No Baptist woman is more deserving of the Baptist World Alliance’s human rights award than Leena Lavanya, who runs homes in India for lepers, female sex workers and children living with HIV/AIDS.
The BWA announced on Tuesday that Lavanya would receive the 2009 BWA Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award at the annual gathering of global Baptists to be held in Ede, Netherlands, in July.
I first interviewed Leena on a Sunday afternoon in Chennai, India, while traveling with Paul Montacute, director of Baptist World Aid, some weeks after the December 2004 tsunami.
Leena, her sister and brother-in-law picked up Paul and me that morning in a small car and took us to a Baptist church.
The slightly built, aging pastor with a withered arm greeted us. He asked Paul and me to take off our shoes as we prepared to follow him into the sanctuary, an expression of reverence for the place we were about to go. We readily complied with his request. We sat behind the pulpit in ties, blazers and socked feet.
The sanctuary was packed. Men sat on one side; women were on the other side.
Woman and children were sitting on the floor. Members were sitting on folding chairs outside the church building. Some were in the full sun. Others were under a large shade tree.
When the service ended, Leena escorted us to a small room behind the sanctuary where we were served lukewarm orange sodas and given our shoes.
Mostly mothers with young children pressed tightly around us with wide eyes and intense stares. I thought they were extending a hand of greeting for our presence at their church. I smiled, nodded and grasped their hands. I did the wrong thing.
Seeing my mistake, Leena explained quietly that they wanted us to bless them. They had come to us for healing. Their children needed divine intervention. These Indian Baptists thought that our skin color—because we were white—meant that we had a closer relationship to God. They thought we could channel God’s blessings onto their needy children. They projected upon us what we surely didn’t possess: the power of the God.
I recoiled psychologically. I would have backed away physically if the stuffed chair behind me had not blocked my retreat. I was trapped in a room full of people—people with desperate eyes, pleading stares. I was trapped between who I was and who they thought I was.
That afternoon, I interviewed Leena, a remarkable human being, who shows faith in action.
Below is most of my article about Leena that appeared on EthicsDaily.com on March 1, 2005:
The Baptist Version of Mother Teresa
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.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.