, she stopped at a bakery to buy the children some pastries. And that was where she saw Peter. He was an old man in a dreadful state – emaciated, with matted hair, and dressed in dirty rags. He was begging for food.
The bakery owner drove him away, though Ms Esthappan offered to buy him whatever he wanted. She quickly bought something and hurried after him.
As she watched him eat, she found out that he spoke Tamil, not the local Malayalam, and had nowhere to go. “It seemed to me that this was God,” she said.
Her Christian belief told her that this was how God would appear to man. She decided to take him with her. The children were terrified, and when they were home, there was an uproar from family and friends.
But Ms Esthappan helped the old man clean up and gave him fresh clothes and food. She cleaned out a disused poultry shed, made it habitable and put him up there.
And that was how the home started, in January 1998.
She soon realised that this was her calling and withdrew her election papers. The opposition to what she was doing eased, and people began bringing other troubled individuals to her.
As the home grew, it received the support of the Catholic Church and eventually moved to larger premises nearby. The home gets some help from the government too, but it is run mostly on donations.
It has some 30 employees – more than half of them qualified full-time nurses – and four doctors on call.
The residents are offered classes in yoga, music, dancing and art.
Some of them put up a lively performance when this journalist visited recently.
Some have been able to use their skills to produce simple items such as door mats. And there are some who simply sit and stare into space.
Some are bedridden and a few have to be kept in cells until their condition can be stabilised.
Like Peter, who died at the home about 10 years ago, many are from other states and speak languages such as Tamil, Kannada and Hindi.
It is often not clear how they end up so far away, in Kerala.
Ms Esthappan said she had come across some terrible instances of inhumanity. But her work has also brought out the best in many. People have donated generously in cash and kind.
She mentioned, in particular, a group of traders from a market in Thrissur, a town 60km away. They come all the way to Koovappady once a fortnight to give the male residents a haircut and a shave.
Such acts of kindness bring to mind a Biblical verse said to have been a favourite of Mother Teresa’s: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”