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My mind is running all over the place. My “First World” paranoia is kicking into high gear. I’m nervous about the emotional toll. And I haven’t even been here 24 hours yet!
After a long taxi ride through Delhi, I finally got to Sewa Ashram (Hindi for “spiritual community of selfless service”) before dusk Thursday night and dropped my backpacks in a little room they had for me. Then, I followed the music. I heard drums. I heard a guitar. I heard tambourines. And I heard plenty of hand clapping. As I rounded the corner, it was an unusual sight to behold.
In front of me was a giant circular hut (think yurt or Mongolian ger) with yellow tarp and reed-mat walls that rolled up, depending on the weather. The floor was also concrete, making the structure semi-permanent despite the palm-branch roof and the interwoven bamboo rafters.
The six-or-so guys in wheelchairs were the first to catch my attention. Some clapped, while others were still. But they all sat outside the hut, forming an arc around one-third of the perimeter. They looked in on the meeting through the walls, which had been rolled up on that side.
Inside the hut, hospital beds filled with patients lined one half, while the other was covered by rugs, where able-bodied folks took a seat. Including the “band” members, nearly 80 people were members of this circular service.
Many were bundled in heavy wool blankets since it is technically winter here in Delhi, and the evening chill had settled in quickly.
After the music wound down, an Indian man, who appeared to be a pastor, stood up and gave a lengthy sermon on Romans 6-8…a poignant passage detailing the new Life (and hope) found in Christ, despite the sufferings we may endure in our earthly struggles. If ever there was an apt audience, this was it.
As it turns out, I arrived at Sewa Ashram just in time for one of the two church services they hold every week. The other is on Saturday nights.
Family of Faith
One thing I love about travelling all over is the opportunity to spend time with brothers and sisters throughout the world. Even if they’re strangers, our bond of faith cuts through the layers, and camaraderie is the natural result. The social, “get-to-know-ya” elements of a normal relationship often follow the warm affections initially shared, which are firmly anchored in the spiritual bond.
It’s really a blessing to be a part of this larger kinship. But in India, this ‘family’ is comprised of a mere two percent of the population. Most are Hindus (over 80%), and some are Muslims (around 14%). And at Sewa Ashram, different faiths are also represented.
When staff members drive the streets of Delhi looking for people, they aren’t worried about religious affiliation. When they find the destitute on sidewalks and under bridges, they aren’t asking for any prerequisite belief systems.
Sewa Ashram simply wants to help the poorest of the poor here in India, whether it’s nursing a patient back to health or providing dignity in his dying days.
Inspired by the words of Isaiah, the Ashram was founded back in the late 90’s as a way to fulfill the call we’ve all been given when we claim Christ:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to lose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear…” (Isaiah 58:6-8).
The aim of the Ashram isn’t limited to physical healing. It’s focused on total healing of the people they find…mental, physical, spiritual and even financial. They want complete restoration for those forgotten by society and those oppressed by a culture rooted in the caste system.
I’m sitting here typing, and I’m already overwhelmed by this place. My thoughts run the spectrum, from selfish to selfless.
After my own illness little more than a week ago, is my immune system strong enough to battle the very legitimate bugs that now surround me? Are my emotions equipped for the inevitable heavy load? I wonder if I’m prepared for all that I’ll see, or feel, or smell as the weeks go on. My senses are being filled, and it’s only my first day.
Then again, I’m surrounded by kin, and we’re united in our heart for the overlooked and forgotten.
While this place certainly promises to be raw, hope is intertwined with the work being done. The pain, sickness and overarching injustice is being replaced. It’s being transformed into holistic rejuvenation and healing, newfound dignity and renewed aspirations.
I may not be prepared for all that awaits me here, but I’m eager to tell these stories of change, not only at the Ashram but in my own mind and heart as well. And I hope you’re ready to change with me.
- Think about Isaiah 58. Think about the hungry, the poor and the naked. Whether literal or figurative, do you know anyone that qualifies? Are you doing anything to help alleviate those unmet needs? What are some possible ways to do so?
- Sewa Ashram is providing total rehabilitation for these folks, and they need your help. I want to plant that seed of assistance now. I’ll detail a variety of opportunities in upcoming articles.
- Pray for the staff at the Ashram. Pray for guidance, protection, courage and continued strength. Their job is a tough one, and prayer is essential.
About the Author: Stephen Crane is a year-long fellow with World Next Door. He has a bachelor's degree in theology from Calvin College and a master's degree in journalism from Indiana University. He has a passion for overlooked places and people and would snowboard at all times if it were possible!