Some twenty years ago, I worked for a while in a hostel for street boys in India called “Prema Seva Sadan”, which means: “The House of Mercy”. We had 96 boys, ranging between 3 and 22, housed in a group of old buildings, which was all that was available, but they were mostly a happy group. Apart from sending them to school or teaching them carpentry or tailoring, so that when they left they would be able to earn a living, we also tried to teach them to be grateful to those who provided our food and gave us a place to live, rough though it might be. So, on Saturdays mornings I got them to help keep the place in repair and tidy looking – we planted flowers and grew some vegetables and also got the older ones to repair and paint their rooms with colours of their own choosing. I still laugh when I look at a photo of a group of them, completely covered in whitewash – taken when they were painting the outside of the buildings – and all you can see are dark brown eyes peering out of white-washed faces!
The boys were a mixture of Hindu, Christian and one or two Muslims, but we did not allow any of the non-Christian boys to be baptized while they were in the Hostel, in case they felt pressured into becoming Christian. Instead, we would celebrate the Hindu and Muslim Feasts as well as the Christian ones with them and many of them, of their own choosing, would walk to Mass with us on a Sunday. They grew up feeling they belonged to each other – despite differences of religion – and that feeling of being family, the PSS Family, has lasted until now, even though the Hostel itself closed some ten years ago.
Recently, I received a WhatsApp message from one of them, telling of the death of one of the ex-boys and how he had left a wife and three children. He told how the widow used to go to her father’s house to sleep, as she was nervous of being alone in her house at night, but one night, the house was robbed, while she was at her father’s place, and everything of value was taken. Then her father died and she was left alone – trying to find a way to support herself and her children. The only ones who came near her, the WhatsApp message said, were the money-lenders demanding that she repay the debts left by her husband. She is in a bad way.
I am used to receiving letters asking for help, but this message was different, for although I received a copy, the WhatsApp message was not addressed to me, but to “The PSS Family” asking them to help. The writer, Anjaneluyu, is a Hindu lad who was very close to me, when I lived in the Hostel, and he has tried to make his own the ideals of the now-closed Hostel. When I visited him a few years ago to be present at his wedding, I saw how he had gathered the ex PSS boys into a self-help group to help others who were in need and even took into his own home, small as it was, boys he met, who needed shelter. He wrote, in his message to the PSS Family, that he was planning to try to help the widow by paying the school fees for the three children and added: “it is a big amount but we can manage it if we all help”. He, then, also asked that if any of them had other ideas of how to help the widow and her children to please let him know and he added, “my friends, my motto is to hold together and help each other as one family – and so should any one of you be in need of help, or know someone who is, do not hesitate to call me.”
PSS, “The House of Mercy”, began when a Mill Hill priest met a small boy on a railway station, who asked him for money. The priest asked him where he lived and the boy answered, “Here! I sleep under that bench over there.” The priest then asked him where his parents were and the boys answered that he had no parents, the priest then paused and thought for a moment and then asked the boy, “Would you like to come home with me?” The boy answered, “Yes, and can I bring my friend?” – pointing to another small boy about his own age. The priest said, “Certainly” and the two of them walked home with the priest and thus began PSS, the House of Mercy.
I met that same little boy, some years later, by then a grown man. He had left the hostel and married, but was often at the Hostel and considered the PSS boys to be his wider family. I remember, on one occasion, that he asked me, “Father, may I ask a question? Why do you, Fathers, leave your home and come to India to look after us?” I cannot remember exactly what I said in answer to him, but I know that he had seen the love of God in the care and concern of the priest who had taken him and his friend into his home – and also in those other priests who had come after him. That WhatsApp message I received, also showed me that when the PSS boys had left the Hostel they had taken that love of God with them – a love, which had to go out beyond family or religious boundaries, for although most of the PSS Family are Hindu and Christian, the man, who died was a Muslim and it is his Muslim widow and children that they are now trying to help.
So I now know that those ragged-arsed kids that I knew and loved in the Hostel, some twenty years ago, have indeed heard the Gospel, even though it was taught to them through acts of love and kindness – and not so much through doctrine. They have taken the Gospel into their lives and are now letting it flow out on to those in need around them. So, maybe these young men, to whom we once brought the Gospel, now have a message for us, who live in a world where race, religion and culture seem more and more to divide people rather than unite them. For just as they heard the Gospel through seeing it in action, so through their actions they remind us that the love of God does now allow for any boundary, because Christianity is our spiritual home – not our prison!
Last week I went to north Borneo, to Sandakan, for the diaconal ordination of one of our students. I have not been to any of our ordinations over the last year because I was not feeling well enough, but having been off of chemotherapy for four months now, I felt well enough to go, even though it is the furthest of the Borneo dioceses and needs two planes to get there. It was a lovely ceremony and I was most touched when the new Deacon publicly thanked me for the kindness and love I had shown him in his years of formation. He made me realise once more that a word of appreciation is such a powerful, life-giving gift.
Because I am feeling good, I have decided to go to Bali for ten days towards the end of August. I want to meet up with the friends I have there – although many have moved away over the seven years since I left. I also want to visit three of the prisoners, who I used to visit, but they all now live in different prisons. One of them, Tan Nguyen, is now in a prison at Malang on the island of Java, but I have been unable up to now to discover exactly which one. However, I shall still go and ask the Holy Spirit will guide me – and even though I do not succeed, I know that my attempt to visit will bring a blessing on him.
I have started to cut grass again! Not a lot but it is a start and shows that my well-being is returning slowly. I still get tired fairly quickly and seem to need more sleep than I once did – but maybe that is due as much to age as to the effects of chemotherapy.