“O Jesus, Why You Cry?”: Invisible Refugees of Our Land

Luke 19: 41-44
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying,“Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
Message
In my final year in Seminary, I was assigned Ebenezer Mar Thoma Church, Valankara for my practical assignment. When I was preaching, I saw 5 boys entering the church. I could make out they were labourers and did not follow Malayalam. So to ensure they too understood my sermon, I started to mix Malayalam with Hindi for the benefit of these boys who would barely be 19 or 20 years. After the Church was over, 4 of them left while one boy remained and I caught hold of him. He introduced himself as Ranjit and he had a very heavy Bengali accent to his Hindi. I asked him “Are you from Kolkata” to which he said, “No, Durgapur”. I was curious to know why Ranjit was here in Kerala. To which he replied, “My father died working in a construction site in Bokaro. He left back a huge amount of debt. One of my village friend was working in Kerala. Therefore, after 12th exam I boarded the train to Kerala. I have joined B.A. in a college where attendance is not compulsory. Every march I go and give exam. Last year, I could not afford to go.” Then how did he come to the church. “We go to a Roman Catholic Church. My mother was very insistent that I should go to a nearby church every Sunday, and this was the most nearby church that I could find.”
The passage in front of us is immediately after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. With all the cheering, praises, celebrations and music, the melancholic twist to the story now we have in the passage is shocking to say the least. Jesus on the cross shows his helplessness in his cry “My God My God, why have you forsaken me”. As it was from Psalms 22, some say, it could be Jesus chanting this Psalm on the Cross which was a Jewish practice. So in the deepest of pains when Jesus does not cry on the Cross, it is heartening to know he weeps looking at Jerusalem, a place which is devoid of peace and justice. 33 Ad is when Jesus saw Jerusalem and wept over it. Jerusalem was a place of religious arrogance, bigotry, ethnic pride, crushing of poor, gross injustice. Jerusalem means Shalom, peace, wholeness, but the city was fragmented and fractured and in huge turmoil. History says that 70 AD Romans ransacked Jerusalem and completely destroyed it. The message of Jesus’ Kingdom of God, Salvation, loving enemies, loving neighbours, God who embraces everyone was thrown to the wind. While people all over the place were rejoicing and dancing, Jesus could see and hear what others refused to see. The utter inhuman city that Jerusalem had turned out to be. I am a person who finds tears very uncomfortable. My mother used to cry and pray when she especially prayed for me. I found that very stupid and kept telling my mother, “Ithrem enthu karayan ulle” (What is there so much to cry). I guess only a parent would understand that. So to understand Jesus’ tears, the picture is that of a very concerned parent over the children he loves. While most of us in our sermons and thoughts focus much on the physical pain on the cross. “Passion of Christ” a Hollywood movie by Mel Gibson is a hit with everyone as it shows the gory extreme of the physical abuse. But the passion of Christ is the pain that he finds fit to weep over. In our spaces, do we share his tears? As his disciples, are we moved to compassion what disturbs and moves us?
Along with many of my friends, I too was disturbed at the many images that emerged in the huge refugee crisis in Europe and how desperate people were and how the dead body of a Aylan Kurdi, a 4 year old Syrian boy, caught our imagination. There were many sermons and poems written about it. But the larger question is, does that fall in our sphere of influence? Such global issues are very important, but it should trigger to the question, what can I do in my sphere of influence in a similar problem. Now here is my struggle. I have lived in Kerala for 4 years in Seminary. 3 Years I Lived in Northeast of India, basically in Guwahati. The power centres of the Mar Thoma Church that I belong to, is in Kerala. When I first travelled from Guwahati to Kerala by train, a 64 hours long journey if your train is on time, I was just bothered of how boring this journey would be. So after a day of sleeping, eating and talking, despite my wife discouraging, I took a trip to the nearby compartments, just to kill the time. From A.C. compartment, I entered into the Sleeper Compartment and I could not believe my eyes. Till the toilet, this compartment was filled. I thought it was the unreserved compartment. It was not. I asked the Ticket Collector, how many were there in the compartment and he said, roughly 400. In a 72 berth compartment, you had 400 people crammed together. I had enough and I came back to the comfort of A.C. compartment and ordered food. The waiter of the pantry said The man of the pantry told