Richard Lees introduces his work at the Anglican Centre in Goa
“You don’t have to be a Christian to be a good person”, the man on the train declares. “Too right”, his wife adds, “and anyway we’ve had enough of you Bible bashers”. As usual, I try to look polite and interested while pretending that these views are new to me; but I am sure that anyone else involved in Christian charity work will know that they are not. While the point may be repetitive, it does remind us of some very important questions. What is Christian charity? What part does it play in the Christian life? How overtly Christian should our charitable work be?
My call to charity work in India goes back more than a decade to my early visits as a backpacker. India is a country that never fails to amaze the traveller with its extremes: natural beauty, architectural wonders, and an ancient and wonderfully hospitable culture contrast with grinding poverty, desperation, and a very un-English presence of death not far below the surface of happy life. India puts you on the spot and demands a reaction.
In visiting churches and talking about the work of the Goa Anglican Centre I was called recently to preach on Acts 9.36-43, where St Peter brings the deceased Tabitha back to life. In Acts, we see Peter and his friends faced with the same stark realities that I see so often in India. How they must have wished for Our Lord’s physical presence with them so that they could stand aside and watch Him heal and work miracles – for them and for us in our day, there is the reality that the Holy Spirit works in and through us but it is we who are bodily put on the spot. The healing and saving work of Christ will happen only through us. When I am asked what it means to be a Christian charity I find myself answering that we follow the example of Peter: we respond to the horrors that exist around us, as he did, by kneeling down and praying.
In my experience, praying and asking what to do is highly risky because it carries with it the likelihood of an answer. Ours came in the form of a string of coincidences and chance meetings with local charity leaders in Goa, who work day and night with people in desperate need. In a country that has a very limited welfare system, it is always possible to manage if you can work. Charities are needed most for those who are too ill to work, the elderly, young children who have no relatives, and those who suffer with addictions or debt. For these people life is almost impossible and without help many will resort to despair or crime. Goa is a tourist state, and that brings with it the added problems of sex work and the drugs trade.
The result of much discussion and prayer was the founding of the Goa Anglican Centre. From the outset we had three main objectives:
– To learn about and pray for the work of local charities in Goa
– To support volunteers from the UK wishing to spend placements of several months working with Goan charities
– To provide a centre of prayer and retreat in Goa as a contribution to the wider Anglican Communion and to continue to ensure that our work is based on the strong foundation of prayer and the sacraments
In the six years of our existence as a UK registered charity we have enjoyed many blessings. We have never had an advertising budget, yet we have grown slowly and organically as God has called more and more people to be involved with what we do; and every year several volunteers have spent months at a time working in very challenging situations in Goa. The majority of those who spend time with us pay all their own costs, and the placements are organised through our company, Volunteering Goa.
The volunteers spend several months in Goa, living individually or in pairs in local charities. These are mostly orphanages and children’s homes, and they live alongside children whose parents are in prison, dying, or working in crime. Volunteers get involved with everything from helping with homework to washing the dishes, sports training to teaching, days out to scrubbing floors. One volunteer had this to say about her time with us:
When I think back to my time spent in Goa, it was the best four months I could have imagined. Volunteering, travelling, meeting new people in one of the most colourful and vibrant places on earth – it was an experience second to none. My time with Volunteering Goa led me to volunteer for Mother Teresa’s Roses, a charity that supports many vulnerable people all over India. I had the privilege of working in Quepem Boys’ Home, where my help with teaching, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and general support of the children and staff was greatly needed. It was extremely humbling to see how a little time, effort, and money could make such a huge impact on the lives of others. However clichéd it may sound, my time in India did change my life. I now regularly remind myself of how fortunate I am to have my education, healthcare, family, and friends; and how lucky I was to experience the food, climate, art, dance, music and culture of India while improving the lives of others.
Charities in Goa typically struggle with numbers of staff and with skills. It is not uncommon for two or three people to look after fifty children, around the clock, for several years without a break. For the staff and for those incredibly vulnerable young people, the effect of volunteers giving their time and love is impossible to overestimate. The miracles of our day may not be as dramatic as those recorded in the Acts of the Apostles; but when I visit the orphanages that our volunteers work in and witness the pride and joy on the faces of children who have seen for the first time that someone loves them, I am aware that Our Lord even in these days uses us, fallible and fragile as we are, to bring those on the edge of death back to life.
Richard Lees is Development Officer of the Anglican Centre in Goa.
There are many ways to support the Anglican Centre in Goa. All prayer is a huge blessing; but if you would like to join those who pray the Rosary regularly for our intentions, please contact us through our website: www.goaanglicancentre.org. There are also groups who meet regularly to discuss our work and pray together for us. Contact us for details of your local group or, if there isn’t one in your area, perhaps you start one in your church. As a charity we do very little fundraising, but we do seek to provide support for very dedicated volunteers who are not able to travel to Goa for financial reasons. We have a regular-giving scheme, and of course welcome one-off donations also. Lastly, why not think about volunteering with us? Spending time in Goa is a truly life changing experience and you will surely not regret it. If you or anyone you know can offer this wonderful gift of time, visit www.volunteering-goa.com for more details of the programmes we offer and how to register.