Love Is Her Religion ~ Sister Lucy Kurien’s Maher Ashram, India
“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
Sister Lucy heard horrific screams from nearby. The woman’s husband had doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. By the time Sister Lucy reached her, the woman was engulfed in flames and it was too late to save her life. It was also too late to save the life of the baby she had been carrying for seven months. A few hours earlier, the woman had come to Sister Lucy seeking shelter and protection from her husband. He had fallen in love with another woman, asked her to leave and threatened to kill her if she did not comply. Sister Lucy asked the woman to “return tomorrow” while she came up with a solution. Tomorrow would never come.
The experience devastated Sister Lucy and she felt the impulse to run and hide. But her mentor, Father Francis D’Sa, convinced her to face her fears and to actively do something to improve the situation for women in India. It was in that moment that the seed for Maher Ashram was planted and in 1997, with financial assistance from Father D’Sa, Sister Lucy opened the doors to its first location, Vadhu Budruk.
About a year after my daughter, Wendy York, proposed her idea to visit Maher Ashram to friends she met through a program that had already transformed her life, our adventure began. The program was the Insight Teen Leadership Program and the planning, fundraising and tireless commitment of this group of 9 young adults has been a truly inspiring beauty to behold. I signed on as a chaperone along with two other parents (Tim Braheem and Ann Anderson) and our gifted Insight facilitator, David Raynr.
After an eleven hour flight from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, followed by an eight-hour flight to Mumbai and a bumpy five-hour, middle-of-the-night bus ride, we arrived in Chipley Village in Pune, India and the entrance of Maher’s Vatsalyadham location at 8:00 AM. We were greeted on the large front porch by Sister Lucy, dozens of beautiful children and several of the 120 women in residence. After the children adorned our necks with flower malas (necklaces made from straws and colorful cloth flowers), and after many hugs, we were ushered to their main hall where they presented us with welcome songs, Tilakas (red marks placed on our foreheads made from vermillion or sandalwood paste) and an Aarti ceremony. An Aarti ceremony is often performed as a welcome ceremony that also provides blessings from God. Guests are invited to light cotton wool wicks that float in small amounts of oil in brass lamps or trays. We received similar greetings at the other 8 of 34 Maher locations we visited during our time in India.
Eight twin beds, consisting of thin mattresses atop thick pieces of plywood on twin metal frames, cozily surrounded by mosquito netting, were where the women in our group shared a sleep space with the guest dining hall. Several tapestries had been sewn together and functioned as a large curtain, separating the two spaces. The squat toilets, sinks and bucket bath rooms were located on the other side of the dining hall. The five men in our group shared a similar room a few doors away.
Most of our meals at Maher included a combination of chapatis (flat Indian bread), rice, vegetables, hard-boiled eggs and potatoes and as we ate our first breakfast at Maher, Sister Lucy shared information about the residents and history of her organization. We heard stories of alcoholism, emotional and physical abuse and multiple accounts of rape and murder. Sister Lucy said, “I began my organization because I wanted to help the women, but at that time, I did not realize that with women, there are often children.”
Included in her stories were a sister and brother, five and four years old, who were forced to beg on the streets to earn their meals; a deaf and mentally disabled 12-year-old pregnant girl whose baby was a product of rape; a four-year-old rape victim who had been stuffed into a drainage pipe and left to die; and a physically abused young boy who had only learned to “solve” problems with violence. She rescued all of them. The deaf girl now wears a hearing aid and attends a special school, her now 4-year-old daughter is thriving and attending school as well, and the 4-year-old rape victim now has an abundance of love in her life. During the first few years, the troubled boy ran away multiple times and committed acts of violence against other boys he was housed with. Sister Lucy consistently responded with love, patience and compassion. He is grown with a family of his own and regularly visits and calls Sister Lucy.
Some are not so lucky. Although most rapes still go unreported in India and many others are ignored by authorities, some women are beginning to speak out and, in order to keep them quiet, many are raped and subsequently murdered. The attitude that girls are viewed as property, rather than human beings with rights, is an attitude that must immediately be addressed and remedied in order for there to be change. India’s discriminating and patriarchal society has kept in place a dowry tradition that has been illegal for decades, yet is still in practice for nearly all traditional marriages. Girls leave their families to join their husbands’ families, so from birth, girls are viewed as socially and economically dependent on their male counterparts and are therefore financial liabilities. The mindset that girls are inferior is difficult to penetrate, because it is deeply rooted in India’s cultural history. It is a toxic handicap that not only prevents the emotional well-being of India’s girls and women, but is also a detriment to the country’s economic development. There are recent anti-discrimination laws designed to protect women, but they are so often ignored that education seems to be the only option for raising more awareness. Educating lawmakers and other adults is essential, but it is mostly through the children that Sister Lucy hopes to shift the current mindset.
