response: Nov./Dec. 2021

A Legacy of Love

United Methodist Women emergency grants and historic endowments 
aid partners in India during the worst of times for COVID-19.

A Legacy of Love
Mrs. Papathi receives an emergency aid packet from G. Manamohan, president of Pasumai Ulagam, at the organization’s office in Erode, India.

In the late spring and early summer of 2021, as more highly contagious variants of COVID-19 took hold around the world, the toll appeared to be highest in India, where total deaths numbered 4,000 daily. The number of positive cases? Exceeding 20 million. Officials, in fact, say these numbers are underreported. 

The reasons for India’s devastation by COVID-19 are as varied as this vast country. Many United Methodist Women partners attribute the public health emergency to the loosening of adherence to public health measures, the low rates of inoculations, the exportation of too large a number of vaccines, the virulence of the delta variant (first detected in India) and the government’s drive to only provide for citizens with documentation. All factors combined to marginalize migrants and rural communities, and, as in any health emergency, leave the women and children most vulnerable. 

United Methodist Women quickly partnered with many long-term community, hospital and educational centers in India, stepping up their efforts to fill the gaps. By supporting women and children in underserved communities until India bent and flattened the curve of new cases, United Methodist Women used Mission Giving resources and long-standing endowments to answer the need. In so doing, the worldwide community began to witness a lessening of these global health crises.

Legacy of love

Educator Isabella Thoburn and Doctor Clara Swain were the first missionaries sent into the world by the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In a March 1886 issue of The Heathen Woman’s Friend, the magazine that would eventually become response, Thoburn wrote, “The need of India today is leadership from among her own people. … Part of our work as missionaries is to educate and train the character that can lead, and it is to accomplish this that we formed our first woman’s college in the Eastern world.”

Thoburn traveled to India 152 years ago. Her mission was to empower women through education, and her traveling companion Swain’s mission was to establish health clinics. The two began a connection between the United States and India that continues to this day. 

Begun in 1870, Thoburn’s one-room schoolhouse with six girls in the Lucknow bazaar developed into a boarding school, then a high school and eventually Lucknow Woman’s College. The giving that supported the women missionaries in 1869 is the same giving that provides emergency relief and emboldens women leaders in 2021. 

After all, some of the early endowments, earmarked for supporting Bible Women, support regional missionary work today. 

“What was the work of the Bible Women?” asked Betty Gittens, United Methodist Women’s executive for international work. “Literacy, health and education. The regional missionaries continue that work today through developing local leaders.”

United Methodist Women currently supports seven regional missionaries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“This was the first legacy fund—we’re carrying on the women’s legacy,” said United Methodist Women’s Assistant Treasurer for Mission Funding Amanda Choi, who reported that the initial gifts were quite small. Today, those gifts in endowments exceed $1 million. 

Over the past year, emergency grants have been disbursed to dozens of partners around the world. 

“We live in a global society; we impact one another,” Choi said. Specifically, the longtime medical partners in India such as Vellore Christian Medical College and Ellen Thoburn Cowen School and College of Nursing, and community partners such as Centre for Action and Rural Education as well as Imayam Social Welfare Association have impacted the scourge of COVID-19. 

The singing of hymns 

Deepika Srivastava, church relations, Vellore Christian Medical College Foundation, was born at the medical college. As a 6-year-old girl at Christmastime, Srivastava accompanied her uncle, a student at the college, in visiting a nearby village, as part of a commitment of training medical doctors, nurses and students that continues today. Traveling with the nurses, hearing them offer care, she also heard the nurses singing. 

“They were sharing hymns, messages of love.” To this day, at the college hospital, “you will hear the nurses singing hymns.” 

Srivastava learned of another sign of the hospital’s Christian witness and comfort in 2019, when her young-adult son traveled to the hospital. What impressed him most was “the chapel filled with people praying, kneeling.” As people enter the hospital, and at all the hospital’s clinics, the first thing they encounter is the sanctuary. 

“Jesus is being shared through Bible passages, Scripture. That is such a consolation,” Srivastava says. 

In a country where 2 percent of the people describe themselves as Christian, according to Srivastava, 90 percent of the doctors at Vellore Christian Medical College are Christian. Prospective medical personnel are admitted to this competitive college based partially on their passion for service. Many doctors go on to serve in national positions of prominence. For example, when the Supreme Court of India convened a 12-member national task force of medical experts to combat COVID-19, Dr. J.V. Peter, director of CMC, and Dr. Gagandeep Kang, professor, prominent microbiologist and virologist at CMC, were part of that team to respond to the pandemic, allocating lifesaving oxygen supplies justly throughout India. 

 COVID emergency grants to CMC from United Methodist Women joined with other churches and faith groups’ gifts to create and purchase two pods of 12 ICU beds, two oxygen generators and thousands of N-95 masks, in addition to offering testing kits and dispensing vaccines. The next goal of the hospital, with the help of international partners, is to establish a maternity and emergency obstetric and neonatal care hospital in Jawadhi Hills, a region needing higher quality maternal and neonatal care. The hospital aims to reverse the low childhood immunization rates and the unsafe birthing conditions.

Caring with love 

Another hospital receiving COVID emergency grants in India from United Methodist Women was Ellen Thoburn Cowen Memorial Hospital Nursing School in Kolar, India. Named for the missionary sister of Isabella Thoburn, the present-day motto at the nursing school is “Caring for others with love.” United Methodist Women has supported scholarships for hundreds of nursing students at ETCM over the more than 100 years of sisterhood. 

