Having bid farewell to Shillong, the next leg of my journey is Calcutta (Kolkata), the former capital of India, where I am meeting a group from a charity called OneLife International. OneLife International’s mission is to serve the communities surrounding Calcutta by assisting them with the resources they need to rise out of poverty.
Calcutta is home to nearly 14 million people, situated on the Hooghly River. It is the third largest city in India, and considered to be the intellectual and cultural center of India, similar to a London, England – a hub of theaters, cinema and art. The primary language is Bengali, followed by English and Hindi. More than a million residents, however, live in thousands of registered slums.
After traveling solo, it’s good to be meeting up again with a group. Our traveling party consists of 30-year-old Seth, one of the organization’s co-founders, Nashville natives Melanie, Danny and Kenny, a doctor from Oregon named Ryan, and a Canadian named Shelly. We will be joined in Calcutta by OneLife’s two other charter members, Andy and Pete.
Pete looks a lot like Keith Urban, although – as he likes to point out – he’s one inch taller than Keith Urban. A former pastor, Pete is wise beyond his years. The first thing you notice about Pete is his spiky hair, standing up, presumably, on account of all that wisdom.
Of all the people in our traveling party, Seth, it should be noted, looks the most like Jesus. A songwriter and musician from Los Angeles, Seth looks a lot like Jesus, to be exact, with brown eyes, pale skin and long brown hair. He definitely gets the most looks from airline travelers, who seem to want to spill their secrets to him, including a woman from Las Vegas who spends most of the connecting flight telling him her troubled back story.
Each member of the team has their own reason for making the trip. Melanie, 24, is the executive director for OneLife. Danny is a former minister looking to explore work in the non-profit sector. Shelly, a representative from a church in Canada, has traveled the farthest to join the group, looking for ways to potentially partner with OneLife. Ryan has come to assist with a clinic in one of the slums, and Kenny has come to see how to financially support the mission.
Our plane touches down in the airport, where we immediately lose Seth, Ryan’s luggage and Kenny’s jacket. An hour later we have found two of the three and make our way across the terminal, like satchel-laden camels. We are greeted outside the airport by Andy, tall and dark-haired, full of enthusiasm and ready to take us to our hotel.
We board a shuttle where we take a harrowing bus ride through the streets of Calcutta. After driving in Shillong, however, I would expect absolutely no less. Calcutta is a mix of humanity – multicolored buses, white vans and yellow taxis whiz by, peppered by occasional bicycles and pedestrians carrying goods on their head. We pass buildings with barred windows and cheap tile, garbage and laundry piled on the roof. Some buildings rise several stories, air conditioning units strapped to the outside of windows.
Finally we arrive at our hotel on Bose Rd, appropriately titled “Hotel Heaven.” Hotel Heaven’s lobby looks frozen in the 1970s with wooden wall paneling, brown and olive with gold trim, complete with worn couches. There is a sign-in book so ancient, it feels like we should sign in with a feathered quill. Large rotating fans blow on us as we sign our names and check in.
I am given a giant key, and my roommate Melanie and I drag our suitcases up a narrow staircase to our room. We throw back the curtains and look down on the street, although the windows are so dirty, it’s hard to make out anything on the pavement below.
“How many Americans does it take to turn off the lights?” That is the question we face every time we need to go somewhere. I don’t know much about Indian engineering, but every appliance in the hotel room, it seems, is controlled by its own separate switch. There is a master switch outside the room, two switches on the right side of the bed and two switches on the left. There is a switch for each light above the dresser and one for the electrical outlet. There is a panel of eight switches on the wall and four more outside the bathroom door with two more inside.
I somehow manage to turn on the fan, the hot water heater, two rows of unnecessary ceiling lights and every electrical outlet in the room before successfully turning off the small bedside lamp, while patient Melanie waits in the doorway.
That afternoon, we drive to Khalpar slum – the place where OneLife’s original mission started. We are greeted by Piyas (male) and Jaishree (female), the Indian staff members, and Pete.
We pull up beside Khalpar’s makeshift community and the air is hot and dusty, punctuated with the shrieks of children. The ground is covered with trash, and rows of tents line the main walkway, a dirt road. The slum was originally built somewhere else, closer to the river, Seth explains. When they were pushed off the land by the authorities, the inhabitants simply moved it a few blocks away to its current position. Despite OneLife’s outreach to the inhabitants and the large number of people who live there, the mayor said no to water and electricity.
