India—suffering and consolation in the time of COVID-19
INDIA IS CURRENTLY under a total lockdown as a result of COVID-19 and millions of low-paid migrant workers have suddenly found themselves unemployed. This has triggered a mass exodus from urban areas on a scale never seen before.
An Indian nun, Sister Christin Joseph of the Sisters of Charity of the Holy Cross (SCSC), spoke to to the Church in Need (ACN), describing the situation. She said: “There is an endless stream of tens of thousands of people trying to return on foot to their home villages, some of which are over 600 miles away, carrying their children and their belongings with them. All transport has been stopped, except for essential services, as the authorities struggle to contain the virus.”
According to Sister Christin, the situation is being made still worse by exceptionally high temperatures topping 100 degrees and because people have to walk, with little in the way of money or food, while all the eating places and guesthouses are closed.
In India the lack of work, particularly in the poorest states of the north such as Jharkhand, Odisha, Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, had many thousands of people to migrate to the major cities of the southern states, which are wealthier and offer more job opportunities for. “Thousands of them are simple day laborers, living in cramped apartments, working long hours for a few dollars a day in conditions that are often unsafe and without any social security network. What little is left over in the way of money after covering their basic expenses, they try to save for their families. Now because of the lockdown, they want to go back home,” Sister Christin said.
Sister Christin helps to run some of the Small Christian Communities (SCCs), the small groups of Christians formed in places which priests can rarely visit. Members meet with catechists to pray and celebrate Liturgies of the Word instead. There are some 85,000 of these small Christian communities scattered across the whole of India. Indian Catholics very often belong to the lowest classes of society and today they are facing increasingly violent discrimination. In normal circumstances. Under normal circumstances, Sister Christin would be traveling thousands of miles to instruct and encourage them.
Sister Christin told ACN: “I am over 65 years-old and my health is delicate, so they won’t let me go out to do anything. Having to stay inside, under a total lockdown, and listen to what is happening to our poor people, I feel as though I am standing beneath the Cross, helpless and unable to reach and help others. This is extremely painful to me. I can do nothing but gaze with anguish at the Cross and entrust everything to the Lord, who understands better than anyone our human suffering.”
She continued: “What consoles me is the fact that many of our small Christian communities are responding to this situation with thousands of simple initiatives. While still adhering to the measures imposed, they are seeking out those in need and giving them food. They are helping everyone—Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Muslims—without any discrimination whatsoever.”
The sister spoke mainly about the work of the SCCs in Jharkhand, in the northeast of the country, the home region of many of India’s tribal communities. The SCCs there are informing people about the virus and the protective measures they need to take. Sister Christin said that SCC members are constantly supporting each other via Whatsapp and text messages with advice and suggestions for prayers, especially for the situation of the pandemic and its consequences. She said that “we have to adapt to this new way of being Church, of how to be love in action during the lockdown.” Another example of this love is the initiative of one of the leaders of the community in Calcutta who is praying the Way of the Cross from his home over a loudspeaker, so that the other Christian families in the neighborhood can join in from their homes.
In Delhi, the restrictions imposed by the government are extremely strict. Emmanuel Johnson, a leader of the local SCC in the Indian capital, explains that it is not easy to even move about, but that they are helping to distribute food rations to the day laborers and needy families. He said: “Additionally, we have started up a family prayer initiative for the next 21 days, at 7 PM prompt every evening, when we gather in our own homes with the members of our family and pray the rosary in solidarity with those infected by the virus. Since the laity can now no longer participate in Mass, we have begun a daily reading of a prayer of spiritual communion, which many of our people did not know before.”
“I for my part am trying to encourage and motivate [SCCs] by means of constant messaging via Whatsapp, text messages and emails,” said Sister Christin, adding: “I am extremely grateful to ACN for the help they have given us over so many years in supporting and sustaining our basic Christian communities. I’m quite sure that the benefactors of ACN could never have imagined that their help would now be such a source of consolation during the coronavirus crisis. But the tragedy is a grave one. India needs your prayers. Please don’t forget us! And may God bless you all!”