I was invited to go to a talk by a Sister Lucy from India and arrived with no particular expectation. Clad in a colourful sari, a well-built Indian lady was standing in the hall completely at ease, smiling and radiating good will. It became obvious that her very ordinariness was extraordinary after hearing about what she is accomplishing for destitute women and children in India.
She introduced herself as coming from a large family in an Indian village. On moving to the city to earn money for her family she was shocked to see slums for the first time. A desire grew in her to help people. Later she became a Catholic nun thinking this would be a way to help people. But she discovered that a nun’s outfit made difficulties in working with people of different religions and that the nunnery kept the people out.
The pivotal moment that changed her life direction was when a woman asked Sister Lucy for help as she believed her husband wanted to kill her to bring another woman into the house. She was pregnant and frightened for her life. Sister Lucy could not take her into the convent as that was against the rules and couldn’t think of anywhere for her to go. She assured the woman that she would work on finding a solution and asked her to come back the next day.
That night in a drunken rage the husband had poured gasoline over the woman and set her on fire. Sister Lucy heard her cries as she died. She was devastated and wanted to run away from the world and its cruelty. But she did not turn her back on the world.
She took a deep breath, and said Yes!
She was fortunate to seek help from an open-minded Father. He heard her impassioned desire to help destitute Indian women and he was able to connect her with an Austrian musician who had offered money for a Project to help Indian women.
Sister Lucy founded the first refuge called ‘Maher’ for women in distress in 1997. Maher means “Mother’s Home” – a haven of hope, belonging and understanding, where women not only feel love and comfort but are assured of security. Irrespective of their religion and caste, all were made welcome, treated equally and given the freedom to practice their faith, and all religious festivals are celebrated.
In her talk and answering questions it was startling to hear of the difficulties that had to be surmounted to be accepted by the local communities and to avoid any form of corruption. In the early days her life was threatened as she was going against all the conditioned views of women and the caste system. On one occasion a group of men came to the Refuge to kill her. She happened to be away. The women and children at the Refuge were altogether having just finished evening meditation. The children greeted the men calling them Uncle and the women offered them tea as was their custom with visitors. The men were taken aback at their obvious happiness and friendliness. Inside they saw on the walls respect for all the religions. They left with a change of heart picking up their sticks and weapons hidden at the gate.
Apart from avoiding corruption within India, Sister Lucy spoke of an American who offered Maher a large sum of money, on condition that free bibles were given out and an annual report sent on Christianity within the community. She refused the offer.
Sister Lucy knows that the women who come to Maher have suffered terribly in life and carry the scars. She asks them to leave the old life at the gate and enter a new life at Maher. It’s not actually food and shelter that they really need, she said, they have already proved that they can survive on the streets and in the slums. It’s love that they need.
At Maher, she says, we do not give them time to dwell on the past – their days are full and made up of school time, serving activities, gardening, painting, drawing, dancing, music, sport… The women also learn new skills.
What helps them most to deal with their suffering is meditation. Sister Lucy said that all the women and children (over eight) are taught the five precepts and Anapana meditation. They do ten minutes in the morning and ten minutes in the evening. This is long enough as they have not much concentration. Those who become more interested (particularly the house mothers) are supported and encouraged to go on ten day retreats and learn vipassana meditation. She expects everyone at Maher to follow a strong moral code and trains the children not to kill, steal, indulge in sexual misconduct, lie or take intoxicants.
Founded on the principles of compassion and service, Maher is a community that honours all religions. Community meditation and prayers are conducted without reference to specific deities or icons. The beautiful Maher emblem is an artistic depiction of the key symbols of the world’s major religions arranged in a circle, with a single flame burning brightly in the Centre, signifying the spiritual unity of all religions.
All come from One said Sister Lucy.
Since it was founded, Maher has welcomed over 4,000 women and children through its doors and has the motto “There is always room for one more.” The organisation currently runs 33 houses and continues to grow now having a home for elderly women and a hostel for boys.
Visitors might expect a home for destitute women to be rather a sad place but at Maher they are surprised to find the women and children vibrant and happy! Sister Lucy reflectively ended her talk with “In as much you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”
Maher serves as a living example of healing based on a foundation of ethics and love that transcends religious division and strife and thereby offers a model urgently needed in our world today.