Adventist Review features editor Sandra Blackmer is currently in India with North America Division's Hope for Humanity director Maitland DiPinto, Southern Asia Division (SUD) leaders in Women's Ministries, and others to participate in graduation ceremonies for women in southern provinces who have completed church-sponsored literacy courses. Blackmer wrote a cover story [Changing Lives One Word at a Time] about the literacy initiative in the January 15, 2009, issue of the
Review. Also included was an appeal to readers to help purchase Bibles and carrying cases to present to women who completed the yearlong course. The fund-raising goal was $20,000--enough to purchase Bibles and cases for the approximately 4,000 women who would graduate from the 200 literacy classes throughout southern India the following year--but the generosity of
Review subscribers greatly surpassed all expectations. Within just a few months of printing the article, readers had sacrificially donated more than $80,000 to the program. At $5.00 for a Bible and its case, it was enough to provide this gift to graduates for several years. Blackmer now has the privilege of presenting some of these Bibles to literacy course graduates.--The editors.
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tepping as deftly as I could around the mud puddles I hurried to catch up with Jean Sundaram, director of Women's Ministries for the Southeast India Union. She, along with Johnson Mudthuraj, president of the Chennai Metro Section, and his wife, Jegatha, Women's Ministries director for the section, had joined us in Chennai to visit the literacy centers here. We were on a "mission" to purchase a small leather case for one of our group, and the pastor was leading us down a narrow dirt lane lined with small shops selling everything from jewelry and purses to flowers and teddy bears. I pushed myself back against one of the buildings to allow a rickshaw surrounded by scores of people to squeeze by, and noticed a vendor on the corner operating a small hand mill. He was crushing peeled sugar cane by hand-cranking the mill, and clear liquid flowed out into a glass container. The man added a little lime juice, poured it into a glass, and handed it to a waiting customer. I later learned that this sugar cane juice is call Garapa and is found in Brazil, Colombia, and Cuba as well as India. Considering the calorie content, I decided to pass on the opportunity to try it.
It was Easter Sunday, and we had the day off. I was using the brief reprieve to catch up on my writing; work with Gerry Chudleigh, our photographer, to select pictures for the Review; and spend a little time shopping with the rest of the group. But the next morning we were off again to visit another literacy center--one that is very different from the rest.
The village is called Ambedkarnagar. It comprises some 500 homes and is located next to a huge dump site. About 30 women in the village have graduated from the 12-month literacy course. They are now considered literate, so some have been able to acquire local manual labor jobs. One woman has started up a business selling flowers. But the most dramatic result isn't newfound employment but significant community change.
The people here are considered squatters, although most of the adults have called this settlement home for more than 20 years. With no water or electricity, the women had to make a daily four-kilometer trek to the river to get the water they needed for bathing, cooking, and drinking. They also generally stayed isolated behind the palm-leaf walls of their homes, rarely socializing with one another.
The interaction during the classes, however, helped to develop a communal bond. After graduating from the program and receiving their Bibles, the next step the women--together with a few of the men--took was to put together a petition requesting the landowner to provide electricity and access to water in the village. Surprised by the villagers' courteous attitude and calm demeanor, a paradigm shift for them, the landowner asked, "Why the change?"
"We've learned from the Bible and from our literacy teacher that we should be more respectful toward others," they responded. The result was that the landowner granted their petition, and street lights and a well are now new additions to their community.
"The behavior of the people is much improved," says Mercy, the class supervisor for the region. "There used to be a lot of fighting, but now they get along better. They are more calm and wait patiently in the queue for their turn to get water."
Their homes are upgraded now as well. Again because many of the residents are now literate, they were able to acquire a bank loan to turn their palm-leaf homes into ones with cement walls--a profound improvement.
"There were only two literate people when I first came here to start a literacy center," Mercy notes. "They used to be shy and afraid. Now they are bolder and have more confidence. Even I'm bolder since working with the classes."
Several of the women have been baptized, but with no church building to worship in, some are attending a church of another denomination recently constructed in the village. Women's Ministries leaders are looking for ways to raise funds to build an Adventist church here as well.
A Last Look
Visiting literacy centers in India has drawn back the veil on this program for me. The real story here isn't simply teaching the alphabet or that two plus two equals four. Women are being taught how to read but also how they should think about themselves. Goals are being reached that many of them didn't believe were attainable for them. I can do this after all, they discover. And if I can do this, perhaps I can do even more.
The young teachers embody the values they're inculcating to their students. They're not just standing on the sidelines of the church; they're on the front lines in their communities, taking up leadership roles that make them a vital part of this growing ministry.
But most important, thousands of people are learning of a Savior who loves them unconditionally and cares about their daily struggles and challenges. They're turning to Him for help and trusting in His guidance, which is altering their lives here and for eternity.
The needs in this vast and diverse country can appear overwhelming, and some may question whether "teaching a few women how to read" is the most efficient use of the church's resources. After personally seeing the literacy centers in action and meeting these beautiful, precious women who want nothing more than to learn to read and make a more significant contribution to their families and communities, I say it's money and time well spent. It's making a difference one community, one class, one woman at a time.