You can hear about a place, see it in pictures, send and receive letters, but until you see with your own eyes, until you experience it personally, you don't really know it. This is why Philip, upon hearing the news about Jesus Christ, said to Nathanael, "Come and see!" Philip knew that some things in life one needs to experience for themselves.
For the past 13 years our family, through the Global Ministries Sponsorship program, has sponsored a child at the Family Village Farm, in Tamil Nadu, India. Her name is Saranya. Alongside our two sons, Christopher and Daniel, we have considered her part of the family. A photo of her has been posted on our Frig for years. We have exchanged letters. We have noted with joy each of her accomplishments in her school. Never did we imagine that we would ever have the opportunity to see her in person.
My journey to the Family Village Farm began with overnight train trip from the neighboring state of Kerala where I had been in residency as a guest of the Madhya Kerala Diocese of the Church of South India.
At 4 am in the morning of Friday, October 24th I anxiously looked out the window from my lower berth into the inky dark India night. I had not slept much on the train. I was worried I would miss my scheduled 4:30 am stop at Katpadi, a town about 5 Kilometers away from the FVF.
As we passed through every station, I wondered, "Is this my stop?"
To be honest, I wasn't sure I wanted to get off. As the train slowed for every station, I would look out my window and see not only men sleeping on pieces of cardboard but whole families curled up on the grimy dimly lit platforms.
As dawn broke, the overnight Chennai express pulled into the Katpadi station. Blurry and sleep deprived, I stepped off the train and into a throng of people. Imagine my relief, when I spotted a young man from the Family Village Farm holding a sign with my name on it.
ON the short drive to the Family Village Farm, I was immediately aware that I had arrived at a part of India that was very poor. In the short drive to the FVF, some of what I took in included: Thatched huts, women standing in line with buckets at the community spigot waiting for their turn to fill up with water, children running down the middle of the road with not a stitch of clothing on, ox drawn wagons, gypsies living in flimsy tents now soaked by the recent monsoon. Later I learned this is a place where a day labor brings home on average 1$ US dollar a day.
When I arrived at the Family Village Farm, I was escorted to a simple but lovely guest room. I promptly fell asleep. A few hours later I awoke to the cheerful sounds of children playing, waiting for breakfast at the dining hall.
Here was another surprise: no sooner had I ambled out of my guest quarters, but a throng of children came up to me and said, "Here's Saranya now! Aren't you her sponsor?" They took me by the hand led me to her, like attendants taking me to their leader!
My first impression? Even though this was the first time I had laid eyes upon her, the feeling I had was that she was our long lost daughter. How does one convey in words, that feeling of connection, of bondedness? She felt it too!
Throughout that morning and for the next two days, she became my host. Her ability to speak English was excellent. She could understand my every word. Unsolicited, she went and brought me a cup of coffee. We sat down together on a stoop. I shared pictures from my camera. Later, she took me by the hand and gave me a tour of the Family Village Farm.
Perhaps partly due to sleep deprivation, I found myself overcome with emotion. Here I am thousands of miles away from the US of A, in a part of the world that struggles under bone crushing poverty, and then here is this adolescent girl (she is now 15) who knows the names of everyone in the Luckey family. "I want to meet my brothers, Christopher and Daniel" she told me.
I was not prepared for this: her warmth, her expressiveness, this feeling of connection. Later that day, I gave her a watch that my wife, Linda, had purchased for her in the states. That evening I sat with her in her cottage, during their evening devotions. (All the 170 children of the FVF are divided up into living cottages, where the children live with their "mother") The Mothers are women themselves have been victimized by the world, most usually widows who in India are often ostracized from normal society)
There on the bare walled and concrete floor of her cottage, we sang spiritual songs (Saranya sings like an angel) and I told Bible stories. Overhead I saw a plaque that read, "in as much as you have done to the least of these…." Never had I felt those words to be more powerfully applicable to this moment, to what I was experiencing at the Family Village Farm.
IN those two days at the FVF, I had the good fortune to visit their school, the King's Matriculation School that is also run by the orphanage. I was so impressed by seeing the fruits of generous donations. The bright yellow school bus purchased by funds from the Global Ministries, a bank of 20 computers purchased by a woman in England who had lost a son to cancer and wanted to give back to other children. I had a chance to address the children at the morning assembly at the school, teaching them some songs and leading in prayers.
Later that day, I had a chance to see firsthand the incredible work that takes place at FVF. I saw firsthand bakery that makes all the bread, I watched as the women, mostly widows and other elderly women who do not have a home, sat on the concrete floor and threshed rice for the kitchen.
The setting of the FVF is truly a peaceful, bucolic rural setting. The sound of roosters, the nudging of goats, friendly dogs are everywhere. Look one way and you see women doing laundry, slapping clothes against concrete pillars, look another and there are beautiful white roses.
I cannot say enough kind words about the leaders who extended to me such a warm hospitality, including Reena, our sponsorship coordinator, Mr. Daniel, the Deputy Director, Ms. Vatsala Kumar, The principal of the school, and Mr. Tharyan Koshi, who is one of the visionary leaders who has made the work of the FVF his lifetime calling.
My two day stay at the FVF went very quickly. Too soon, I had to take Saranya's hands into my own telling her that I was leaving. "Are you leaving now?" she asked. "Yes" I said. "But I will write. I won't forget you"
As I headed back to the train station to resume my journey, I felt in my heart a deep sense of gratitude for the spirit of love that permeates the FVF. This truly was the Beloved community. I vowed to redouble my commitment to this important work. In some small way, what I had was a conversion experience. I needed to "come and see "with my own eyes. The effect on me is such that I boarded the train in Katpadi a changed person.