Responding Effectively to the Relief and Rehabilitation of Flood Affected
The Meaning and Value of the Feast of St. Francis in Kerala
Lord, make us instruments of your peace…
August 16, 2018. It was another rainy morning at Kolbe Franciscan Ashram (Friary) in Kerala, India. For weeks the Conventual Friars of the St. Maximilian Kolbe Province had watched torrential rainfall pound the area and tried to help their neighbors as the rising water destroyed the homes and lives all around them.
The Mass had ended and the Friars in the Ashram left the Chapel to begin their day. At that moment, a truck drove up with nearly 30 people crammed inside, the driver thinking the Ashram might be a relief camp.
Young women with babies in their arms and holding children by their hands; elderly women clutching a few possessions – all of them soaked and shivering, with the same look of anguish on their faces. The Friars invited them in and gladly shared their breakfast with them.
But they weren’t prepared for what happened next. The trucks kept coming, bringing more and more people. Over the following 48 hours, nearly 800 people filled the Ashram. Guest rooms and most of the individual rooms of the friars were converted into rooms for those who needed special care – the sick, the elderly, the mothers with babies and small children and pregnant women. Everyone else shared whatever space they could find in the classrooms, the auditorium, recreation areas and hallways.
The rain kept falling and the flood waters continued to rise, and the Ashram became like the center of an island, the entire surroundings now submerged. Electricity and phone service was cut off. Women and children were placed on the third floor. Since there was no running water, Friars and Postulants carried buckets of water up the stairs to be used for bathing and toilet. The friars spent all their time and energy in conversing with the people consoling and comforting to come out of the great fear and anxiety the people were undergoing. It took two full days to bring the people to come out of the trauma and slowly the healthy men and women extended their helping hands to the friars in running the relief camp.
The roads were impassable, so the food supply became a concern after three or four days. Even so, the Friars continued to find means to cook for their guests by finding edibles like tapioca, plantains and other vegetables from our field and that of the neighbors. Every now and then, to strengthen their confidence in handling the perilous conditions, with full trust in the Lord, the Friars lifted their eyes to the huge statue of Jesus with His hands extended on top of the Ashram.
After several days, the water began to recede and food and other essential supplies reached the Ashram. Helicopters delivered bags of rice, packets of bread and biscuits and other groceries – there was now more food to share. From the very first days, the people from the neighborhood started to bring used, but clean, clothing so the guests could change their clothes. Medicine was available for the sick. An old generator of the friary, supplied electricity to operate the motor to pump the drinking water from the bore well and the Friars collected and stored rainwater for other purpose. Hope and relief began to replace fear and anxiety on the faces of our guests.
As the waters receded farther, those who had found shelter were able to begin returning to see what was left of their homes. A farewell meeting was held on August 24. Each person left with a relief kit filled with necessary supplies and words of encouragement from the Friars.
The same thing had happened all across Kerala. Each Province Friary opened its doors to the displaced people. The Friars cut their food rations in half to share with those in need. Any extra clothing was passed on to those with nothing else to wear.
Muslims, Hindus, and Christians had all shared one roof, eaten meals together, and consoled one another. In these days of crisis, all had experienced the universal brotherhood and shared the peace St. Francis of Assisi asked his followers to work toward.
This was obviously no ordinary monsoon. Beginning in July the heavy rain fell for weeks. By the time it started to subside after the middle of August, much of the state of Kerala, stretching along the southwest coast of India, was destroyed.
Each of Kerala’s 14 Districts was placed on red alert. For the first time in history, nearly all of the state’s dams were opened at the same time. At Idukki Dam, the largest, all five overflow gates were opened, the first time that’s happened in 26 years. In the hilly districts, the heavy rains caused severe mudslides, wiping out roads and leaving the areas isolated.
Now nearly 400 people are known dead. Some have never been found. And at least 1 million people were evacuated from their homes. For many of the survivors, there is nothing left to return to. Their houses and possessions are gone. Even where the structures, or parts of them, still stand, many are filled with mud and debris. In the others, saturated walls and floors are mottled with mold and mildew.
Where there is despair, hope…
We have designed a four-stage continuing relief effort:
The first stage is a continuation of what happened at Kolbe Franciscan Ashram and the other Friaries: providing immediate emergency assistance to the flood’s victims. That includes food, clothing, medicine, and other essentials. Accommodations may still be provided on an as-needed basis.