Of her time at ETCM, one present-day scholar, Aruldoss Durgadevi, said, “I have learned caring for others with love and sharing.” Another scholar, Sindhu Jayaraman, agreed, “I have gained the knowledge of what it is to be on a team and working together.” Another scholar received her admission to the school after her spouse’s suicide, but the fee of 400,000 rupees (approximately $5,400) was beyond her ability to pay. Through United Methodist Women, she received a full scholarship. Since graduating, she has gone on to support her family as a nurse in Mumbai. 

According to the president of ETCM, Rosemary Olagundi, the COVID emergency grant from United Methodist Women was used to set up the prevention and preparedness of the supervised quarantine center at the school. The funds also provided much-needed support for nursing students to train community members on how to prevent the virus.

Just as the missionaries more than 100 years ago traveled to rural communities to spread the message of health and literacy, not simply waiting for the sick to arrive at the doorstep, so too have the medical teams and relief programs United Methodist Women funds traveled to impoverished communities with education and hope. 

Confidence with care 

According to Charles Prabhu, director of the Centre for Action and Rural Education in an impoverished region of Southern India, “The communities we work with have a firm confidence in us that we would be there for them when they are in dire need. This feeling of confidence gives them moral and psychological strength to face any situation to the maximum extent with their own efforts. They approach us only when it is beyond their ability to manage. The emergency grant from United Methodist Women is helping people develop endurance.”

In the Tamil Nadu region, CARE workers deliver food packages to migrant families employed in the textile and construction businesses. Many of the workers, undocumented, are unable to collect national assistance. Due to COVID-19 quarantine requirements in India, the migrants lack access to food, money or work. While CARE provides counseling and job training to migrant men and women, the food to 500 households from 10 settlements is desperately needed to fight hunger.

 One such household was headed by Rosa, a 45-year-old widow, unable to work due to a heart ailment. Food was becoming scarce in Vaikkalmedu, a village in Chennipalayam Paanchayat. Rosa’s mother and daughter were unable to contribute their usual finances as their work in the fields was shut down. The family was beginning to suffer, subsisting on only a small amount of rice supplied by the government. 

According to Prabhu, “When we provided the food package, Rosa and her family were able to cook tasty meals and enjoy an enriched diet, which improved their health overall. With improved health conditions and the onset of monsoons, Rosa’s mother and her daughter were able to find work that helped them to maintain better nutritional standards in the family. This has helped Rosa, and she is able to work again. Soon her son will complete college and will start working, which will enhance the family income. The whole family is grateful to United Methodist Women and CARE for helping them understand and experience how nutritious food can improve the quality of life and maintain that quality through work.”

Real support

“Everything was shut down,” said Chandran Nair, former executive at United Methodist Women, who was forced to quarantine in India after traveling for a family celebration in the spring. “We were not allowed to go out, confined to homes except to buy groceries and medicines. Police were everywhere, checking to make sure we were going out for our stated purposes. If you violated the laws, there’d be fines and compliance. There was no financial assistance. People struggled a lot.” 

That’s when United Methodist Women stepped in to offer short-term aid to the partner Imayam Social Welfare Association, supporting women and children in the city of Chennai (previously called Madras) in the state of Tamil Nadu. 

“The families don’t have Zoom. Most of the people in need are unable to read,” explained Nair. Imayam, a community safety net, began traveling to the people in need of psychosocial counseling, talking about mental health and nutrition and offering comfort and food. The Imayam counselors heard from many garment workers who were angry and hungry. They were impoverished when the companies for whom they worked reneged on their offers of humanitarian and food aid. The companies required their employees to pay them back for meals offered for free. 

Indeed, the factories had experienced drastic income declines due to low economic demands for garments. Companies faced worker shortages due to the departure of migrant workers, the population’s decimation by COVID-19 and workers’ enforced quarantines. The workers, poor at the onset of the lockdowns, had no funds to pay their companies back for food. Instead, many workers sought to start their own small garment enterprises. 

When the second wave of COVID-19 hit, “like a tsunami,” said Nair, Pasumai Ulagam, another community relief program for garment workers, refugees and migrants, used United Methodist Women emergency relief funds to provide dry goods, masks and sanitary items. They also offered information to migrants on how to protect themselves from COVID-19.

“People were really hungry. It was not only the garment workers—many people in need had worked in hotels, shops, agriculture and as small-scale vendors. The grant from United Methodist Women really helped. They’re still distributing food today,” Nair said.

A legacy for tomorrow 

When those first women missionaries set sail more than 150 years ago, they hoped to improve lives through schools, clinics and leadership opportunities for women and girls in India. They hoped to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who sought to educate and heal and change hearts. The good work of the medical and educational institutions begun with small donations continues to ripple forth for the greater good today. 

“Once religion was saving one’s soul,” said Margaret Ross Miller, leader in the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society and Woman’s Society of Christian Service who served on the Central Committee on the United Study of Foreign Missions, in 1935. “Now we know that it is responsibility for all, and that religion means the abolition of war, the end of social injustice, the banishment of ignorance and the cure of human greed.” 

United Methodist Women lives out the vision of early Methodist missionaries and leaders such as Isabella Thoburn and Margaret Ross Miller. Funds given by U.S. United Methodist Women members to advocate for Christianity today inspire confidence in women and girls and improve communities. 

When marginalized people—be they unemployed workers, migrants or widows—are in need, through longstanding endowments and sisterhood, United Methodist Women sisters fan out, supporting the global family, working together to lessen the global suffering. Sometimes they even sing hymns while doing so.   

Mary Beth Coudal is a writer and teacher in New York City.

Posted or updated: 11/2/2021 12:00:00 AM

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* Tara Barnes: Editor