2012 marks my 4th summer to spend a month in India where I have had many significant and spiritually meaningful experiences with the students at Achiever Academy, the Vineyard Church in Chennai, the citizens of Mahabalipuram and with the extraordinary friends I have developed with members of the Acts of Mercy team in Chennai and Mahabalipuram. With all that and more to experience, still the most defining India moment for me was on a Tuesday evening during my first trip in 2009. Our group stood on the yet un-walled second floor of the Activity Center at the construction site of the Widows Rehabilitation Center at the village of Vayaloor. We looked out over the property and listened to John Christian, Director of Acts of Mercy, describe the plight of the widows of India.
That evening I listened as John described an Indian society which believes that if a woman's husband dies the wife is responsible because of a curse she has brought upon her family, as well as herself. For this reason she is banished from the community. John described that, when he was distributing food and water relief after the Tsunami of 2004,
This situation is tragic by any standard but my life circumstances in 2009 made it seem horrendous. At that time I was just surfacing from the absolute lowest point in my life. I had lost my wife of 33 years eight years prior. I remarried three years after her death and at the time of that trip I was already three painful years into a long, ugly and costly divorce. I never thought I would have to experience the death of a spouse and certainly not a divorce, but am now convinced that regardless of how painful it is to lose a spouse to death, the ugliness of divorce is far more painful, especially after being convinced that you have failed as a man, a husband and father.
Although I stood on the roof that night broken and humbled, God clearly told me that I was much better off than these widows of India. God made me tearfully aware that I was a prosperous male in a male dominated society, and that, throughout the time following Ruthie's death and my divorce, I had never been without the support of my children, my extended family, my church family, long time friends and the community as a whole. I remembered well how extremely painful that time had been for me, even with all that support. What must these women be experiencing with no support of any kind? In a society that has so little regard for women in general, I knew there must be something I could and should do.
John continued to share the Acts of Mercy vision of developing a compound that will provide sanctuary to widows in the form of safe, secure temporary housing and on the job training to become self sustaining. But maybe the most important goal would be to provide the emotional and spiritual support needed to heal the scars left by the death of a spouse and the tragic rejection by the community at large.
The vision was not complete on that night so long ago and when one is obedient to the will of God we must be prepared for change. Each time I come to India, some portion of the overall plan flexes a little, but the goal is so very clear: To provide sanctuary to the young women who have lost so much. To provide hope - the hope of Jesus Christ, shared by the hands of those who believe enough in Him to make a difference one life at a time.
John shared that he had endured several heartbreaks and setbacks as he tried to acquire land for this project. He had found several properties that were ideal and available to him until he disclosed that he planned to use the property to house widows. Suddenly these properties became unavailable. But as he continued to persevere, John finally found the property we were standing on. Acts of Mercy had purchased a tract of land near the village of Vayaloor that would meet their needs.
The current vision is to have as many as 36 one or two room cottages/quad-plex with a bathroom including a bidet and tap to wash. This might not seem like much but would be close to or even above the standard of many rural people in this region of India and certainly much better than any accommodations available to a widow not provided for by her extended family. The plan calls for a four-sided complex with each unit facing a common court yard and a patio or balcony in the back of each unit for privacy.
The first step in the plan is to complete the community center, which we were standing on that night. This community center will house at least one classroom on the first floor, which will be used to teach the widows a marketable skill. Another room will serve as a retail outlet for the crafts produced by the widows. This center will also provide guest accommodations to work groups that might come to help in the developing of this project. The foundation of the center is deep and strong with the intent of adding a full second story. As the complex expands and more guest accommodations are required, a third and even fourth story may be added.
The question of the heart in 2009 and yet today is, "What is to be my role in realizing the dream of a widow's village at Vayaloor?"
When I returned to India in 2010, John informed us on our arrival that preparations were underway to house 20 British high school students and their sponsors at Vayaloor. This group was to arrive in two weeks, the third week of our stay, to work on building walls for the second story. The group had decided that they wanted to stay on site. This presented a problem in that although the activity center was a shell with four separate rooms and four bathrooms, there were no doors, no electric wiring, no plumbing and no tiling in the baths had been done. An additional challenge was that the construction planned for the youth required that several concrete pillars be poured and cured in time to anchor the cinder block walls the youth would be building.
