December 7, 2011

Pencil Power

In January 2009 Adventist Review ran a cover story titled “Changing Lives One Word at a Time,” describing a literacy initiative launched in India by the Southern Asia Division’s (SUD) Women’s Ministries Department and North American Division’s (NAD) Hope for Humanity. Also included was an appeal to readers to help purchase Bibles and carrying cases to present to women who completed the yearlong church-sponsored literacy course. The generosity of Review subscribers surpassed all expectations when they sacrificially donated more than $80,000 to the program. At $5 for a Bible and a carrying case, this was enough to provide Bibles to thousands of graduates. The author of the cover story, Adventist Review features editor Sandra Blackmer, together with Hope for Humanity director Maitland DiPinto, SUD leaders in women’s ministries, and others, visited some of the literacy centers in India last spring and presented the Bibles to graduates. This synopsis of Blackmer’s experience in India will update readers and project donors on the ministry’s progress.—Editors.
The term mass of humanity took on new meaning as I was almost carried up the gangplank by the hundreds of men, women, and children squeezing, shoving, and pressing in on me from every side. Some balanced large metal water jars on poles lying across their shoulders; one lugged weaved baskets filled with peeping baby chicks to sell at the market; and others had trays filled with small bags of popcorn and nuts they hoped ferry passengers would buy from them. “So many people!” I shouted to my new friend Veena, who was grabbing my hand to prevent us being separated.
It was my third day in India. I was traveling with Hope for Humanity (HFH) director Maitland DiPinto; literacy project coordinator and recently retired SUD women’s ministries director Hepzibah (Hepzi) Kore; newly elected SUD women’s ministries director Premila Masih; Northern India Union’s women’s ministries director Veena Gayen; and, later, Southeast India Union women’s ministries director Jean Sundaram. A media specialist, a photographer, the district pastor, and others were also part of the group. We were catching a ferry to the island of Sagardwip, just a few miles from the mainland in the Bay of Bengal where the river Ganga meets the sea. Two hundred women from 20 literacy centers on the island were graduating that day, and we were to take part in the ceremony. After attending classes two hours a day, five days a week, for a year and learning how to read, write, and do simple arithmetic, this was indeed a special occasion.

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Progress: This woman in the village of Ennore demonstrates her newly acquired writing skills.

A 30-minute ferry ride landed us on the island. A waiting jeep and driver then transported us to the center: a small, whitewashed stone building covered with a densely thatched roof.
We took our shoes off at the door of the building—a traditional sign of respect—and entered the room. About 20 women varying in age and dressed in vibrant-colored saris sat cross-legged on the floor. Their teacher stood next to a chalkboard set up on a wooden easel in front of the class. They greeted us with wide smiles.
Hepzi, Maitland, and South Bengal district pastor Victor Sam congratulated the group on their accomplishment, and then asked class members to share how becoming literate had made a difference in their lives. Some women told of being cheated at the market because they couldn’t count the money paid to them for their goods; others expressed feelings of humiliation for being unable to sign their names on documents at the bank. Several had experienced ridicule from people in the community and even their own families.
One young woman, Dulali, was born without the ability to hear or speak, but by the use of “sign” language—the teacher simply pointing to items in the room and then writing the words for them on the chalkboard—she slowly learned to read and write. During this last class of the program she confidently walked up front to the board and wrote her name and several other words in her native Bengali language. Later that day I had the distinct privilege of presenting her with her Bible.
Hold Your Head Up
During the graduation program students performed a skit portraying an illiterate woman who was being cheated by an unscrupulous person at the market—an everyday reality for the women there. The “hero” in the skit learned to read, write, and count, and the next time the dishonest person tried to cheat her, she was able to stand her ground and was paid a fair price for her wares. Those watching responded with joy and excitement, reveling in the victory as if it were their own.
It hit me then that this program is about more than just learning to read. It’s about being able to “hold your head up” in local communities, preventing others from taking advantage, feeling that you have something valuable to offer. These women had developed a level of confidence and self-respect that I was told hadn’t been there before, and had grown both in their own eyes and in the estimation of others.
Since 2000, when Hepzi launched the literacy program with just 10 classes, more than 50,000 women have taken the opportunity to learn and are now making more significant contributions to their families and communities. All have learned about Jesus, and many have accepted Him as their Lord and Savior.
“We’re not building big churches; we’re not holding huge evangelistic meetings; but there are 50,000 women who are now able to read and have learned about Jesus, and they take this knowledge out into the community,” says Ray Tetz, creative director and owner of Mind Over Media and who partners with HFH and SUD to raise awareness of the program. “I would say that’s a good investment.”
Built on a Writing Slate
I couldn’t understand a word being said, but the significance of the event didn’t escape me.

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Recognizing a Milestone: Some 200 women from 20 literacy centers on the island of Sagardwip graduated from the yearlong course and received a Bible paid for with funds that Review readers donated to the project.

It was Sabbath morning, and my fellow traveling companions and I were worshipping in a small, recently established Adventist church in Vengal, about a two-hour drive from Chennai. Six young women were reading the Sabbath school lesson to the congregation. Only months before, none of these women had been able to read at all.
The Vengal church was established as a direct result of the literacy project. Because so many of the students and their family members had come to know Jesus and were baptized, funds were donated to build a structure in which they could worship. The morning we were there people filled not only every seat but all the floor space as well.
I later asked Hepzi how so many women here had come to accept Christ. She explained that the believers would meet together on Friday evenings and Sabbath afternoons for Bible study, and the other women would follow to find out what they were doing. “They didn’t want to be left out, so they began studying the Bible, too, along with the believers,” Hepzi said. “We then held evangelistic meetings. Many were baptized, and now we have this new Adventist congregation and church building.”
Could it really be so simple? I wondered. Could the foundation of a new church plant be built on writing slates and a few pieces of chalk? According to Hepzi, the answer is yes. It begins, she says, with meeting a need.
“Reports say that 60 percent of the people in India are literate,” Hepzi notes, “but in some villages the literacy rate is as low as 20 percent. In one village we could not find even one person who was literate—not even one.”
With 200 literacy centers currently operating in southern India, 20 in Kol-kata, and 35 more in Nepal, Hepzi is praying that these statistics will soon be a thing of the past.
A Unique Village
We next visited a village called Ambedkar Nagar, which 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 launched 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 made a daily 2.5 mile (four-kilometer) trek to the river to get the water they needed for bathing, cooking, and drinking. They also stayed isolated behind the palm-leaf walls of their homes, rarely socializing with one another.

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Determined to Succeed: Dulali, who can't hear or speak, learned how to read and write by "sign" language.

The interaction during the classes, however, helped to develop a communal bond. After graduating from the program, some of the women—together with a few of the men—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 streetlights and a well are now new additions to their community.
“There were only two literate people when I first came here to start a literacy center,” Mercy, the class supervisor for the region, 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.”
Lifting the Veil
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 learning not only how to read but also how they should think about themselves. They are reaching goals 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—one class, one woman, at a time.
To read more about Blackmer’s experiences in India and to view additional photos, go to To learn more about HFH literacy programs, go to
Sandra Blackmer is features editor of Adventist Review. This article was published December 8, 2011.