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Meridian is partnering with Rising Star Outreach to build a school for the children of the leprosy-affected in Bihar, India. We are hoping to raise $200,000 which will be matched by another $200,000 by an anonymous donor. So far our generous Meridian readers have raised nearly $175,000. But we need more to build the elementary school. If you haven’t donated, will you? We really need you. Donations have slowed and we need to push through to the end.
Some have asked why Meridian would sponsor this humanitarian project, and the answer is simple—because the Lord, Himself, responded with love to those with leprosy during his life time, and understood how stigmatized and abandoned they are. We want to help, too. If each of us do a little, we can accomplish something big. Please donate to risingstaroutreach.org/meridian
If you have donated before, but you want to do more, please do! Risingstaroutreach.org/meridian
Suku Thankappan and I settled in for a long seven-hour ride
from Little Flower in Sunderpur Leprosy Colony, Bihar back to Patna where I
would catch a flight to New Delhi and continue my homebound flight to NYC. We
had shared so many things on this visit and I was full of excitement about the
progress that had been made at the Little Flower School and also the progress
on building a new campus for that school.
We talked for several hours on these topics. But as the miles wore on, I said, “Tell me your story!” It’s one of my favorite questions to ask people. I have learned that every person on this planet has an interesting story. But in Suku’s case it was extraordinary.
He told me that he had overseen seven divisions for the Indian Air Force and at one time was the administrator of an entire Air Force Base. He said that in his position it was customary to have daily parties after work with the other officers, where drinking and smoking was the accepted pastime. The parties sometimes became a bit raucous but was one of the things that bonded military leaders to one another.
Suku, a strikingly handsome man, had of course met many beautiful women over the years, but hadn’t had his heart captured by any of them. Worried that her son would not get married, his mother announced that she was taking matters into her own hands and as arranged marriages are very common in India, she would arrange a marriage for him with an appropriate woman. A few weeks later, after an intensive search and help from his friends, she presented him with the picture of her decision for his future wife.
The girl was beautiful. The two sets of parents had worked out an acceptable deal (dowry) and the girl was willing.
Suku called her on the phone. She seemed delightful. However, after some good-natured chatting back and forth, she asked him if he smoked and drank. Surprised, he answered, “Of course!” Her enthusiasm was immediately dimmed. She said she was not willing to marry a man who smoked and drank. She would only consider a marriage with him if he promised to stop both.
He was stunned. This seemed to come out of the blue and he was completely unprepared to answer her. He told her he’d think about it and would get back to her.
A few days later he called her back and said that he was sorry but was afraid that this was not a match that would work. She accepted his decision. Relieved, he hung up and thought that was the end of that. But for the first time in his life, he couldn’t get the girl’s picture out of his head. He suddenly couldn’t sleep at night because the picture kept haunting him.
After struggling for several days, he finally called her back and said that if she was willing to give him six months, he would quit smoking, but it would take at least a year for him to quit drinking. Besides he said, “I only drink at parties.” She explained that her father drank, and it had caused many problems in their family. She did not want to have a family with the same problems.
He gave her his pledge and they got married. Before long they had a beautiful son. One morning he awoke early and was surprised to find that his wife was not in bed with him. He looked for her in the dark and discovered that she was sitting on the floor near the bed crying. Surprised he asked her what was wrong. She said, “You promised me that you would only drink at parties, but you drink every day.” He said defensively, “Well in the military you have parties every day.”
As promised, he had quit smoking. This woman was asking too much of him! But he thought, “I gave this girl my promise, and if anything, I am a man of my word.” So, he quit drinking. He suddenly found himself on the outs with his former friends and colleagues. He said,” Instead of 300 friends I was suddenly left with six.”
But his wife was happy. Suku said, apologetically, that he exacted a heavy price for his sacrifice. His attitude was, “I did this for you—now you owe me.” He ruled his household with a heavy hand. He described himself as a dominant, demanding, domineering husband.
Although Hindu, his wife had gone to Catholic schools. Although she didn’t convert to Catholicism, she was comfortable with their worship service and wanted to continue attending them. He allowed it but was not interested in going himself. He would drop her off every Sunday, then pick her up after Church.
One day, he met two missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They asked if they could come to his home and teach him. He said they were impressive, handsome young men. Although not interested in any Church, he thought he would like to have them come to his home.
His wife was appalled and refused to come in to the discussion. How many times had she invited him to come to the Catholic Church with her and he had refused? Now here he came with these boys who meant nothing to them and was suddenly interested in their message. She was highly offended.
He talked with them for only a few minutes. They invited him to Church, so the next Sunday he thought it only polite to drop in for a few minutes. When he walked in the Church, he was overcome by the Spirit of the Lord for the first time in his life. He felt washed in love. Everyone was friendly and welcoming. He thought, “When I go to Hindu temple people don’t get excited to see me, shake my hand and welcome me. They ignore me.”