One day during lunch, Sister Lucy’s dedicated assistant and president of her non-profit organization, Hirabegum Mulla (“Hira”) shared more stories. She told us of a two-month-old boy they rescued whose mother and sisters are HIV positive; another young, physically weak boy who was picked up by police and did not know his own last name; and multiple accounts of rape victims and children who were products of rape. The baby is now healthy, the boy attends a Mother Theresa English Medium school and chose his new last name of “Maher,” and the rape victims get stronger every day. Hira says every child at Maher is very, very special and they always have room for one more. She said, “Our goal is to give them the full confidence and strength so they can be something in society and can move forward into a bright future. We get lots of energy and strength from God, from people like you who are here to help us with this work and from the women and children we take in. Our wish is for the women and children to spread the word of peace, joy and happiness to the world.”
On our second day we visited Maher’s pioneer location, Vadhu Budruk, which began as one small building and now houses multiple children’s homes, staff and guest quarters, an office, several classrooms and a Production Center that provides jobs with wages for the women who are able to work. We visited this location twice and were treated to a drumming/singing performance, a tour of the property, meditation and prayer, delicious meals and a competitive game of volleyball. The Production Center store includes purses, reusable grocery bags, tapestries, candles, jewelry and hand-made cards.
Next, it was at the Bakori residence where we met Alex. He looked to be about three years old and followed us around the complex with his infectious smile. Despite his tiny frame, his face held great wisdom; we began referring to him as “the little man.” Sister Lucy then told us the story of his mother’s abuse and malnourishment and how it slowed his development. He was 8 years old. Our hearts were simultaneously broken and overflowing. On another floor in the same building was a boy of the same age whose mother was so abused, he was born without bones in his back, eyesight and the ability to speak. David Raynr asked if the boy could hear us. When we were told he could hear, David leaned close to him and said, “we love you…we love you…we love you…”
Later that afternoon, we walked through the slums in Pune. It was hot and raining and we were wearing flip-flops and sandals. Areas of the streets were slightly flooded and we could not avoid immersing our feet in puddles that likely included urine and feces. Large families were living in dirty, tiny, dark, cave-like structures that were not fully enclosed, yet every dwelling we entered, we were again greeted with smiles, songs, hugs and fresh Tilakas. One beautiful 19-year-old new mother, dressed in a colorful sari, invited us in for tea. The presence of joy amidst so much devastation was overwhelming.
After playing with the younger children that evening in the yard, and then drawing/coloring and shooting smartphone photos and videos (the viewings of which sparked multiple peals of laughter from them), we spent several hours with the older girls. They asked to style our hair and paint mindhi tattoos (henna) on our hands, arms and feet and it became a music and fun-filled dance party. The connection with those teenage girls was not unlike a connection we might feel in our own country and, despite the language barrier with some, it was easy to recognize that love and laughter are truly part of a universal language.
Over the course of the following two days, we led Insight workshops with the kids that focused on their inner beauty and the importance of loving and taking care of themselves, regardless of gender. They composed affirmations describing something they loved about themselves and then drew pictures reflecting those affirmations. We wanted every child in the room to truly see and reflect on their individual inner light. We felt it was important to remind them that they are all at Maher Ashram because of a very strong, loving and beautiful woman (Sister Lucy) and that our group would not be standing in front of them without the vision of another young woman (Wendy York). What we saw in our workshops is that Sister Lucy is already raising girls to see and embrace their own power and she is raising boys to see and embrace that power in the girls.
The men’s home is just a short walk from Vatsalyadham, so one afternoon, Hira escorted us there for a visit. We walked on the dirt road behind three very old women carrying cloth-wrapped packages on their heads and Hira told us they were heading home from a long day of work in the fields. She said their daily income was 50 rupees each, which is equal to about seventy-five cents USD. They looked strong, but tired and they talked and laughed with each other as they walked in their bare feet. We turned away from the women and onto the walkway of the men’s home and immediately saw a large group awaiting our arrival. There were physically and mentally disabled men and some who had been homeless for years and could not find work. One older man had been living in a cemetery for three years when Sister Lucy found him. Teenage boys that had been raised at other Maher facilities now live at the men’s home, earning small wages for dressing, feeding and bathing the men who are unable to do those things for themselves. After meeting them and hearing some of their stories, we made a large circle, with one person at a time in the middle, and played a game of catch with a soccer ball that was a simple and fun way for us to connect with each of them.
Two mornings while the children were in school, we joined some of the men from the village in painting a new building they were preparing to inaugurate for the older boys at Vatsalyadham. Indian culture requires that once they reach a certain age, the boys and girls must be separated. Gender segregation was something we noticed every place we visited in India. Many public places include security checkpoints with separate lines for men and women and any public physical contact with the opposite sex is considered inappropriate.
With all of the emotions that went with spending time with the women and children, and even as beautiful as those emotions were, the basic physical labor of painting a building almost felt like a break. We loaded our paint rollers with white primer, danced to 80’s pop tunes as the villagers laughed at us, and took turns playing with a local kitten that wandered onto the property. Later, when the inauguration took place, many villagers, staff and residents were present and as we all sat there, listening to speeches in the local Marathi language, we felt like a part of Maher and were honored to be included in their ritual and celebration.
