New York Times best selling author Donna VanLiere recently returned from India with Christian music group NewSong. “God is here. Among us,” she says. “Disguised as an 8-year-old orphan.”
by Donna VanLiere
Years ago, I read that the apostle Thomas made India his mission field. Remember Thomas? He was one of the twelve apostles who made it clear that he would not believe Jesus had risen from the dead until he saw the scars on His nail-pierced hands. Doubt nips hard at the heels of belief. That was Thomas’ problem. In John 14, Jesus was speaking of Heaven and said, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas, always confused, always doubtful, said, “… We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” We can’t be too hard on Thomas. Even the wisest among us doubt and question and scratch our heads. Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This is a crucial moment for Thomas. A choice has to be made…believe what Christ says is true, or that he’s either a diabolical liar or clinically insane.
Time marched on and doubt and disbelief still drummed away at Thomas’ mind and nerves. When Christ was crucified, then flung off his grave clothes three days later, the other apostles came to Thomas and said, “Great news! He’s alive!” Thomas shook his head. That’s the nature of doubt. It’s a head-shaking disease. His reunion with Christ is laid out in John 20. Jesus held out his hands like a magician proving there was nothing up his sleeves. “Go ahead,” he said. “Touch them. They’re real. Stop doubting and believe.” And Thomas did. The last time the apostles were with Jesus he gave them a simple directive—Go into all the world and spread the gospel. “Go Thomas. Be brave. I am with you always. Remember, I tell you the truth. Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” According to ancient records, Thomas traveled farther than any other apostle. His life reveals that he came to know Christ best through his missing him. His desire grew stronger and his longing deeper. He loved and fed the people of India as if feeding God himself and Thomas gave himself for that love, dying at the end of a spear.
I just returned from a 9-day trip to India. My husband Troy and I went there with members of the Christian music group NewSong. In Bangalore, we visited a care center run by a beautiful, saintly woman named Mary Paul. One night at dinner, NewSong member Eddie Carswell and his wife sat with Mary Paul and she told them that twenty generations ago her great, great, great (do this twenty times) grandfather met the apostle Thomas and Thomas shared the truth with him. I doubt I will ever again meet anyone who can trace their faith journey directly back to one of the apostles!
Ancient documents do not describe Thomas as a dynamic orator like the apostle Paul, but rather, a quiet man who drew people to the gospel of peace through his saintly ways and the message of truth. Twenty generations later, Mary Paul sees God dressed as abandoned children and shares hope and love with them.
You would expect me to write of the misery of the orphans, but that’s impossible to do when writing about the care center Mary Paul runs. The walls are bright, the staff is warm and the children are loved. Very loved. They smile and laugh easily and are quick to wrap their pencil-thin arms around you. A little boy walked up to Troy and I, grinning. “My name’s Vanej,” he said. “I’m nine years old.” NewSong sang a couple of songs for the children and then the children sang for us, little Vanej holding one of the two microphones and singing loudly. Eighteen months earlier, Vanej was on an outing with his parents when he was somehow separated from them. The orphanage advertised in the papers, on TV and radio, looking for his parents. They traveled where Vanej said he lived and put up flyers and talked with people on the streets, with no results. In a country of 1.1 billion people, it’s much like finding a needle in a haystack. Vanej talked of missing his mother and his sister. It was heartbreaking, but he still smiled.
Little Pria (her name means love) was four years old but the size of a pixie. Her black eyes were saucer-wide as we walked toward her bed and her face lit up the room. I picked her up and realized I’ve purchased a sack of potatoes that weighed more than she did. Her tiny arm felt disjointed and it was explained that she had brittle bone disease. She had recently broken her arm and it never healed quite properly. But still, she smiled.
We weren’t prepared to see baby Arjun, a 12-month-old infant. A dog mauled Arjun, leaving him with one eye. The rest of his face is gone. He snuggled onto the shoulder of his caregiver and clapped for us, making gurgling sounds…and smiling. Unbelievable! He was smiling. I can only trace that smile back to Mary Paul, believing fully in the trickle-down effect. “These children are the face of God,” her life echoes. “Take care of them. Love them. Bless them.”