Indian culture has a high regard for the wisdom of its elders and John knew that he could not be present each day to supervise. He asked me if I would be his eyes and ears to watch the plumbers, masons, carpenters and concrete workers who were all working more or less simultaneously to make this facility livable in two weeks. Did I mention that I speak no Tamil and only one of the craftsmen named Barnabas could speak broken English? I felt a close kinship to Barnabas that week as I observed him cutting boards with a chisel and drive screws with a hammer. I'm afraid I bothered John far too much but it was hard at times to know what might seem absurd to me but indeed might just be the Indian way. I spent much of that two weeks marveling at what I saw being done with a few simple tools. I began to think of the wonderful gifts I might present to these men but then I had to realize that there are some limitations to the tools you can carry on a small motorcycle.
I think that the Brits would probably agree that my greatest contribution was in the area of plumbing. The foundation of the center had included soil pipe for four stools on the ground floor. The day before the Brits arrived, I came around a corner just in time to see the plumber begin to seat the first stool on the soil pipe in the fourth bathroom that had not yet been enclosed. I suggested that it would be better to install the three stools in the three bathrooms that had been enclosed, rather than on the soil pipe that was out in the middle of the large conference room where the boys would be sleeping. The plumber accepted my suggestion and seemed to understand my request as all three enclosed bathrooms soon had nice commodes installed and ready for use and although the British honor their Royalty I think they appreciated not having their throne installed in the open room.
Only the power of the Holy Spirit could have brought this project together anywhere close to on-time. But as the kids were unloading their bags on the expansive front stoop of the center, the electricians were completing some of the final circuitry to provide lights and even overhead fans. And God gave me the blessing of watching it all unfold.
With the arrival of the Brits, it became obvious that the scope of the construction project could not accommodate all the students at one time. It was decided that some of them could provide needed assistance at Achiever Academy and I was allowed yet another opportunity and became a chauffeur, driving 50 km to Vayaloor each morning and bringing a load of youth to Mahabs for the morning session. At noon I would take these students back to Vayaloor, grab a bite of lunch, bring another group back to Mahabs for the afternoon, and take them back to Vayaloor at the end of the day. As I made these trips I was able to watch the rooms of the second floor begin to take shape.
Susan and I left India before the Brits had completed their stay so it was not until 2011 that I was able to see the work that they had accomplished. I made several trips to Vayaloor to observe the construction of the main gate of the compound. Prior to this, the security had been to close the drive way with a woven pile of thorn branches. But we were moving forward and a large and very heavy gate had been ordered to secure the compound. On the first trip to the site, we observed first hand a problem John had described to me. India is currently suffering a shortage of skilled craftsmen. The Middle East is in such a building boom that India is losing many of her skilled workers to higher paying jobs overseas. When we arrived the first time, we discovered that the workmen had framed up the concrete gate posts using 6 pieces of 3/8 inch rebar in a column about 8 inches in diameter. From these posts they planned to hang solid steel gates that were eight feet from the side posts to where they would join in the center. The gates were also an average of 6 feet tall. It was obvious that these pillars would not be able to handle the load. John and I made several trips back to Vayaloor to check the setting of the posts and I was gone before the gates were actually hung. The hinge anchor straps are actually attached to the rebar and poured into the concrete of the gate posts.
So far this year, my time has been filled with the move of the church in Chennai. God willing, I will be able to make a trip to Vayaloor to see the progress later this week. Although the Widows Village has come a long way, the obstacles have been tremendous and there is yet a long way to go. Please join me in praying for God's hand to guide those of us who feel called to help meet the needs of these widows and orphans.
James 1:27 says, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world."
As a father and widower myself, God touched my heart in a way I cannot faithfully describe. I can only share that the women of this village will always be a tugging on my heart. I know that God spoke to me that night and continues to draw me to this project as He unfolds its ultimate resolution. If this project touches you, please pray for God's fulfillment of His purpose and feel free to contact me by clicking on the Contact Us link above.
Below is a video tour of the construction site of the Widows Village at Vayaloor, in which John Christian describes the atrocities that widows suffer in India and Acts of Mercy's plan to provide them much needed assistance.