“They can’t build anything permanent because it’s not their land,” Seth says.
Unemployment is high, and residents of the slum who are fortunate enough to be employed are often under-employed, Andy explains. Of those who have jobs, most of the women are maidservants/housekeepers who cook and clean for local families and the men do manual labor such as driving carts, pulling rickshaws, or part time construction work. Some of the men and women sort through the urban refuse of Calcutta, bringing bags of garbage home to sort through for recycling items, he says.
We follow Piyas and Jaiashree to one of the sturdier-looking buildings, which serves as the schoolhouse. The front portion houses a few tables and artwork from the kids, while the back room holds a section with two cooking pots and a back area covered with blue tarp and several fans that houses four computers. A generator hums in the corner, while three children work quietly at the computers.
“Everything is portable, able to be moved,” Seth says, pointing out the framework.
The old schoolroom used to be so hot the teachers passed out, he explains, so OneLife provided the generators and fans, as well as a small bank of computers so children attending school would be able to keep up with their homework and not fall behind. He points to the roof, made of corrugated tin, to protect the computer during rainy season, as well as the concrete floor to ensure they stay out of the mud. They also provide at least one meal a day for the children attending the bridge school onsite.
We walk next door to a meeting room made of bamboo, also used as part of the bridge school. Fans attempt to buffer the heat in the room, as 100 or so children dressed in green school uniforms crowd the floor. We take seats in folding chairs at the back of the schoolroom. The children are used to semi-annual visits from Seth, Pete and Andy and have prepared a brief skit for the visitors. First a young boy prays, then a group of boys and girls with candles sing a local song. Eight girls in matching green dresses with orange sashes do a cultural dance involving a large wooden cutout of a canoe.
A 10-year-old boy plays the guitar, starting with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” then “Jingle Bells,” then “Happy Birthday” for Pete, who recently had a birthday. Seth is sitting a little too close to a long-haired portrait of Jesus hanging on the wall. The kids notice this, and the song slowly dissolves into giggles – after all, the fact that Seth looks like Jesus is way more interesting than singing Happy Birthday to Pete.
Some of the children exhibit their English – a young boy with five brothers and sisters recites his family lineage in English. A third grader gives thanks in English for the school. Another boy leads the children in song, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” One by one the children stand up to tell their stories:
“I want to be a computer engineer when I grow up. Please, all of you pray for me so that I can be a computer engineer when I grow up.”
A first grader with a life-threatening urinal problem gives thanks for being able to see the doctor: “I praise the Lord that he healed me.”
“Before I joined the school, I was working at a fish market cleaning the fish,” says one 14-year old boy who has moved out of the slum into a hostel. “I was into several addictions. But God has changed my life, and now I am free of addiction. I moved into a hostel and my life has changed. Now I only concentrate on my studies and all my bad habits have gone.”
“I want to be a military person or policeman,” another says. “I will never forget the help I received. From the bottom of my heart, I thank God.”
A young man in his early twenties standing in the back of the room whose life started in the slum gives thanks for being able to now work as a driver.
“Because of the church and the presence of the church, life in the slum is so much better,” he says.
After the program, we walk outside and Seth continues to show us around the slum. He shows us a crude well that serves at the water source, and a new row of biotoilets provided by OneLife. The ground is spotted with solar lanterns, charging in the bright sunlight, to help the residents have light when the sun goes down.
“The children who are in school have to have light by which to do their homework,” he says.
Poverty can be a difficult thing to calculate, depending on the currency and resources of the region. Different countries, for example, have their own poverty line — $20,000-22,000 per year for a household of 2-4 in the U.S. (living on $15/day). India, however, defines poverty as those living on less than $1 USD per day.
Still, the World Bank estimates nearly 13%, or around 896 million people live in poverty worldwide (less than $1.90 per day), meaning one out of every 10 people you meet in the world is in poverty. This is down from a whopping 44% and 1981 and 37% in 1990. UNICEF, in contrast, estimates that at least half the children in the world – 1 billion – live in poverty.