In an orphanage in Pune, an 8-year-old with withered legs lay in his crib, his eyes moving from face to face. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t walk. And although the staff rolls him over throughout the day, the back of his head is flat. Two days earlier, a boy around 9 or 10 was delivered to the orphanage. He sat in the corner of the playground, feeling the ground beneath him. “He’s blind,” a caregiver told me. “And he can’t speak.” They can only assume that his needs were too great for his parents, who were no doubt very poor. The orphanage took in this little nameless boy and cleaned him up. They fed him and gave him a bed to sleep in. Both of these boys are cared for by Roxanna, the orphanage director, and her staff, whose lives say, “I see you.”
I have visited other foreign countries—our own children are from China and Guatemala—but India is different. Two-lane roads are really six-lane roads, chaotic with cars, rickshaws, animals, scooters and motorcycles with three-to-five people riding on them. We held our breath a lot and never took our eyes off the windows. On our day of sightseeing, we traveled a distance of 124 miles (but a six-hour drive!) to see the Taj Mahal. It began to rain as we traveled, and the dusty roads turned to thick, muddy soup. Clusters of people huddled together under tarp roofs. One woman tucked herself beneath a truck while others went about their day, getting soaked to the bone. We saw the poorest of the poor in those 124 miles, passing “shopping areas” that looked like the charred rubble from a bomb explosion and streets piled with garbage…not litter…garbage.
We live next to an 85-acre cattle farm and have never taken one picture, but we came away with over 20 pictures of cows walking the streets. Monkeys ran along the sidewalks and rooftops, pigs rooted through garbage and rats skittered about at night. Dogs were everywhere—running on the sidewalks, napping on the roads, even sleeping in the parking lot and front lawn of the palace where Ghandi was under house arrest.
We stepped out of the cars and were greeted by several barefooted children who happily led us through the slum and pointed to their homes with pride. “This is where I live,” they seemed to say, smiling. “Won’t you come in?” There’s really no way to describe the slums. They are not the projects. We can describe those. The slums are different, a mass of rubble held together by scraps of metal, wood or plastic with dogs, goats, pigs, chickens and donkeys roaming the streets and alleyways. A little boy smiled up at us as he took his bath out of a bucket, another little girl brought a newborn kitten out of her home and held it up to us, beaming, while an old man stood at a corner and held out his hand. We ducked our heads to enter a “home,” a six-by-eight room that housed four people and nothing else…no table, refrigerator, chairs, beds, TV or sofa. But their clothes were clean, their home was organized and their faces were bright. If they needed anything else, they weren’t aware of it. The children in that home and several others in that slum benefit from the educational and nutrition services provided by the nearby orphanage through the Holt International sponsorship donations. What would happen to those children without those donations?
We follow our desires so easily in this country. If we want a new TV, we get one. Who cares if it takes five years to pay it off? But when our hearts nudge us to be kind or giving or brave, we don’t follow at all because surely someone else will step up to the plate. We are a noisy people and that’s part of our problem, because God comes to us in such quiet ways that it’s easy to miss him. The homeless man seeking food at a downtown shelter doesn’t cause much of a ruckus and the widow who keeps herself tucked away in her home has never registered on our radar. That orphan across the sea whose name we can’t pronounce isn’t on the news or in the pages of the weekly tabloid, so how can we feel responsible for not knowing his plight?
We like to spin things here. We didn’t like the fact that The Little Mermaid didn’t get the prince but rather returned to the sea and dissolved, so we spun it so she gets her man and lives happily ever after. We’ll do whatever it takes to deal with the harsh reality of our existence. But the words of Christ still bang away at our hearts—“Whatever you do for the least of these, you do unto me” and we realize that not doing anything is doing something, and that’s a hard truth to swallow. We can’t spin that, no matter how hard we try. God is here. Among us. Disguised as an 8-year-old orphan with withered legs and a head flat as stone, and a year-old infant with half a face. They don’t speak, but we know what they are saying… “Will you help me? Will you offer me any bread?”
We are here to clothe, to feed, to love, to serve. It took the death of his beloved friend for Thomas to realize that it is through these doors that truth enters. May we all be an open door. For the sake of the least of these.
Here’s a last-minute Christmas gift idea!…..Go online to see how you can help children and families in India, and other countries Holt serves, through the Gifts of Hope catalog.