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April 7, 2013

Indias untouchables find a touch of hope

By Staff Writer

A child died during the night. The next morning Auto T. Raja lays a clean white sheet on the floor of an empty room in the Children’s Hostel and places the frail, spent body on it. He cleans dried spittle from her mouth, straightens her clothing and then cradles the body while winding the sheet about it.

Little is known of this little one. Small for her age —maybe 3 — one of India’s throwaway people, she was found wandering the streets of Bangalore. No one knows who left her there — or why. No one claimed her then; there will be no one to claim her body now.

She lived among 40 other castoff children at Raja’s Home of Hope for nearly a year until tuberculosis took her. They called her Sharon.

Outside the hostel, Raja sweeps 8-month-old Aaron into his arms. Raja nuzzles him and plants kisses about his face. The child grins and grabs for Raja’s ears.

Nearby, Marica — the child’s mother — watches. She mops the tiled courtyard at the entrance of the hostel and grins at the two of them as Raja swings Aaron back and forth in his arms.

Marica is a pretty teenager. She came here late in her pregnancy, after life — and abuse — on the streets. She has elected to stay, help care for the other children and raise Aaron here.

For now.

Life and death

Life and death are intimates here. So are other beginnings and endings. The hostel is part of Home of Hope, which Raja began by bringing one man into his home 16 years ago. Now three facilities house and care for 450 people: one for children, another for women and a third for men.

CHILDREN'S HOSTEL

Residents at the Children’s hostel wait outside the room where Raja wraps Sharon’s body. Forty children live here. All were abandoned on the streets and have found a haven at the hostel. Anyone can leave a child here, no questions asked.

Photo © 2013 IMB / Will Stuart

“Some will be here for a couple hours, others days or weeks or more,” says Raja. “All deserve great dignity in life and death, and comfort. That is my aim.”

Dignity is a hard commodity on India’s streets. Comfort is seldom an option. Those who live there come by choice — a proclivity for drugs or alcohol and easy money to obtain them — or chance — a child who was one too many for a family to feed, a teenager dragged into the sex trade, an elderly adult whose children decide they can no longer care for, the mentally imbalanced and broken. The list and reasons seem endless.

Whatever the reason, it is hard and cruel. They are untouchable without regard to caste. Disposable — relegated to the dustbin of their society, to wander the streets or sit on the side of the road until they die.

Raja is no stranger to the streets. There was a rage in him as a child that led him there. He became a thief and a bully. By the time he was a teenager, he had left home with a fourth grade education to sleep in railroad stations and sewer pipes and along the side of the road with dogs.

His misadventures became so painful for his parents, they prayed that he would just die and end them. By 16 he was in prison in a city far from home.

It was there he encountered Christ.

Bread

Across the dirt road that runs by the hostel, past a dusty patch of garden and the catchment — newly dug to capture monsoon rains still months away — someone else has died at the women’s shelter.

It is not an unusual event. Of the 5,000 people who have passed through Home of Hope over the years, half of them have died. Residents at the women’s shelter sit on a canopied patio as the body is carried past and laid next to Sharon’s body in the back of an ambulance, for transport to a crematorium.

Children from the hostel clamor into the front with the driver to be dropped off at school along the way.

The sun is up. It is already hot. Breakfast is late this morning. Some of the women are making chapati, Indian flatbread. It takes time. They roll out the dough and fry enough for the 240 women and 170 residents in the men’s shelter, a 10-minute walk across the fields.

It all began when I accepted Christ.
Auto Raja, Founder, Home of Hope

They wait patiently. Chapati is a treat. It will go well with their breakfast of rice and curried vegetables.

Raja walks into the kitchen. There is enough chapati for the women. He sends several of the women off for breakfast, picks up a spatula and finishes frying more for the men.

“In 16 years we have never missed a meal,” says Raja. “Not one. The Lord has blessed.”

Later this day a Hindu couple will stop by and offload huge vats of rice and curry for lunch. On another day a class from a Christian college will bring cases of fruit and cookies. The vast majority of Raja’s support comes from the Indian people like this couple and these students, plus businessmen who give large and small sums of money.

Home of Hope is a large operation involving tons of rice each month, medical supplies, clothing, bedding — the list seems endless. Water alone costs $600 a month.

Raja has been recognized for his efforts with a number of awards, including a Mother Theresa award from the Indian government. He was also accused of proselytizing and jailed briefly after a television reporter asked how he began doing this and he responded: “It all began when I accepted Christ.”

New life

When Raja accepted Christ in prison, he asked for a sign. “Lord,” he recalls saying, “show me You are real.”

Within days his parents located him, arrived in that distant city and paid for his release. It was one last chance, and with his newfound faith he was determined to do it right. He borrowed 1,000 rupees from his parents to obtain a license to drive an auto rickshaw.

Driving the rickshaw earned him the nickname Auto Raja. He married and began to settle down. But as Raja drove the streets of Bangalore, “The Lord would turn my head left and right,” he says, and he saw the people lying along the side of the road.

The sight haunted him. He began to ask questions of himself. “Didn’t the Lord say something about loving your neighbor? Aren’t these my neighbors? Didn’t the Lord say something about doing unto the least of these? Are there any ‘least-er’ than these?”

THE RING

Raja learns one woman has found a ring and forced it onto her index finger, making it swollen and black. He cuts the ring from her finger and it begins to return to its normal color.

Photo © 2013 IMB / Will Stuart

One day he brought one of the street people home.

