It is a place where huge smiles overshawdow frowns, where tears flow, not from hunger or want, but from feeling loved. It is a place in India, founded and financed by a Cleveland couple who felt truly inspired to create a home for underprivileged children after the tragic loss of their own beloved daughter in America.
It is the Mary Diana Samuel Home for Children, an orphanage in India.
Joining Dr. Aaron Samuel and his wife, Nalini, on their charitable passage to India are many volunteers, none of whom these youths will soon forget. Together, these impoverished children and adults found the riches and glory that comes from caring and sharing, loving and being loved, and the greater happiness that comes from giving.
Earlier this year a team of 14 volunteers representing several churches visited this special orphanage for children and were moved to share their eyewitness accounts of how their journey to India changed their lives as well as the lives of those they served. The following excerpts are reflections submitted by five members of First United Methodist Church Cleveland, the home church of the Samuel Family.
Tricia Haws, owner of T.P. Haws Construction, wrote, “As soon as we stepped out of the airport doors in Chennai, India, every one of my senses told me this was such a drastically different experience than any I had ever known. I’ve traveled to many parts of the world, but the juxtaposition of this country was amazing. The jerking, rushing traffic with blaring horns compared to the sea of calm, unhurried faces — the family of four perfectly perched on [one] motorcycle zipping by the sacred and starving cows lying in the street — staring out the car window at village after village with their dirt yards, dirt roads and dirt house floors seen through open doors — all built around a brightly painted temple the size of a phone booth ... surrounded by a crowd of locals devoutly praying and burning their offerings to their gods.
Finally, the time and place were right, and we got to meet the children. It was pure bliss! Like being in a sea of smiles with crashing waves of hugs! The beautiful sparkling smiles on their gorgeous faces were everywhere. It was truly being in the presence of pure joy. And that experience was the same every time we were together. It is really something to be surrounded by children, and I do mean surrounded! They were filled to the brim with love and joy! The absolute, pure joy that is within these children is something to be witnessed. I wondered if it came from the fact that many of them knew the circumstances from which they came, and appreciated the circumstances under which they now lived. One thing I did not wonder about was their overwhelming love of God, their total belief in prayer and their complete commitment to their faith. To see children be so completely immersed in their faith and belief was incredible.
Every time I think of them, I go back to the joy they had. It was certainly not a joy because of anything they had, because they truly have next to nothing in personal possessions. It was a joy of such a deep rooted certainty of God’s love in their life, and for their life. It’s exactly as Dr. Samuel said to me as I stood with tears in my eyes. He said, ‘Tricia, you are seeing God’s love on earth.’ And I am so blessed to have had the opportunity to have done so. I will never forget their sweet voices singing. Before I traveled to India, I wondered what I could do for the children of the MDS Home. Upon leaving India, I realized just how much they had done for me.”
Beverly Johnson, trustee with the George R. Johnson Family Foundation, admits India has intrigued her since she was a child and orphanages have a special place in her heart since she spent 11 years of her life in one. She wrote, “India, mysterious and intriguing, drew me like a magnet and with every report on the orphanage, I felt myself being drawn in. I simply could not rest until I had made this trip. My prayer was very simple — ‘Lord, let me somehow touch the life of a child and let them experience You though my visit.’
“Now as I look over my journal and ponder my visit to India, I can truly say that this visit was everything that I had hoped for and more. My prayer almost seems like a selfish comical retort because the children at the orphanage began to touch my life in ways that I could have never imagined. Their sincerity of worship and their devotion to Bible memory left me ashamed of my own paltry morning meditation time. The joy of their voices as they sang their morning songs before they left for school made my spirit soar with gladness and thanksgiving. They could have harbored bitterness and sadness in their hearts, but they chose to be thankful for their circumstances, somehow understanding that they were loved. I found myself looking into each face and wondering where would this child be if the Samuels had not opened their hearts and provided the means and the vision for this ministry.
“India has become a place that I know I will return to and share with my family. I want them to visit the beautiful seaside resort of Pondicherry, swim in the Bay of Bengal, walk among the temples in Mahabalipuran, and feel God’s presence at the tomb of St. Thomas. But above all, I want them to see the big, beautiful smiles from the children who anxiously await visits from American “Aunties and Uncles.” I went to India to touch the life of a child, but my life has forever changed and a piece of my heart is there.