After that he took the first discussion. He demanded that his wife attend. She was resistant but she didn’t dare oppose him. She came. He said he felt the Spirit at every discussion. He made his wife attend church with him. He finally decided that they would be baptized, but when he told the Elders, they told him he couldn’t be baptized because he had been five minutes late to church and that showed he was not committed. (as a former Mission President’s wife—I found that amazing!) Anyway, the Elders insisted that they come several more weeks on time in order to prove that they were serious. Finally convinced that they were committed and serious, the Elders baptized them.
His wife, while initially resistant, eventually had to admit that he was becoming a truly changed man. Instead of being demanding and domineering, he was becoming more thoughtful and kinder. She eventually opened up her heart and received her own conversion. From that point on, she has been as faithful and enthusiastic as Suku has been.
But Suku said there was no way he could tell his family. He would be disowned and would be considered a dishonor to their family. He kept his conversion a secret—for seven years! During that time, he served as a Branch President, the District President in New Delhi and then later as a Bishop. All this time his family thought he was Hindu!
One day his family finally found out about his conversion. Not only had he converted to Christianity, but he was a church leader! They were scandalized, dishonored and bitter. They castigated him for dishonoring the family. He said, Ï hope you can understand. I honor my family, but I am very happy now. Through the Gospel, I have changed who I am and my whole family is happier.” They had to admit that he had truly changed over the years. He was no longer argumentative with his other family members. He was willing to help out when needed. He had become thoughtful of others and kind. He seemed truly transformed from the arrogant person they had known before.
Slowly and with the passage of time they eventually accepted this change.
Finding this leader had for us been like a miracle from God for Rising Star Outreach. First of all, finding anyone willing to work in Bihar was in itself, a significant challenge. Arguably the poorest and least developed state in India, Bihar had been run by the mob for many years and had the unsavory reputation of being a dangerous and unwelcoming place. Most Indians got a cloud over their eyes when I mentioned that we were thinking of starting a project in Bihar. They would look at me apprehensively and say, “Surely. you’re not thinking of going to Bihar yourself!!”
To find a leader of Suku’s quality and experience was even more unlikely. In addition to his leadership roles with the Indian Air Force, he had worked as a loan officer for the State Bank of India, so he came with financial experience as well as with his outstanding leadership experience. Being a charity, we were unable to compete with the corporate salary he had been earning and we feared that he would be unwilling to work for substantially less. His response was essentially that he had already achieved his goals for success in life. Now he wanted to spend the rest of his time giving back to God and to his country.
Suku, it turned out, was not only willing to move to Bihar, but he moved directly into the Sunderpur Leprosy Colony. He went from the sophistication of New Delhi to the heart of a leprosy colony in Bihar—Incredible! He brought his sister and mother-in-law to the leprosy colony. His son was headed out to college and his daughter was also unable to come because she has an allergic reaction to the pollution in Bihar. So Suku and his wife are now living separately–his wife and daughter in New Delhi, and he in Bihar. They get to see each other only about once a month.
Suku told me that he is determined to get the school built as quickly as possible because it is in a place where the air is clean, so he will be able to move his whole family down. What a sacrifice he is making for the children at Little Flower!
Shortly after hiring Suku, we found ourselves in a position of hiring a National leader for Rising Star Outreach. The Board of Directors in India unanimously suggested Suku as our new National Leader. This would have meant a significant salary increase for Suku. I thought he would welcome the opportunity because I knew he was struggling financially to fund his son’s medical college. In fact, he had confided in me that in order to fund his son’s education they would need to sell not only their home in New Delhi, but their prized ancestral home, as well. This was a sacrifice that was weighing on his mind.
When I approached Suku about the new position, he was thoughtful for a minute. Then he responded, “This sounds more like a corporate job. I had a corporate job. I chose to leave it because I wanted to work directly with the poor. I love working with the school, the volunteers, the students and the leprosy-affected families in Bihar. This is my dream job. Please don’t ask me to leave it.”
These are the kind of people you meet once in a lifetime!
As I waved goodbye to Suku after arriving at the Patna airport, I realized that I had just had a powerful lesson in setting priorities. Though Suku is substantially younger than me, he seems to have come early to the understanding that we only get to go through this life one time. The normal thing is to pursue wealth, status, and power. There are those who realize that there are more important goals in life. But for most of us the pull of a higher wage, more status, more authority is a seducing agent. But there are a special few, who are able to see past the pull of materialism and worldly honors, to the things carrying an eternal weight of value.
I am reminded of Marjorie Hinckley’s Poem, I Really Lived
I hope that I can learn from Suku–this younger employee of mine—to put my priorities in the things that matter eternally. I want to eventually leave this life, when the time comes, as Sis. Hinckley suggested—with smudges of peanut butter, a little dirt under my fingernails, children’s sticky kisses on my cheeks, and the tears of a friend on my shoulder–having really lived!