India has 18% of the world’s population and about 20% of the world’s poor. Economic growth of the past two decades has decreased the absolute poverty mark gradually, but life above poverty lines is still fragile. OneLife attempts to combat this, starting with its Khalpar “bridge” schools.
“We started teaching the kids and they were all on different levels,” Seth says, “so we’re bringing them up to their respective learning levels. Then we send them to English medium schools in the cities, so proper schools. Those schools are usually boarding schools, so they go and live there.”
A nutritionist who sets up the feeding programs and monitors the kids’ height and weight, he says. Music and dance are offered for the kids to help establish culture and extracurricular identity. Adult literacy programs are also offered to help the parents read and write, as well as vocational training. For the men, being able to attend driving school helps them get jobs as delivery men, taxi drivers or chauffeurs.
“We also do women’s vocational training,” Seth says. “A lot of the mothers who live here go to beautician school. They’ve taught themselves to sew. They were making $1-2 a day before, but now they’re making $6-7.”
One Life also helps with water and sanitation, bringing clean water to one community and a row of biotoilets to another. A team of doctors provides medical camps and coordinates access to emergency care.
At dinner, that night, Pete tells us about his first trip to India. His first trip to Calcutta was on a blogging trip several years earlier, the point of which was to tour another American ministry in Calcutta and blog about the experience. It was there that he met Piyas and Jaiashree, Indian representatives from the ministry at the time.
“Jaiashree and Piyas took us to show us this project they were doing on their own in Khalpar,” Pete says. “They had their own ministry there on top of their normal job.”
“God spoke in our hearts to come down to this level and do the work here for these people,” Piyas says. “All the rich people were putting food in the dustbin (dumpster). We saw children two and a half years old were taking food from the dustbin. Literally, we started crying.”
“I thought it was so amazing that they’d spend an hour and a half to two hours getting to work, work all day for one ministry, then go volunteer,” Pete says, shaking his head.
Piyas had noticed a slum near the canal where they were worked, but the resources of the ministry were unable to help. Pete’s church began sending financial assistance for the outreach to the slum soon after.
“For us, it is not possible to do the work unless someone is there to fill in the gaps,” Piyas says with tears in his eyes.
Back at the hotel later that night, I plop wearily down on the bed while Melanie showers. Dust has settled into my pores and I feel sure a layer of grime is going to wash off in the shower. Melanie emerges a few minutes later, drying her hair. Now OneLife’s web and graphic design coordinator, Melanie’s first trip to India was as part of a college internship to Delhi.
“Upon returning to the states, I felt compelled to start asking the Lord, ‘Where would you lead me?’ she says. “What do you want me to do?”
“I can relate,” I say, trying to figure out how to plug in an American hairdryer without blowing up the light socket.
“I’d never really thought about India,” she says, “but I started to hear about it a lot. I had a really hard time in Delhi. I had been in places with poverty before in South Africa, driving through slum areas, but I remember going to India and for the first time just having a sense of hopelessness. I think I really even questioned the Lord, “How can you be good and all this be taking place – really being overwhelmed by that and not knowing how to respond.”
After the internship she began thinking about post-college plans. “I started developing a heart for community development,” she says. “I really wanted to be able to use graphic design and use my skill sets in a way that I could help communicate a vision.”
Melanie went to Nashville for spring break and wound up meeting Andy. “I was so pumped about OneLife’s vision,” she says. “What really stood out to me was the partnership with [the community]. It was guided by local leadership, and that was really important to me.”
As a city, Calcutta is most famous in the West for being the home of Mother Teresa’s ministry to the poor during the late 20th century – a stereotype that sometimes frustrates many local residents. Mother Teresa visited the slums of Calcutta for the first time in 1948, vowing to commit herself to the city and help the poorest of the poor. How odd it feels to be walking the same streets nearly 70 years later. The lightness of the West, the heaviness of Calcutta, the uncertainty of where to go or how to be used. The feeling of a weight deep in your soul you feel like you could get to if you could only peel back another layer.
Seth’s words from touring the slum earlier ring in my ears – “We have one life. That’s it, and we’re done. So we’re trying to move people’s lives up in every way.”
And the light that shines from that one statement illuminates just a bit of the fog that has recently been crowding around my heart.