Monday, October 29, 2007

Touched by Untouchables

I don't know the origin of the phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words". Perhaps it was a marketing strategy used by Kodak to popularize the use of cameras as personal gadgets to mark your memories. But whatever the origin, tonight's collection of imagery was falling far short of a thousand.

Pastor J had sent photos of the Yannadi community to us prior to our departure. We had seen the pictures of thatch constructed housing, seen the faces staring at the camera. But those photos combined with ten thousand words could not have begun to adequately describe the reality of the living conditions of India's outcasts.

After a 45 minute drive outside the city, the road narrowed, the cars grew fewer, the number of cattle increased and even the usually crowed streets began to empty. As we drove through miles of rice paddies, an occasional afternoon napper could be seen stretched out on the side of the road. We approached a large industrial complex and came to a halt. Momentarily confused and unsure of what we were doing much less, what we were seeing, Pastor J got out of the car. It was only then when we really looked past the ditch by the side of the road we were about to cross, that the thatch huts came into focus.

Pastor J was trying to find a safe route through the steep, muddy and rutted shoulder that would take our vehicle closer to the village. The Yannadi began to emerge from their huts (mostly young women carrying babies) to see who had crossed the barrier from the world of the "counted" to their unnumbered, unnamed, untouchable dominion.


There was a garbage filled river separating the industrial complex from the village. Their houses sat on the banks, overlooking the only hope for food these people have. Amidst the huts were half-constructed concrete structures sitting oddly unfinished like ghosts of a better life. I asked the Pastor what those houses were there and who had left behind a such a rude, almost comical reminder in a community of temporary housing and temporary life?

He explained the government hires contractors to build houses for the people, but they are always taken advantage of; projects started with the money and hope soon stolen once again. "These people have no voice, there is no one who speaks up for them, or care for them,. That is why I am helping them to show God cares for them."

The women toting various ages of toddlers on their hips walked up to us curiously. Unlike the typical approach with outstretched hand or saddened faces, we were greeted with smiles and almost being "shown off" to their children, like creatures from a distant planet. They were encouraging them to touch us, to smile for our cameras, and when we brought out the "smiley face" balloons, they laughed with us, enjoying the attention we were showing them.

We were touching them, and they were touching us.

After the crowd all held their joyful yellow balloons, an old man came up and motioned for us to follow him back to the village. There was a young man who had been hit by a truck and was needing prayer. We got to the end of the housing and on a cot fashioned from twigs and twine, lay the wounded helpless man. The villagers surrounded us, and each offered a portion of his story. His wife was dead, he has 2 young children, and the doctors put a still rod in his leg held with two screws. At this point he produced the x-ray he had been laying on.

An x-ray is not worth ten thousand words either.

A woman emerged from his hut with a folded piece of paper and spoke quickly to the Pastor. He was explaining to us the villagers wanted us to pray. Vicki asked questions, "if he was in pain, if he had help with his children." She laid her hands on his ash-covered, scarred and damaged leg and prayed to the Great Physician. The God of all comfort, the One true God. Calling on all we know of Him to be true. Asking for mercy.

Amens were echoed in the end. Pastor J returned the folded paper, spoke softly and we all turned to walk away. He explained the paper was his prescription, he had been unable to fill because he did not have the money.

No pain medication, no antibiotics, no voice.

There are not enough words to describe the emptiness and silence as we made our way back to the car. The picture left in our hearts created more than a thousand questions.

Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian pacifist revolutionary, gave these people their name "Dalit". It means "Children of God". Up until then their position was not "so low" as not to be a named "caste" - their position was non-existent. Even their shadow could pollute a person of higher caste.

As we drove back across the ditch, back to the world of the counted, the touched, and the numbered, the people were still smiling at us. They waved as we left their untouchable world. Vicki turned to me and said, "I just wanted to touch them all. To let them know they CAN be touched, I don't look at them as "untouchable".

Coming from a place where self-worth, self-improvement, and self-help books, messages and classes abound, it is hard to comprehend a life that BY BIRTH proclaims you have NO worth, NO chance for improvement, NO help, for you are a "non-caste", uncounted and invisible "untouchable."

THE REST OF THIS STORY:

Through the generosity of our ministry supporters we were able to leave funds to purchase 100 high quality blankets for the village before the onset of winter. All of the children will be provided with good quality clothing (many were naked or in rags) Each family will receive a grocery packet containing almost a months worth of food staples (rice,oil, flour) and of course they young man will have his medication provided.