By: Janice Burdon
I was intrigued one Sunday when Annie Heron, a young 20-year-old woman from Hudson Community Baptist church, decided to lead a team of young people downtown to hand out sandwiches to the homeless. What an awesome idea! Annie is no stranger to poverty, having seen enough of it during her stay in India. Her mother, Rebecca Heron, is a playwright and had written, cast and directed a play last year about William Carey, a missionary linguist who served in India back in the 1800’s. Carey translated the Bible and other Indian literature into Bengali, and other Indian languages. The play received rave reviews, but what Rebecca didn’t realize was that her faith was about to be tested. Amazingly, the same day as the closing night of her play, Ron Heron, her husband, was offered a job in India with a large Indian telecommunications company! A coincidence? No. Rebecca believes that God was saying, “You wrote about it, well now you’re going to experience it. Show them my love.”
The Heron family, with all six children, stayed in Mumbai, formally Bombay, a city of 23,000,000 people. It is home to Bollywood and thriving businesses, and yet, for far too many, a place of unimaginable poverty. From their comfortable apartment, the Herons looked down into one of the many slums of the city. They saw dirt-laden streets full of beggars, many of them children. These children who should have been in school were rummaging through the heaps of garbage, looking for anything they could sell, receiving only a pittance for what they worked so hard all day to find. The Herons were told that babies were often drugged, so they could be “displayed” all day by mothers, sisters, or others “borrowing” them to beg on the streets, and illicit pity and more money from naïve tourists. Three hundred families from poverty-stricken villages pour into Mumbai every day hoping to find work in the city, only to find themselves lost in this sea of homeless millions. They set up tarps, if they can find them, and sleep on the side of the road.
The makeshift shantytowns are called illegal slums. Those living in ‘legal’ slums are more fortunate, often having access to a very limited supply of water, electricity, and a common toilet, often shared by thousands. One hard fact is that 51% of Indian people do not even own their own toilet! Amongst this poverty stands a multi-millionaire’s 27-storey residence, the largest personal home in the world, built by the owner of the company that employed Ron Heron.
Walking in the city, the Herons were often followed by beggar children wanting money. It was difficult to know how to respond. Giving to one often seemed to compound the problem, because many more would come, and it was impossible to give to all. It was obvious that the money they gave would not really benefit the child, but would be taken directly to the “beggarmaster.” Living alongside this destitution, it is easy to become first frustrated, then cynical and hardened to the plight of these children. In one particular case, a young boy wouldn’t quit. As the family walked, he followed them for many blocks, begging the entire time. Rebecca remembers her reaction very well. “I was frustrated that we couldn’t even walk down the street without being harassed. Then, I looked at that child, the same age as one of my own. The difference between their lives was too heartbreaking to contemplate. I was ashamed that I had become so hard and complacent toward the need of a child every bit as precious as my own. He, also, was made in the image of God.”
Rebecca and her family decided that the best way to help these children was to join the organization Vision Rescue. Vision Rescue has four buses they converted into mobile schools, which frequent the poorest parts of Mumbai. Every day, waking up at four in the morning, they prepare a meal of rice and Dahl, which is nutritious lentil stew. The Indian children receive an hour of education and a good meal. Rebecca and her family loved working with this wonderful, Indian-run organization, and fell in love with the children they helped. They were amazed at these children, living in the worst imaginable circumstances, and yet so responsive and happy, singing especially with great enthusiasm.
The part of the Heron’s story that gripped me the most was about their house helper Ranjana, who lives in one of these shanty dwellings with husband Vinod, their three children, and her parents. Their whole house is a space smaller than most of our kitchens. The friendship between the Heron family and Ranjana went much deeper than the usual working relationship. They became like family to each other. Vinod, a Rickshaw driver, earned his money driving people around all day only to pay his boss a good-sized portion which left him almost penniless. The Herons, seeing this, dared to care and helped Vinod purchase his own Rickshaw so he could profit fully from his day’s work! The Herons’ kindness touched Ranjana and Vinod so deeply that they wanted to learn more about this Jesus they prayed to.
We all see poverty at one point in our lives or another but for the Herons, going to India was a real eye-opener. Coming back nine months later to a country, which has so much abundance, made them realize just how fortunate Canadians really are. They would never look at poor people quite the same way again and for them, throwing money in a tin can is just not enough anymore. This is the reason why Annie led a group downtown to give out sandwiches. “Love is action and by showing it practically, you are telling people they are worth loving.”
Vision Rescue gave them a chance to help these families in a real, tangible way. “The challenge for us as a family was stepping out of our comfort zone to volunteer for an organization able to help these people. We were tremendously blessed.”
For more info on Vision Rescue, please contact: www.visionrescue.org.in/