When breakfast is over, Raja grabs several bottles of coconut oil. As he walks among the women he squirts it into their hair and rubs it into their scalp. They spend much of their day outside and the sun dries out their skin.

It is also a chance for Raja to evaluate them, to see if there are any changes mentally or physically, if there are lice or any new problems to address.

“A shepherd needs to know his flock,” he says.

He moves from one to another, stopping briefly to massage their scalps. Others follow, hands stretched out for the healing lotion. Some of the women seem almost to swoon at his touch, as if touch is rare and precious, and healing.

And it is.

“What is this?” says Raja. One woman has a blue rubber glove pulled partially over her right hand. Another glove strapped about it. A plastic fork protrudes from the cuff, fashioned like some sort of splint.

All thoughts of lotion dissipate. Raja pulls at the glove. The woman screams, flails and tries to jerk away. He holds her arm tight and clasps the other between his legs. “Oh, my God!” he says and begins calling for help.

The woman has found a ring and forced it onto her index finger. It is too small and cutting off circulation. The finger is huge and black and beginning to smell. It is so enlarged, where the ring pinches swollen flesh is just a crease.

Raja swings her into his arms and carries her toward the dispensary where two volunteer physicians are holding clinic. The physicians quickly numb the finger. Raja snaps off the ring with a small cutter.

The finger begins to regain its color.

The first woman

Outside the dispensary Shanti wanders over to Raja and buries her head in his shoulder. She is petite and pretty with a fine-boned face that holds a ready smile. Shanti has lived at Home of Hope for 16 years. She was the first woman Raja brought from the streets.

THE FIRST WOMAN

Raja, left, heard screams for help from bushes along the side of a road. Shanti, right, was being raped by two men. After Raja rescued her, he learned this happened daily. That was 16 years ago. When Raja heard Shanti’s story, he couldn’t leave her on the street. She became the first woman in Home of Hope and has been there ever since.

Photo © 2013 IMB / Will Stuart

She had been dragged into some bushes. She was being raped and crying out for help when Raja heard her. He would later learn this was nearly an everyday occurrence. People would stand nearby listening to her cries, until the day Raja arrived.

When he rushed into the brush to rescue her, the men disappeared.

When Raja began bringing men home, everyone thought he was crazy. At one point, eight men from the streets were living with him and his family in their small house. There were times when his wife had enough, and when Raja was gone on his rickshaw, she would give the men money and tell them to leave.

But Raja persisted and his wife began to see this work as a calling. By the time Shanti arrived, Home of Hope had moved into a small building of its own, housing 12 men and Shanti.

From there it grew to the current three facilities. His wife and five children live in an apartment on the second floor above one of the dormitories at the women’s residence.

The burdens to maintain all this are tremendous: food measured in tons; a staff of 40; volunteer nurses and doctors; cajoling hospitals and others for medical care, ointments, medicines, clothing, bedding — and no one is ever turned away.

“When I am in the flesh,” says Raja, “I despair and wonder how this will work or where the money will come from. I think: this is impossible. When I am in the Spirit, the Lord provides. Except for Christ’s love, this mission in naught.

“It is a matter of obedience.”

It is another day. A hospital releases a woman to Home of Hope. She has no family. There is no one to take care of her while she recovers. It is here or the street. A police van brings an elderly woman, confused and found wandering the streets.

Over at the men’s shelter, an elderly man finds his way there. His son has turned him out of his house. There is not enough money to feed his father and his children, the son had explained.

A tsunami of need

Raja takes an ambulance and drives the streets of Bangalore. It is early. Already there are people on the streets, dropped by their families to beg. Others have a more permanent air.

Toward the center of town a woman nests along a road in a clutter of plastic, woven bags and blankets. She is layered in enough clothing to survive an arctic winter, yet the temperature already inches toward 100 degrees Fahrenheit. A small fire burns within reach. Her arms and face are slathered with ash for protection from the sun.

Someone has given her a cooked chicken and she shares it with a feral dog.

Raja approaches. He offers her shelter. She is belligerent, somewhat panicked and declines. Raja says he will come again. He will watch her and monitor how she is doing. At some point she will need his help.

Further on, men lie on streets under an open sky, sleeping off a drunk. In the center of town, down an alley bracketed by machine shops and men tearing apart electric motors for recyclable metals, Raja visits with Joseph.

I want to live and die among them ... They are God's children. They are my family.
Auto Raja, Founder, Home of Hope

Raja has known him five years and brings tea for him to drink. Joseph lives behind an abandoned truck next to a burn pile where trash is strewn. He has recently suffered a stroke. His left arm and leg no longer function, yet Joseph is still unwilling to move to the men’s shelter.

He makes good money, he says — watching the shops along the alley at night — at least enough for the drink he craves.

Raja’s mobile phone rings. A woman has collapsed along a street not far from here.

He learns she has laid there for five days before anyone called for help. She is jaundiced, barely responsive and blind. There is no evidence she was blind when she collapsed. It is a mystery what happened to her and who she is.

A crowd gathers. They are here to watch. It takes cajoling before two men step forward to help Raja load her into the ambulance. Back at the women’s shelter, she will be evaluated, fed and rehydrated before being taken to a hospital for further help.

There is no end to this. A tsunami of need constantly washes against and threatens to overwhelm the capacity of Home of Hope. Yet no one is ever turned aside. There is never a question of capacity.

Raja’s dream is to live among a thousand people. “I want to live and die among them,” he says. “They are God’s children. They are my family.”

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