By William Keepin and Cynthia Brix, Satyana Institute
Sister Lucy Kurien is the founder and director of Maher, a remarkable community and interfaith refuge for abused and destitute women and children, headquartered in Pune, India. Born and raised in Kerala, south India, Sr. Lucy is a Catholic nun who founded Maher as an interfaith community that honors all religions. In rural India—a society devastated by severe oppression of women, rigid caste distinction, religious segregation, and heartbreaking poverty—Maher offers a profound beacon of practical hope and inspiring solutions grounded in compassion and service. Maher has received little or no support, financial or otherwise, from the Church or other religious institutions. All quotations below are from Sr. Lucy Kurien, who has been hailed by some as the next Mother Teresa.
The seeds of Maher were planted one day in 1991 when a knock came on the door of Sr. Lucy’s convent. A distressed woman from an adjacent apartment building stood in the doorway, and asked Lucy for shelter. She explained that her husband, a chronic alcoholic, was threatening to kill her so that he could bring another woman into their home. She was seven months pregnant. “I sympathized with the woman’s plight, but I had no authority to offer her shelter, because my superior was absent but was due back the following day. I asked the woman how long she had been married, and she replied three years, so I figured one more day would be no problem. I promised to do something for her the next day.”
That very night, loud shrieks of agony suddenly broke the silence, and Lucy ran outside to see what was happening. “I came upon a horrifying sight: a woman totally engulfed in flames. When she saw me, she ran toward me screaming ‘Save me! Save me!’ I suddenly recognized her as the very woman who had come to me earlier that afternoon.” The woman’s husband, in a drunken rage, had poured kerosene on her, and set her on fire—a hideous practice not uncommon in India. Lucy grabbed a blanket and smothered the fire as the woman crumpled to the ground. “With the help of some onlookers, we took her to a hospital. But she died that night of 90% burns. I implored the doctors whether anything could be done for the baby, and they took her into the operating room, but what I received in my hand was a fully cooked foetus.”
Lucy was devastated, and could not forgive herself for not having helped the woman earlier that afternoon. “I had no idea that a single night could make such a difference in the life of a woman. I wanted to run away from this world, and its cruelty and wickedness.” Over time Lucy’s friends, and especially a priest friend named Father Francis D’Sa, dissuaded her from becoming a recluse, and helped Lucy take action rather than run away. “It was then that I decided I had to create a home for abused and traumatized women—a place where they could feel secure, cared for, and loved, irrespective of their religion, caste, or social status.” Maher opened the doors of its first home on February 2, 1997, and two women came that very first night.
Since that day 2,000 women and 2,000 children have come to Maher for healing and rehabilitation. “Women admitted to Maher are first given the necessary medical treatment and psychological counseling. Once they are stabilized and become adjusted, we work with each one on an individual basis, depending on her needs and circumstances.” The average stay at Maher is 3 months, and the women are trained in vocational skills such as handicrafts and tailoring, to provide them a source of income when they leave. Part of Maher’s genius is that the incoming women are cared for by a highly competent staff of mostly women who themselves were once battered, and sought refuge and rehabilitation at Maher (hence the title of a book on Maher, Women Healing Women).
“Maher was founded on a deep faith in two things: God, and the inherent goodness of people. That goodness is a reflection of the Divine in each of us, and it doesn’t matter which faith we belong to.” Maher’s board includes Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim members, and many religions are represented among staff and residents. “The unifying thread is that we all honor the Divine,” and this principle is put into living, daily practice at Maher. Everyone who visits immediately feels the remarkable love and compassion that pour forth from the women, children, and staff.
Maher is also a “caste-free zone” that actively serves the most impoverished people in the local region. “In all our community activities, people of all castes mix together, which breaks traditional Indian social taboos. We have people of the highest and lowest caste sit side by side eating together, which they never do outside.” Maher serves local communities of dalits (untouchables) and indigenous “tribals” who live in extreme poverty. These people are classified below the lowest rung in the caste system and not recognized by the Indian government, so they receive no services whatsoever. Maher provides these people with water wells and pumps, solar cookers, basic supplies, and day-care centers for their children who otherwise would have no educational opportunities. Over 280 “self-help groups” also have been created by Maher in more than 80 villages in the area. Each group has 20 people that make small donations of money into a community pool. Any member can request a loan at a nominal interest rate, and the proceeds go back into the community pool.
Ecological sustainability is another high priority at Maher. Solar thermal collectors on the rooftops generate most of their hot water, and they have solar cookers and solar powered lamps that save expensive electricity at night. “No chemical fertilizers or pesticides are used within the premises of Maher. All agriculture and gardening on our land is done with organic farming techniques, and we produce our own biogas for cooking. We adopted a total waste management system, and food and vegetable wastes are composted using vermiculture systems, which process organic waste into highly effective fertilizer.”
In a society rife with corruption and graft, Maher sets a rare standard. “We have never paid a bribe at Maher, and we never will!” Sr. Lucy’s impeccable stance comes not without hardship, including long delays in getting building permits or the electric utility connected—sometimes upwards of two years or more. Once when Maher kept refusing to pay a bribe for a permit, local officials showed up on Maher’s doorstep to apply pressure. “We showed them around and were very hospitable to them, just like any other visitors. They liked our project very much. When they pulled me aside and tried to collect their bribe in hushed tones, I asked them how much money they were asking for. They quoted a figure, and I said, ‘Come with me!’ I led them into our main hall where many women were busy producing crafts and cooking, and the children were focused in their study circles. I whispered to the officials that for that amount of money, we would have to put out four women and six children back onto the street. I asked them to please go around the room and pick out which individuals were to be cast out. Shocked and incensed, the officials glanced at each other, then spun around in a huff and swiftly departed. Three weeks later we got our permit.”
When asked what her dream for the future of Maher is, Sr. Lucy says “I would love to see many more people come forward and truly commit themselves to the vital work of building communities of healing and love. Not just in India, but everywhere! It is such fulfilling work, and the need is so great. One of my favorite verses from the Bible is “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Sadly, this is so true. Our scarcest resource for expanding Maher is not money; it is finding deeply committed people. So my prayer for the future is that the fire of real Love will ignite more people’s hearts, and inspire them to join this vital work. It can be done anywhere, and is needed everywhere.
For more information, please visit www.maherashram.org or see Women Healing Women: A Model of Hope for Oppressed Women Everywhere, W. Keepin and C. Brix (Hohm Press, 2009).
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This article appears in:
2013 Catalyst - Issue 22