In the second stage, as the guests return to their homes, the Friars accompany them. The seminarians of the Province (about 150 in total), along with the Friar-Priests, have worked all day for several days helping to clean and restore whatever can be salvaged. They have worked in Churches, Convents, Schools, Collages, Homes for the destitute and in individual houses, pumping out the mud and debris and attempting to scrub away the mildew. But the work has been hampered by the arrival of unwelcome guests: several species of dangerous animals and reptiles, including very poisonous snakes.
Yet every day the Friars return to work in the stricken neighborhoods, bringing with them some essentials to share with the people. They will continue helping the people with both financial assistance and home repair for as long as they have funds available.
The third stage is to help the people transition back to normal lives, as much as is possible. The Friars will attempt to do that in two ways.
Working with a US-based nonprofit organization, we found a way to provide clean water to families. Water With Blessings is an organization based in Louisville, Kentucky, in USA, where several of our friars reside. They distribute Sawer PointONE water filters that removes 99.99999% of all bio hazards; removing E coli, leptospirosis, typhoid and cholera as well as nearly every other bio hazard.
As we received the filters for a reduced price, we were able to distribute 240 water filters to the affected people, each system enabling a local woman to provide drinking and cooking water for her own family and nine other families around her. We are expecting to have 250 more filters soon. Our goal is to distribute 1000 filters providing clean drinking water to at least 10,000 families.
One of the Friars who works in the US, Fr. John Pozhathuparambil OFM Conv. and another volunteer Carol Masters have been trained to use the filters and both of them travelled all the way from USA to India to train others. The process of using the filters is now being taught to local women by the Friars and local women religious from various communities, and clean water is becoming more available each day. Also, Province will provide at least two sets of new clothing for around 500 students of a women’s college, depending on how long the funds last.
The final stage is to organize medical camps and to have Friar-Priests available for counseling and support. When possible, the Province will work with local hospitals and health professionals to provide physical treatment and psychological counseling. Also depending on the funds available, we will help the people to repair their homes and provide them something with which, they could earn something for their daily bread.
Plans are in place to continue to reach out to more people in the areas that were affected by flooding. All people in need are included… nothing is done based on any religious beliefs or social background. All these days, all the friars and students are committed to be witnesses of selfless love and compassion to all people they come in contact with. There is no harshness or raised voices in their dealings… they maintain a peaceful atmosphere… they give to all in need whatever they have without ever asking of what faith they are from. The friars truly live out in their daily lives the Franciscan way of life and share our Franciscan values with everyone they meet.
For it is in giving that we receive…
In 1980, Friars from Malta arrived in Kerala to plant the seed of Conventual Franciscan Life. Since then the Franciscan presence has grown, with branches spreading now into five different states with hundreds of Indian-born Friars. But the presence is strongest at the roots, in Kerala, and the Friars here were prepared to heal the wounds the floods inflicted, repair what had been broken, and provide shelter and relief for those with nowhere else to go.
This is a testament to the value of the Franciscan charism in our world today, not only in times of crisis. In our poverty, the Friars are happy to share the little they have with the poorest people and those who find themselves on the margins of society. Pope Francis wrote in his letter “Economy at the Service of Charism and Mission” that:
One does not only give things to the poor. It is necessary to share with them; even better to restore what belongs to them.
Following the instructions of both the Holy Father Pope Francis and our Order’s Father, St. Francis of Assisi, the Friars gave their space to the poor, shared what they had, and tried to be instruments of God’s compassion toward them. We continue doing our best to restore those we serve to their previous existence, living the spirituality of restitution where we continue to give freely whatever has been given to us.
As the Minister Provincial of St. Maximilian Kolbe Province, India, in the above words, I just wanted to share with you how our friars responded effectively to the relief and rehabilitation of flood affected people of Kerala, especially, the ones in the surrounding areas of our Friaries. We thank God for the gift of enabling us living a charitable life, one that forces us to see the needs of others. In order to fulfill those needs, we choose to be happy with the little we have, depending instead on our encounter with God the Creator as we serve all of his creatures. I am grateful that God chose us, the members of St. Maximilian Kolbe Province, India, to be Instruments of Peace, Love, Pardon, Faith, Hope, Light and Joy among the people around us and the people of Kerala in their need. I think this is the best way to celebrate the Feast of our Father and Founder St. Francis.
Friar Leo Payyappilly OFM Conv.
Minister Provincial, SMK Province, India