CHENNAI, India--While many Christians from America and elsewhere have responded generously with gifts to relief efforts since the Dec. 26 tsunami, how many would borrow money for victims without knowing how they would be able to repay the loan?
It's par for the course for one young Indian woman, whom one international Baptist leader describes as "the closest thing we [Baptists] have to Mother Teresa."
"I took a loan from my father to buy food," Leena Lavanya Garnepudi, head of Serve Trust, told EthicsDaily.com. She said she was the first person to reach four Indian villages with rice and lentils.
The family loan was not from rainy-day funds that could be repaid over time. Rather, it was money set aside for her sister's dowry. According to custom, her sister's wedding could not have gone forward without the money, part of a formal agreement between the bride's and groom's parents in order for the bride to be taken in marriage.
A week after her sister's wedding, Leena said she was not worried about finding the money to repay the loan.
"I believe that God will provide all my needs," she said with a smile.
Proving her point, she described how an offering for tsunami relief collected across three Sundays at Leesburg Baptist Church, in Leesburg, Va., gave her enough not only to repay her father, but also to do further relief work. The church normally sends Leena $500 a month, with which she pays $25 a month to 20 Indian evangelists.
Leena expressed gratitude both to Leesburg Baptist Church and to the Baptist World Alliance for their funding. "Whatever I received from my donors, I've spent," she said.
Paul Montacute, director of Baptist World Aid, called her "one of our most innovative relief and development workers."
"She's the closest thing we [Baptists] have to Mother Teresa," Montacute said in Chennai, India, during a tour of tsunami-stricken areas in India and Sri Lanka.
Leena is a fourth-generation Baptist, whose great grandfather became a Christian through the preaching of an American Baptist missionary. But she said she got her inspiration for service "from my grandparents who raised me."
She recalled watching her grandfather, B. R. Moses, a former BWA vice president, care for lepers "many times."
Today, Leena has a home for 15 lepers in South India. "There are many [more], but I don't have money to feed them," she said.
She also runs another mission project with AIDS/HIV patients. "Lepers are afraid of HIV people," she shared, while "HIV people think they will get leprosy from touching lepers."
With a dry smile, she added, "Common people are afraid of these two types of people."
Each month some 110 AIDS/HIV patients come to Leena for food and medicine. The only medicines available now are multi-vitamins, she said, but sometimes she has symptomatic drugs for fever and diarrhea.
In addition to meeting immediate needs, she also addresses the source of problems.
Many of the HIV patients, for example, contracted their disease through prostitution. "The main reason for becoming prostitutes is poverty," she said.
In cases where husbands are day-laborers who lack the income to sustain a family, even married women can be forced into prostitution.
Leena's strategy for extracting women from prostitution is to help them start small businesses.
In 1983, Leena, who holds a B.S. degree and has worked as a biology teacher, started a school for their children, "who were rag-pickers and ate food from the garbage."
Serve Trust elementary school now has 83 children and two teachers. The school supplies the children with two school uniforms, provides breakfast and lunch and covers their medical bills.
Pointing to one Muslim prostitute in a predominantly Hindu nation, Leena said that the woman had the "image of God," and that she has an obligation to "show Christian love through deeds" to her.
"I'm not a theologian," she said, "but I preach" at a church that "I planted in a Hindu area." Because she is not a pastor, she said, she had to ask her uncle last year to baptize 16 converts.
Leena Lavanya will be a leader at a conference on living water evangelism on the eve of the BWA's Centennial Congress in Birmingham, England, this July.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.
For more information about Leena Lavanya, read Tony Cupit's book, Stars: Lighting Up the Sky from the Baptist World Alliance (www.bwanet.org).
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