Tim and David came up with the idea to paint two murals in the main hall and enlisted one of our teens, Kane Palmer, who also happens to be an artist. On one wall, Kane sketched a “tree of life” and on an adjacent wall, a large yellow sun with orange rays. The tree was planted on green grass and surrounded with flowers, colorful mushrooms and a butterfly and the painting of both murals included help from the children and beautifully brightened the room. Sister Lucy was away during the two days we worked on the murals and when she returned, we performed a ceremony to finalize the tree by dipping the children’s hands in blue, orange, green and pink paint and placing them on the tree to represent its leaves. Then we had Sister Lucy dip her hands in white paint and place them in the center of the trunk, representing the heart of the tree. Then Tim called Wendy up to the front of the room and asked her to also dip her hands in white paint and place them on the tree above Sister Lucy’s handprints. Wendy looked at Tim and said, “Why?” He said, “ Because, you are our Sister Lucy.”
A little more than halfway through our trip, Tim offered us the gift of a break by booking us all into the local Hyatt Regency for the night. The offer came partly in response to the work we had been doing, but also because several members of our team had contracted a virus and needed proper rest. We were lucky to have Ann on our chaperone team, not just as a nurturing mother, but also because she is a nurse and we all relied on her daily for her valuable counsel and care. Our initial response to Tim’s offer was one of guilt over the idea of comfortable beds and hot showers when the women and children were sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor and bathing out of buckets. We eventually and happily took him up on it while realizing the importance of continued self-love and care and that a reminder of home would help us continue our work. After a delicious traditional Indian dinner from room service and just before crawling into what felt like the most comfortable bed I had ever encountered, I stood under the hot rain of the shower and felt so much gratitude. Gratitude for Tim’s tireless commitment to the trip and his loving generosity, for Ann’s nurturing beauty and healing, for David’s friendship and leadership skills and for the simple luxuries and privileges of being a woman from America. But mostly, I felt gratitude for the nine young adults on this journey and what they were teaching me. Watching them step into their leadership and witnessing their endless love, empathy and compassion is something I will never forget.
We spent our last night at Maher Ashram presenting gifts to the women, children and staff and Sister Lucy gave us each a thank-you gift. Mine was a small tapestry that said “You Are Loved By Maher” and is one of the best gifts I have ever received. We ended the evening with what was to be a candlelight ceremony with the children, but instead of candles, we gave them glow sticks. The lights went out and the idea was to activate one glow stick at a time, but once one stick began to glow, an immediate chain reaction ensued and suddenly there were bright, multi-colored lights darting around the room accompanied by gleeful sounds of the children’s laughter. About two minutes later, the children began approaching us, one by one, asking how to turn them off. When we explained to them that they had been activated and could not be turned off, but would last several hours, they looked crest-fallen; we realized they wanted to save their light for later. These children are not used to having much they can call their own, so when they receive a gift, they want to savor it. Next time, we will bring multi-colored flashlights.
We met hundreds of adults and children and, at each location, we heard about the happiness that accompanied our visits. We gave our love, time and attention, because we were told that was what was needed the most. We may not have been prepared for the effect they would have on us. We went to India to teach and change lives, but we learned so much and our lives are forever changed.
When discussing our departure, Sister Lucy told us of her difficult adjustment to the silence and speed of the United States and I thought of the opposite transition of our experience in India. The drivers don’t seem angry, but filling every possible space and making lots of noise while they do it is just a part of their culture. Every single driver, whether car, truck, motorcycle or scooter, is rhythmically and consistently leaning on the centerpiece of their steering wheels, creating a symphony of horns. The “personal space” we, as Americans, have come to feel entitled to does not exist in India. Whether you’re sitting in traffic or in line at a retail store, you’d better start spooning the person in front of you, or someone else will quietly and uneventfully take that spot.
Sister Lucy’s slogan has become “Love is my religion” and she has devoted her life to building Maher Ashram, saving thousands of lives in the process. She loves unconditionally and turns no one away, regardless of caste, creed or religion, because “this is about humanity.” She is incredibly inspiring and has managed to create joy in her homes, making all of her children happy and hopeful, despite their circumstances. Many who grow up with her come back to work with her toward her continued vision that every child deserves a healthy, happy home and family. Her goal is not to build a powerful, self-serving empire, but for there to no longer be a need for her organization. That, in itself, speaks volumes about who she is.
Maher means “mother’s home” and Sister Lucy took that meaning to heart by providing everything any of us would hope to find in a safe and loving home. After just two short weeks, we felt like we were home and, after tearful goodbyes for all of us, there is no doubt we will be back.
As Wendy climbed on our bus headed for the airport, one little girl hugged her, then looked up at her and said, “Auntie, take care of you.”
I predict that Sister Lucy will one day win the Nobel Peace Prize. I hope it happens in her lifetime.
“There is a huge task awaiting us, the task of changing the attitude of society, especially of men towards women. This is a gigantic task. Maher is therefore not just a project. It is a vision of a new society where men, women and children have opportunities for growth, education and happiness.”
– Fr. Francis D’sa.