Laurence Potter is one of the team in Chennai visiting the SKM church and child sponsorship project with Grassroots. Andy asked him to write up his impressions and experiences. So here they are!
The first time we visited the after-school club was a revelation. At about five o’clock, children began to swarm up the concrete stairs to the first floor hall where the club and the church meets. The room is plain – grey concrete floor, white walls scuffed with usage, and a number of fans providing welcome cooling. One side is open to the street below, with thin white curtains for shade.
In about 20 minutes the room is almost filled, about 200 or more young people from kindergarten to late teens. They sit on the floor in small friendship groups to do homework, using paper books with pictures, drawings and text, each containing a number of subjects. The noise is deafening, like a large group of parrots chattering in trees. About ten volunteers in their early 20s, also gather to supervise. The lads in trousers and shirts, the girls in bright saris and chudidars – tunic dress tops, loose trousers and a scarf loosely draped from front to back. The girls look stunningly smart. They brook no messing about amongst the youngsters and keep a firm hand on behaviour as they patrol through the seated crowd.
The children are intrigued by these visitors from a foreign land. Catch their eye and they beam in a smile, eyes so dark that it’s difficult to see the pupils. Almost all look well kempt, clothes clean, black hair brushed and gleaming. The contrast of this with the squalor of the slums we’ve just visited is astonishing. How do their mums do it? I’m humbled by the human dignity that lies behind their efforts. I get my camera out, and as soon as the children see it they pester me to take their picture. I show them the results, to their great delight and excitement. Strangely, they don’t smile for the camera, but pose with a rather solemn look even though many find it hard to maintain, breaking out into a beam before forcing themselves to look stern again. Apparently it’s a cultural thing. I’m almost mobbed as they clamour for me to snap them. I’m a disruptive presence and some children get into trouble with the volunteers for not sitting down. These kids are just delightful.
After about 45 minutes, a whistle is blown – loudly. This is the signal for the children to break into lines, double rows back to back with a narrow path between between ranks. It reminded me of the 5000 seated in rows for the distribution of fish and bread. And indeed, this is in effect what this is for.
Thin silvery metal plates are handed out, followed in a few minutes by the doling out scoops of rice, and then scoops of a thin meat curry of some sort. The children eagerly scoop up rice and curry with fingers, obviously enjoying what’s on offer. A bible verse came to mind – “He has filled the hungry with good things, while the rich he has sent empty away.” This is the Gospel in action, Jesus feeding his children.
I knew it would happen sometime, but my stiff upper lip turned to jelly and I found myself in tears, a mixture of joy at seeing these wonderful children being fed so generously, and anger at the injustice of them and their parents suffering such deprivation, largely ignored by government agencies, indeed by almost everyone except the church. I had to turn towards a wall to hide my face. I’m British after all.
Seconds, and even thirds, are offered to those who wanted it, as quite a number did, plates being thrust out towards the ministering volunteers. Then stainless steel beakers are handed out and filled with fresh water, which is also eagerly consumed.
As children finish, they gather up their school bags and head for the stairs. In fifteen minutes, a forgotten quietness descends. Noises from the street below return. The volunteers gather plates and beakers into a corner for washing. Spilled food and litter is swept into a pile and binned. And then it’s the turn of the rest of us to eat. It’s very tasty, not too spicy even for my palate, and very welcome. It’s nearly seven and I’m hungry. After, we cluster with Pastor Kevin and Deborah to talk about what we’d experienced today. So much to ask about, so much to understand, so much to pray about and thank God for. Huh. I’m in tears again. It’s such a privilege to be here and see God at work, and experience such faith and commitment from these Godly young volunteers who are also from this slum area. Such material poverty, and such spiritual wealth. Lord, give me this bread.