Jim Burns, music professor at Lee University and director of Chancel Choir First United Methodist in Cleveland, wrote, “To recall India is to stir a kaleidoscope of brilliant colors, spicy foods, creative people and dancing traffic! The operative word for India is ‘contrast’— ancient and modern — extreme poverty and opulent riches, world-class architecture and thatched roof huts, high-church liturgical reverence and free-style evangelical worship.
“The Mary Diana Samuel Home for Children provides a spectacular contrast to its surroundings — order versus chaos, cleanliness versus filth, beauty versus decay, health versus disease and education versus ignorance. Our focus was on the children. Well behaved, talented, artistic and intelligent — they loved and cared for each other. They sang like angels, with enthusiasm and full volume.
“Along with the children from the MDS Home, we attended The Miracle Assembly of God which meets in a former business facility. In contrast to the high church service at St. Andrews, this service was totally informal. The entire congregation sat on the floor, providing us with the few chairs they keep on hand. This church also touches the community at its deepest point of need. But it is the children who took the largest parts of our heart.”
Tom Seay, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church, wrote, “The most amazing thing for me was the laughter, smiles, and happiness of the children. They were allowed to be kids. Yes, they had a regimented day, but in the 10 days we were there, I saw very few frowns among the children, whether early before school or at their free times. This tells me there is a great depth to the MDS Home that goes to the heart.
“One of the stories that meant a lot for me was behind the scenes most of the time. The older children give leadership and mentoring for the younger ones. As Dr. Samuel talked about this over the time we were at the Home, he would name those who were stepping up and leading. What better way to teach leadership and responsibility than to have the children live it every day.”
Playwright, entertainer and former Cleveland/Bradley County teacher, Doris Burns, listed things she learned about the country and the people who forever changed her life. She wrote, “I learned that motorcycles can carry entire families with no helmets, including mothers sitting behind the driver and holding onto nothing but their baby. I learned that sacred cows, dogs and goats have free reign of the streets, roads and highways and that debris in front of homes, shops, and along roadways IS the landscaping.
“I learned that ancient Hindu temples, multiple gods and new-age ashrams are the norm in spite of 27 million Christians in the country. I learned that the majority of people live in poverty, but still dress in extravagantly bright colors and glittering fabrics bringing beauty to the eye. I learned that 59 small children can sing by memory lots of old hymns and many contemporary worship songs in English, their third language. They sing all the verses.
“I learned that each child can quote up to whole chapters from the Bible in manifest reverence while the other 58 sit quietly and prayerfully. I learned that children can be deliriously happy just to receive a pair of shoes or a suitcase to place under their bed and hold their precious few belongings
“I learned that playing simple games like volleyball, hopscotch and jump rope satisfy children who live in simple concrete rooms with no pictures, no bookcases — just metal bunk beds — yet they are happy. I learned that instead of having five gorgeous grandsons, I now have 10 grandsons and 54 granddaughters and that 10 days with these children linked me forever to their well-being. I learned that as Christians, we ARE our brother’s keepers.
“I learned that a sacrifice of love birthed out of pain brought love, joy and a chance in life for dozens of children who would have lived in poverty or on the streets with little hope for the future. I learned after meeting these remarkable children who now aspire to be doctors, engineers, teachers, flight attendants, etc., that I will unashamedly ask my friends and others for support of this most worthy cause.”
Burns added, “This project has garnered interest from a variety of churches, organizations and businesses in Cleveland/Bradley County. An old saying says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ We are that village. The Sunrise Rotary Club of Cleveland partnered with a Rotary Club in Madras, through the district and international Rotary organizations, and collaborated to purchase a school bus for the orphanage.”
The visitors from Tennessee had the privilege of riding on the bus when they visited the public school where the orphans in the Mary Diana Samuel Home attend. They also rode the bus with the children on a shopping excursion to purchase shoes for each child.
Burns said, “For the price of eating out once a month for a family at a nice restaurant, a child can be sponsored for a month. If anyone is interested in India and Missions in particular, they can join one of the yearly missions trips to Chennai, India, organized by the MDSH Board.”
For further information, visit www.marydianasamuelfoundation.org/ and click on “Contact Us” to share your interest in this project.