[envira-gallery id=”7977″]During the February half term holiday my wife and I were blessed to visit Reaching the Unreached (RTU) in Tamil Nadu, India. I had heard and read such a lot about the colossal breadth of work undertaken by RTU; the marvel for us was we could see the work in action and the impact that it has, for ourselves. RTU is the charity founded by Brother Lionel (or Brother James as he is known in India) and has been St Peter’s School’s main charity for the last fifty years. Students and families, past and present, will recognise the ‘Brother Lionel Fund’ as the default destination of any spare change, non-uniform day or fundraising money at St Peter’s. The reason for this long-standing association is that many years ago, Brother Lionel taught art at St Peter’s in Bournemouth and when he developed his school for the orphaned and abandoned children in the rural areas of southern India, he named it ‘St Peter’s’, after us.
Brother Lionel was a man of great prayer and spirituality – in order to maintain his levels of hard work and determination, he spent two hours a day in prayer. Brother was also extremely practical and astute. Not only did he see the need for love and rescue, he analysed very accurately the best ways to achieve it. He housed the abandoned children in small family groups, each one led and tended by a house mother. Then he set about educating the children and giving them a future. He also set about trying to ameliorate the effects of poverty in the villages from where the children came, by digging wells for clean water and replacing huts with brick-built homes installed with sanitation. He also loaned cooperatives of women finance, so they could have some capital to produce goods or food for sale and thus become self-sufficient.
Sadly, I never met Brother Lionel – he died last year, but his memory is cherished by all at RTU. The children call him ‘grandad’ still and every evening one of the children will pray that Brother is made a Saint. Thousands of mourners attended his funeral, including local politicians and dignitaries. He was called the male equivalent of Mother Teresa. The balance of his shrewdness, his trust in God’s providence and his integrity has produced the most wonderful example of God’s Kingdom on earth I have ever seen and a perfect example of all that John Baptist De La Salle taught. RTU now extends over a wide area, providing education in four schools, health care, education for adults in the villages, ‘pensions’ for the elderly and even support for education in the government schools.
Being in St Peter’s meant a great deal to me. Seeing signs on the classrooms we helped fund, thanking the ‘Students of St Peter’s School Bournemouth’ was a moving experience. We attended assemblies, sports day, a food festival and we toured the school visiting classrooms. In the evenings we visited some of the homes and ate with the children. We also attended a special show to celebrate the 5th anniversary of one of the hostels for the older girls who will be leaving the equivalent of ‘Sixth form’ after their exams. It was a vibrant mixture of colour, dance and music, with contributions from students of all ages, including the reception-age children. RTU has its own anthem and a marching band, their sports day operated with the children grouped in houses, they began with an opening ceremony and an Olympic-style torch. They award prizes regularly to celebrate the children’s achievements.
Despite all the hardship and deprivation, what struck us more than anything was the hope that RTU provides. The opportunities afforded those regarded as the least in society, are providing them with real redemption. The children are happy to be part of St Peter’s and RTU and they are proud of their community and the staff who care for them. The staff are exceptionally dedicated. A teacher at St Peter’s has a tenth of the salary that a teacher in a government school receives. Their hours are long and their school year extends for weeks beyond that of any local school.
RTU is now led by Father Antony, a Franciscan priest who, when a boy, was one of the first children that Brother Lionel rescued. He is ably assisted by a great team of caring professionals who understand exactly what will make a difference to the lives of these young people. Tamil Nadu has a small Christian population and many of the children are Catholic, a few are Muslim, but the majority are Hindu. They come together for prayer in the Children’s Villages, which consists of a mixture of Christian and Hindu scripture. In amongst the Tamil spoken at prayers I also made out the response we often say at school. In English those who were gathered chanted, “Live Jesus in our hearts, forever!”. De La Salle said that our role as educators was to win and to touch hearts. We saw that in abundance.
David Todd, March 2018