Written by Jennifer Holden
On Sunday 12th May, Chris Lloyd, Fr Bideri and myself welcomed 80 people to a wonderful celebration of the 10th Anniversary of the Carmelite India Fund, a charity that began in 2009, as a tiny mustard seed, sown in response to a meeting with the poorest of the poor in a Bangalore slum and with the Carmelite Missionary Sisters who have been supporting and empowering them for over twenty years. Despite all sorts of adversity, this tiny seed has managed to sprout and spread further and further afield, supporting the sisters in their care of the untouchables, victims of a cruel caste system that believes an untouchable’s shadow or breath contaminates anyone it falls upon.
It was a beautifully sunny day for the event, all the windows and doors open onto the gardens of the Xaverian Centre in Preston. The Liturgy Room had been transformed into an oriental bazaar of exotic Indian materials, pashminas, saris, jewellery, embroidered cushions, painted Indian peepal leaves, exquisite hand made greetings cards, freshly baked cupcakes, tray bakes, chutneys, takeaway curries …all made by passionate supporters of the fund.
The story is a mysterious one. I had been working on the Carmelite Retreat Team at Tabor Spirituality Centre (now the Xaverian Centre) for a number of years, when Fr Eugene, the Prior, offered me a three month sabbatical. I was surprised and suggested Llandudno in North Wales to which he replied, quite forcibly for him, ‘No! I want you to to go somewhere right out of your comfort zone!’
So, a fearful traveller, afraid of snakes, spiders, amoebic dysentery and having to wash in a bucket, set off for India and the Ragigguda slums in Bangalore. Sr Celine was my guide and took me along the dark, narrow alleyways of the slums where I came face to face with India’s shadow. The people who shyly greeted me are forbidden to enter a temple, to have access to running water, forbidden to have any education or medical treatment, forbidden to have a proper roof over their heads or to do any sort of profitable work.
I was struck dumb to see that these people had nothing, nothing at all except the love and devotion of Sr Celine and her community and that these broken ones who had nothing, welcomed me, a stranger, with such graciousness and generosity.
I was taken into the nursery and infant schools Sr Celine has set up and met women from the slums who were being trained to work alongside the sisters. I saw women being supported in setting up ethical loans and others who were being trained to set up networks of self help groups which have now spread far beyond Bangalore. I also saw women being trained to be classroom assistants and met others taking responsibility for administrative work.
I asked Sr Celine what she needed to continue this special work with the poor and was struck dumb by her reply. She needed so little to make a dramatic difference to the lives of her people – not much more than I spend on chocolate each month!
Father Eugene rang that night, knowing I had been spending time in the slums. I could barely speak but managed to say, ‘We have to do something!’ to which he replied ‘We’ll come in with you on this. We’ll back you up!’
And so, the Tabor India Fund, (now the Carmelite India Fund) was launched. We were able to send £250 a month to Bangalore and now send £550 each month to support the wonderful work the sisters are doing with rural slum-dwellers in Andhra Pradesh as well as their work in Bangalore. Every penny given to the charity goes directly to Sr Celine. Chris and I pay for all other costs the charity incurs with our own money. In this way, the fund is different from most other charities.
At our recent celebration, we were able to thank all those who have supported Chris and myself in struggling to keep the fund alive and to treat everyone to a beautiful afternoon tea created by Master-Baker, Davina. The day ended with a thrilling dance performance of Indian classical, folk and Bollywood dance. As a grand finale, everyone was invited to join in the dancing and, at this point, Fr Bideri who had taken such an active part in the whole day, stole the show!
More pictures here.
If you would like to help the mustard seed continue to grow, we would be delighted to hear from you. You can contact Chris or Jennifer by clicking here.