Side by Side with Sister Joan

by CBE International | March 05, 2007

Many attendees at the Side by Side Symposium in Bangalore, India had the opportunity to meet with local Christian ministry leaders. This is one of their stories. Names have been changed to protect the identity of the children.

The resilience of children is truly amazing. This strength in spite of suffering was again demonstrated to me in a workshop at the Side by Side symposium in Bangalore, India. The story of the struggles of Devadasi children unfolded in a drama entitled “Seeds of Hope.” 

Dr. David Selvaraj partnered with Carol Shatananda Richard of Visthar Ministries to give the audience a brief history of the Devadasi ritual in which parents marry a daughter to a Hindu deity to become temple prostitutes. 

In the past, this ritual was conducted during a “coming out party” for lower-caste (Dalit) daughters. After their dedication, these girls are known as jogini and are recognized by copper bangles or bands around their necks, which have the image of Goddess Yellamma. Jogini daughters become prostitutes for upper-caste community members (Brahman). 

These Devadasi rituals became illegal in India in 1988, but they are still practiced underground. Most of the mothers who sell their daughters into sexual slavery have been victimized by the same practices, and their choices are limited. They either become commercial sex workers or enter into covenants with Hindi upper-caste members who exploit their daughters in exchange for limited economic support. The perpetrators sometimes live with them for a while and then abandon them to return to their families, or they “come and go.”

Visthar Ministries gives hope to these children. The twenty girls who performed for our workshop represented seventy-one sisters whose mothers placed them in a group home in order to break the pattern of abuse. At the group home, the girls live communally and receive regular meals. They learn art, dance, and basic skills to prepare them for life in adult society. However, some orphans are still vulnerable because mothers may return for their daughters when they are threatened by perpetrators or extreme poverty. 

After the drama was introduced, the young performers entered the stage. Four of the smaller girls were dressed in green sarees, representing seeds. Others were dressed in very colorful or contrasting dark outfits. The seeds took center stage and bowed on the floor. The colorfully dressed sisters formed a circle around them. 

Dr. David narrated as the sisters moved their arms in a series of motions. The first motion represented digging in preparation for the soil to receive the seedlings. The next motion depicted the seeds being watered…then fertilized…then basking for a few moments in the sun. Soon the seeds began to stand up slowly, indicating healthy full-grown plants.

Suddenly, the darkly attired actors appeared with headbands labeled “Global Capitalism,” “Hindu Caste System,” “Poverty,” and “Imperialism.” Their motions caused the healthy plants to collapse onto the floor. The act repeated a few times until the loving community of sisters prevailed and the plants finally flourished!

The audience was invited to interact with the children after the drama. Each actor gave her name and age, which ranged from ten to fourteen. Our accolades and interest were met with wide smiles and shy giggles. Answers to our questions revealed the amazing intelligence and potential of these children of God.  

The next day, two new friends invited me to visit the group home with them. As we entered the grounds, we noticed some of the smaller girls playing in the dirt in front of the buildings. They ran toward us and called out for Sister Joan. Before we arrived at the courtyard entrance, every resident formed a circle of joy around us. Smiling faces asked us our names as they introduced themselves and invited us to hold their hands. 

Sister Joan soon welcomed us and introduced herself as a Catholic nun. I was struck by her radiant face, kind eyes, and constant smile in spite of the obvious hardship. Sister Joan invited us on a tour of the facilities and the girls followed along excitedly. 

We were taken to the four dorms where the girls keep their few possessions and sleep on thin mats on cement floors. The only furniture in the dorms consisted of a table and a desk with one chair. Sister Joan’s room is like the children’s dorms except that her bed is raised off the floor.

We asked Sister Joan for a list of items we could bring the children. Other conference attendees joined the effort when they heard about it. Later that evening, we were blessed to deliver laundry detergent, shampoo, soap, toothpaste, candy, a few small balls, hair ornaments, seventy-one pairs of underwear, and the same number of toothbrushes.

After receiving the items, shrieks of joy could be heard by those waiting in the car some seventy yards away! Sister Joan was in tears because she expected us earlier and was afraid of disappointing the little ones. They were all waiting up for us. The girls thanked us over and over again and Sister Joan hugged us several times. She gave us some fruit as a token of her appreciation. 

That night I reflected on my private dream of adopting an Indian girl. God spoke softly saying that He had given us not one, but seventy-one new daughters. Side by side with Sister Joan, we will continue supporting these children of God.