Don Graham reports:
BIHAR STATE, India (BP) — Ajay Kumar stands straight as a rod in a line of green-sweatered boys during a school presentation near Katihar, India. The show is serious business, complete with singing and an audience of honored American guests.
But when the teacher calls Ajay’s name, the 9-year-old’s solemn face slips into a wide, infectious grin. This is his moment, and he knows it. Ajay steps forward, takes a deep breath and begins his monologue.
“When I was at home, there was no one to love me,” he says. “Both of my parents remarried and abandoned me. So our village used me to look after their dogs and buffaloes.”
These aren’t lines from a play — it’s real life. Ajay is an orphan. His “school” is Compassion Children’s Home, an orphanage run by his teacher/foster father/orphanage director, Mukesh Soren. The visiting Americans are a volunteer team from The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., led by Summit’s worship leader and Christian recording artist, Matt Papa.
Papa’s untamed shock of red hair, scruffy beard and bright blue eyes stand out among the jet-black locks of the presentation’s largely Indian audience. But Papa doesn’t mind the extra attention, especially from the orphans. Indeed, he’s traveled halfway around the world because these are his children.
Three years ago, Papa helped Mukesh and his wife, Jasmine, start the orphanage, which is now part of OneLife’s “One Orphanage” project. It’s Papa’s job to drum up support for the orphanage by raising awareness, money and recruiting student volunteers. He knows the need is dire.
India is the world’s second-largest country, home to more than 1.2 billion people. More than 31 million of them are orphans, according to UNICEF.
“The thing that has always struck me about India is the combination and culmination of spiritual and physical poverty,” Papa says. “A lot of these children are condemned forever to beg for money. That’s all they can do and that is all they will ever be able to do.”
Most of the orphans share similar stories. Besides being forced to beg, many, like Ajay, were treated as virtual slaves by neighbors or relatives, paid only with enough food to keep them alive. Few knew how to read or write; most had no education at all.
“There is no one to hug them. There is no one to show them the right direction,” Mukesh says. “And in India, at the age of 6 or 7 years old, they use drugs. They drink alcohol. And they spoil their lives.”
As the presentation continues, Papa listens intently to the orphans’ testimonies, his face full of compassion. Some of their backgrounds he knows; others he’s hearing for the first time.
“Jai Masih ki (praise to the Messiah),” begins Sabita Kumar, 11, whose beautiful brown eyes sparkle with life. “I have no mother. When I was a small girl my father left us because of a mental problem,” she says. What Sabita doesn’t explain, Mukesh later tells Papa, is that the child’s father “went mad” and attempted to murder Sabita and her brother and sister.
“My life was totally insane,” Sabita says. “I had to feed myself … so my aunt forced me to sell alcohol.
“[But] when I came here there was new hope for me,” she explains. Sabita suddenly had clean clothes and good food to eat. She quit selling alcohol and began going to school. “At that time I did not know a single letter,” she admits. Sabita can now read and write. Above all, she finally has a family that loves her. “They are my parents,” she says of Mukesh and Jasmine. Her fellow orphans are “my sisters and brothers.”
… Late in the afternoon, the Summit team heads to the field to play soccer with the children. They don’t stop until dark. And all too soon, it’s time to say goodbye. Papa hugs the children, tells them he loves them and is proud of them.
“We’re a vapor. We have got 60 or 70 some years on this planet, and we never get another chance, ever. That’s it. And I don’t want to waste it,” he says. “Here and now, what I have to do is leverage my life. Leverage my gifts, my music, for the sake of this place right here, for the sake of these children. … That’s why I’m here.”