Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
In the global village we live in it is harder and harder to ignore the poor sitting at our gate, those in our own community and those on the other side of the world. Lent is a good reminder of the special call Christ makes in the Gospel to provide for the poor out of the blessings God has given us. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man we here about what happened to the rich man who did not help the poor Lazarus whom he passed at his gate everyday.
There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Laz'arus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Laz'arus in his bosom. (Luke 16:19-23)
David and Kathy Rennie of Bloomington, Minnesota had an experience of being rich with poor outside their gate when traveling to India in 1985 to adopt their sixth child (their fifth adoption). Kathy had long desired to adopt a little girl from India, and had been inspired to do so by the life and work of St. Teresa of Calcutta. Kathy’s mother, Rose Mayer, had sponsored a poor seminarian more than a decade before, and the Rennies contacted him during their visit to India. This seminarian was now a priest working as a secretary to the bishop of his diocese, and after they made contact he helped them overcome the difficulties they were having in adopting their daughter. It was through knowing Fr. Sebastian Thekethecheril, who was consecrated as Bishop of the Diocese of Vijayapuram in Kottayam, Kerala, India, in 2006, that the Rennies saw firsthand the great poverty of the Christian people of Kerala.
Over the years Kathy and David stayed in touch with the now Bishop Sebastian Thekethecheril while he studied in Rome, when he visited his sponsor Rose Mayer to thank her for her support in Minnesota, and again when they went back to India for a second adoption. The friendship grew even more when David was transferred to India for his work in 1997. Fr. Thekethecheril was then working as head of the Social Services for his diocese. Kathy and her daughters saw first hand the poverty of the people who came for help from the Church when they visited their friend at his office. She witnessed the poor living conditions, the medical needs, and the difficulty they had in educating their children. She finally asked her friend Fr. Thekethecheril, “How can we help you?” His response was to see if people in America were willing to sponsor individual Christian families in India. Kathy put in the plea in her Christmas letter that year, and people responded with great generosity.
Christianity in India dates back to the time of the Apostles when St. Thomas spread the Gospel to India and was eventually martyred there. While Indian Christians are happy to trace their roots back to St. Thomas they also remember the evangelizing efforts of St. Francis Xavier to the poor and sick along the Western coast. Christians in India are one of the smaller minority groups comprising of a little more than 2% of the population. Kerala, which contains Bishop Sebastian Thekethecheril’s diocese, has the largest Christian population of all the states of about 18%. One of the major difficulties that the Latin Rite Catholic Church faces in India is the fact that so many members of the Church since the time St. Francis Xavier are poor and have very little means to lift themselves out of their poverty. Providing for the material needs of her people has been a major work for the Latin Rite Catholic Church in India especially as the current Indian government does not reliably provide aid for the poor Christian minority.
The Diocese of Vijayapuram provides help to the poor of the Church through the diocesan-run Vijayapuram Social Service Society, which is the office that Bishop Sebastian worked in before becoming bishop. David and Kathy Rennie started the We Share Program in 1999 to work with the Social Services office. For after the Rennie’s made their first request to their friends for monetary aid they realized that they could help the poor in Kerala even further by creating a nonprofit organization through which large and small donations could be made.
We Share has several programs, which donors can choose from to donate. Their top priority is to raise money to built adequate houses for the poor in need. The Build One House at a Time program focuses on one family at a time, such as that of Mr. Regi, a day laborer, who supports his wife and two children. They live in a tent on their small plot of land, and have no means to build a real house since their home is destroyed nearly every year during the monsoon season. There are about 500 other families living in small one-room huts or tents on their small plots of land, which cannot stand up to the monsoons, and even more who do not even have the means to own land. The cost of materials for a new hut absorbs much of a family’s annual income. Seeing his peoples’ great need, Bishop Sebastian, as Kathy explains, has a goal of having a “hutless” diocese.
The We Share program works with the diocese’s Social Services in order to raise $5000 from multiple donors for each house while the family in need and the diocese works to provide the rest of the cost. The family receiving the new house does most of the building. “You feel like you have given them the whole world by giving them a house,” explains Kathy when talking about meeting these families. A new house gives them freedom from fear of the monsoons, provides a healthy place for the sick in families to recover, gives students adequate and dry space to study and receive and education, and gives a family the stability it needs to become self-sufficient.
Another way to help is through the sponsor-a-family program where one can sponsor a poor family enrolled in the program by giving $100 a year. Most poor families have only one small income of about $500 a year earned through work as a day laborer. Poor families in need can apply to the Social Services for financial help through which they are enrolled for seven-year terms. The Social Services evaluates each family’s greatest need and distributes the money to them over the course of the year. For example, Kathy explained that many families have many medical needs. When a sponsored family needs money for medicine or medical care they go to the Social Services and are able to receive the money they need. Other families need the money to fund their children’s education. The hope is that after seven years of financial help a family will become self-sufficient. Sponsors can also develop a relationship with their sponsor family through letter writing. There are also other giving opportunities on the We Share website which include sending money for animals to provide food for a family, a well for water, or a latrine.
Besides providing for the material needs of the poor Christians of Kerala, the We Share program helps fund the costs of providing for their spiritual needs. One can sponsor a seminarian for $600 a year for seven years to help him in his education towards the priesthood, and can write letters of support to him as well. Another way to support the diocese is to submit Mass requests with a donation. One can ask for individual Masses with a specified intention or have a set of 30 Gregorian Masses said for a deceased person. Since the diocese is so poor, the donations for these Masses are one of the main ways that priests and lay catechists are provided for in the Diocese of Vijayapuram. In addition to supporting the priests and seminarians one can donate to the diocese to help fund their churches, hospital, nursing school, and orphanages.
David and Kathy have gone back to Kerala several times to see the new houses that have been built and meet the families that have been helped, and they consider it a joy to serve their friend Bishop Sebastian and his flock in this way. Kathy exclaimed, “It is such a feeling to meet these families that you have sponsored! They are just so grateful for the little help that you have given them.” She emphasized that 100% of all donations made through the We Share program go straight to India and are tax deductible.
Their joy in their ministry alongside their friend the Bishop of Vijayapuram truly shows what St. Paul meant when he encouraged the Corinthians for their generosity to the poor Christians in Jerusalem:
You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God; for the rendering of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God. Under the test of this service, you will glorify God by your obedience in acknowledging the gospel of Christ, and by the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others; while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God in you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor 9:11-15)
There are many places to which God calls us to give alms during this season of Lent and always. We are all called to prayerfully discern where he is calling us to give this Lent. Perhaps it is to the poor Church in India, perhaps it is to another poor man at our gate. The giving of our worldly good teaches us to value higher the spiritual goods we need in order to attain happiness in Heaven. Let us not forget this work of mercy during Lent or at any other season of the year!