Conversion & Conversing.
During my career in the social development sector for more than a decade, I have come across a thousand organizations working for the marginalized. Good ones and bad ones, committed ones and professional ones, some very professional with much less commitment, and some very committed with much less professionalism. Almost one third of the organizations were led by the religious groups, especially Catholics. With a few exceptions they all fall into the last category, with much enthusiasm and commitment, but with equal lack of professional approach. A major result of this approach is the lack of conscious effort to record and report their work efficiently, more so when it comes to communicate with transparency with the society at large. Thus, despite their commendable work among the marginalized, they are not appreciated or taken notice by the people outside their direct beneficiaries. It is strange to see the great works disregarded and pushed under the carpet just because there is no ad agency to promote it. Instead its reach remains amongst a very limited population, mostly who are outside the mainstream.
The religious just don't seem to see the point. May be because they value service without longing for returns, or it could be the lack of skill, or they just don't see the need for that. But values and their expressions should be relooked as per the changing times, to check if they are helping in achieving the ultimate goal or are detrimental in the path towards building a better society. Many a times the hesitation on the part of Catholic religious organizations to express themselves create blocks and prejudices in the minds of the general public, who are not familiar with such unselfish services and efforts; like I saw in Palghar taluka of Maharashtra, when a religious group turned down the invitation to present their work in the Gram panchayat. Such stance would only lead to doubts about the real motive of the mission work.
I have been to hundreds of Catholic mission stations, engaged in developing a particular area for up to 50 years with no Catholics among the local community. I have been to institutions for the lepers, old age homes, orphanages and homes for handicapped which have hardly any Catholic among them. I have seen the hardworking gutsy missionaries working in the interior villages in unimaginable living conditions, leaving their comfortable homestead. I have met old nuns with more fire and courage in them than what any of the new generation possess, doing things any girl would ever dare even this time. These missionaries enter the unknown undeveloped villages with no roads or water or toilets or any basic facilities, and start education and health services and legal support to the poor families, creating awareness about their rights, without ever asking them to convert. There are many a 'Dayabai' hidden amidst the scores of forgotten villages of this vast country, who is bringing hope to the most downtrodden.
Then there are thousands of schools and hospitals and other formal institutions run by the Church across this country, where the vast majority of the beneficiaries are non-Christians.
On the other hand I often meet educated non-Christians who believe that the religious groups, especially the missionaries are out there only to convert... that they are getting all this foreign money for adding more heads to the headcount of the Christians. There is also the obvious confusion between the Catholics and other Christian sects who do have a religious agenda. Naturally for the general public, anybody with the Cross and Jesus are the same. And the worst irony is that the same people who got the benefit of Christian institutions are also a part of this propaganda or the misunderstanding. While the fanatics with religious or political agenda spread such malicious impressions, the common man tends to believe them, which is far more dangerous. It is important for all concerned to reflect on why this happens, why the same people the religious served turn against them and why there is no public effort to defend the Church when someone throws stones at it? I feel it is because the Church has distanced itself from the general public by being guarded and aloof.
The silence and complacence on the part of the church and its leaders are as responsible for this scenario as the fanatics. Why the Church is becoming only defensive and not proactive? Why can't it bring out the fact and figures to prove the fanatics wrong? How difficult is it for the bodies like CBCI to come out with exact numbers? About religious distribution of beneficiaries of catholic institutions, be it in education, health, community development, institutions for underprivileged and in other social services? Why can't it reach out to the people of India through traditional media and through social networks? Silence is seen as the sign of guilty. I feel emphasizing that becoming socially transparent is equally important as exercising one's religious freedom in a secular country.
And I also feel that if someone is ready to abandon their religion for monetary profits, then we should just let them leave. That way we can ensure a more genuine community, and less namesakes.
(Leesha Manju is professionally qualified in Social Work and Environment Education. She has been working in the development sector like CEVA, Cochin and IGSSS, Pune. She can be approached at firstname.lastname@example.org )
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Indian Currents.
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