me “Sir that food is not for people like you. It is not cooked that well. We give it to the labourers in the sleeper compartment. Why don’t you order something different?” I was shocked at the gross distinction that was being made of humans. It is then I realized that the people in the sleeper compartment was filled with labourers who out of desperation leave their homeland and find work in Kerala where the labour charge is twice as much as in Assam or Bengal. Now please consider some statistics to get the enormity of the problem. A study conducted by Gulati Institute of Finance and Centre for Development Studies (C.D.S), Trivandrum estimate that the labourers from West Bengal, Bihar and Assam total upto 35 lakhs in Kerala even though the Government sources estimate it to 20 Lakhs of people. The age group of the labourers is roughly 16-30 on an average. In the year annually the arrival rate of these labourers was 2.5 lakhs which now has increased to 4 lakhs roughly. The reason for this huge exodus is the boom in the construction of flats in Kerala for the last 15 years. So, a good number is involved in construction sites and some are employed in hotels. Now it is observed that there are some who have lived for 15 years in Kerala and whop alos know Malayalam, but do not have a bank account, or any other facilities which a citizen is entitled to. They live in inhuman conditions in dingy places. Places where only 7 to 8 people can maximum live, 30 to 40 people live together. They live a completely dehumanized life. What is interesting is, a very labour law aware state like Kerala is totally blind to the plight of these people who are living like refugees. There is no one to voice their plight or to highlight their woes. The only narrative thjat is heard everywhere is “Because of these Bengalis and Biharis, there is crime and degradation everywhere in Kerala.” The irony is, there are many labour camps that Malayalees live in, in Dubai, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, etc. There are many protests and cries that highlight the plight and angst of these malayalees in the “Gulf”, but the humans in the backyard from Assam, Bengal and Bihar are just a nuisance. The Mar Thoma Church has many mission fields all over India. There is a lot of appeal for working in other states and opening new mission field. I am only happy about it. But what is the mission of the Church to the 35 lakhs labourers? People who are living a dehumanized life with no proper housing, hygiene or dignity. I am sure Jesus is weeping at our insensitivity where we have abandoned the agenda of Justice and Peace, the Kingdom Values. Jesus is deeply moved and cries a river of compassion on the plight of his children who are having unparalleled suffering. As Church is the Body of Christ, are we pained by what drove Jesus to tears? Are we as individuals moved to action?
Let me introduce you to my friend Abraham P Kurien (Biju), who is a member of Ebenezer Mar Thoma Church, Vikaspuri. Biju has undertaken a Day Care /Retirement home for the aged called Abraham’s OOR in Mallapally, Kerala. The construction he has undertaken is done from 90% scrap of old buildings and the principle is to concentrate on simple aesthetics rather than the gory concrete constructions. There are many labourers from Assam, Bengal and Bihar who are engaged in the construction of his project. After being exposed to the realities of his labourers where they have no savings even after 13 years in Kerala and having dingy living conditions, he along with like minded friends of his has undertaken to do something about the construction workers’ condition. He has started to get Aadhar Cards for them which help them to get a bank account. They undertake to equip a labourer to be a sub contractor and a sub contractor to be contractor. He said “Every month along with the construction workers and my age parents, we cook together. We have a lot of fun and exchange and eat together where we feel like a big family. Initially it was not easy for us to associate with them and they too kept the distance. But the model of Jesus in dining together breaks many barriers and prejudices.”
When Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God said to Moses “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.”(Exodus 3: 7). We have a God who sees the misery and hears the cries of these labourers and a Saviour who weeps over their plight. Are we moved by the tears of our Lord?
P.S. To know more about Abraham P Kurien’s unique project for the aged Abraham’s OOR please log on to www.abrahamsoor.com. The statistics provided in this meditation is provided by Abraham in our telephonic conversation as he did his research to do something more concrete about it. He yearns to collaborate with like minded people to do something concrete about the Invisible Refugees
Rev Merin Mathew
Bethel Mar Thoma Church
Kolar Road, Bhopal

Kerala Labourers

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