by Fraser Scott
Fraser works as the Executive Director of Bright Hope World.
Bright Hope World’s vision is to see ‘the poorest of the poor’ become physically self-sustaining and spiritually discipled. We work with local partners to see people given the means to thrive and emerge from poverty. In doing so, it becomes increasingly obvious that, even among the poorest people, there are hierarchies. Among those struggling to survive, there are subgroups that are considered to be at the bottom of the heap.
India’s Transgender Community
Jesudoss and Paulrani run an outreach ministry in Bangalore, India. Despite its reputation as a high-tech hub, over two million people in Bangalore live in slums and a third of these live on less than £42 a month. Life is tough in this city, but even more so for the people that Jesudoss and Paulrani focus on: the transgender community. As western Christians, we are typically unsure how to react to this group of people. How do they fit with our theological and political views? We might be tempted to stand back from them, or engage tentatively, with reservations.
Paulrani was introduced to this community through her work as a nurse, caring for patients with AIDS. Here she found a mission field: an opportunity to show the love of Christ to those who would shortly face death. Some years ago, she met a transgender patient: a man who had undergone gender reassignment surgery to become a woman. Paulrani says she avoided the patient, unsure how to engage. She felt uncomfortable with her reaction, so began praying for the patient. Tentatively, she began talking with the patient, who quickly opened up to Paulrani, telling her a heartbreaking story of abuse.
Movement into the transgender community sometimes starts early. As soon as boys begin to demonstrate feminine traits, which is often as young as 12 years old, they can be rejected and expelled by their families. They may then find themselves caught up in the sex trade, and are often persuaded to undergo gender reassignment surgery by other transgender people. Boys who have had a sex change attract higher prices in the brothels. They typically suffer from severe depression and are often suicidal. At every step, they are exploited and treated as less than human.
Impacted by the reality of the abuse suffered, Paulrani began to seek transgender people out at the hospital. One such person came into her ward, close to death from AIDS and filled with anger. According to Paulrani, the dying patient was ‘shouting, scared and angry’. But, Paulrani quickly called another nurse and they prayed fervently. After a few moments the person sat up and began to talk to them. Over the next few days Paulrani shared the gospel with them and her words calmed and comforted them. This person accepted Jesus Christ and just a few days later died, this time with a smile on their face.
Shortly thereafter, Paulrani began building relationships with transgender people. Jesudoss joined her and they determined that they would give their lives to serving this disenfranchised group. They explain that it usually takes six to twelve months to build trust with a transgender person. They are an insular group, often living together in brothels. Many practise a form of Hindu black magic. Jesudoss and Paulrani leave a calendar with their phone number in the brothels and pray for the residents. Regularly, late at night, and often after months of relationship building, they get a call from one of the transgender people asking for help.
All of them learn that they have dignity as a person…
Paulrani and Jesudoss provide an alternative community, based on their value as human beings rather than their economic value in a brothel. They provide counselling and, where possible, discourage young homosexual men in the sex trade from pursuing gender reassignment surgery. They provide a facility where transgender people can come and be with people who will accept them, pray with them and love them. They are able to reunite some with family members and facilitate reconciliation. Some accept Jesus. All of them learn that they have dignity as a person, regardless of how they feel about their bodies and identity.
They help provide an alternative income for transgender people to enable them to leave the sex trade. Bright Hope World is working with them to evaluate establishing facilities to care for the elderly and praying it will work. And even more so, Jesudoss and Paulrani will keep serving these vulnerable people.
Disabled People in Bethlehem
Five thousand kilometres away, in the West Bank, another Bright Hope World partner is working with a different marginalised group. In the shadow of the ancient town of Bethlehem is a centre called Beit Yusef (the House of Joseph). It is so called because Joseph was a father to a child who was not his own. The team at Beit Yusef, through a ministry called Love Into Action (LIA), also act as fathers to children who are not their own.
Due to intermarriage with near relatives, incidences of children born with severe disabilities are inordinately high. Tragically, this same community often neglects these children and treats them as objects of shame. Many are chained up or locked in small rooms. LIA provides respite care for these children. They want to connect with the families and show them the love of Jesus, as well as encourage them to care for and value their children. Some accept this, but many do not.
Beit Yusef has two flats where young people spend several days at a time in residence. They learn to play and have fun, along with valuable life skills such as regulating anger and learning to take care of themselves. For a few days at a time, they receive intensive therapy, support, acceptance and love. Progress is celebrated, even if it is small.
One young man, Ibrahim,* is a 16-year-old Bedouin. His father is a shepherd and Ibrahim is locked in a grotto with the sheep when he is not at Beit Yusef. This boy has been deeply neglected. Due to malnutrition, he is about the size of a 10-year-old. He cannot walk. For his entire life, he has only been able to make noises like the sheep he shares his living quarters with. A big step of progress is that he now smiles when he comes to stay with LIA, something he never did beforehand.
It is to such people that Jesus gravitated
LIA also supports those with more moderate disabilities, such as Down’s Syndrome. The Olive Wood Project provides day care and a workshop for these young people. Carefully operating low-risk tools, the young people make objects from local olive wood: toys, nativity scenes and other beautifully crafted souvenirs. The young people love the work and it provides revenue to cover costs. The workers have a sense of value and they are certainly valued by the LIA team.
The hardest part of the ministry is to see young people show real progress and their spirits lift when they come to the centre but then regress when they return home; the next time they come to stay or to work it may be back to square one. However, the team at LIA just keep doing what they do, driven by the eternal value of their work and those small signs of progress among the most neglected of peoples.
Bangalore and Bethlehem are places where poverty is common. Where poverty is common, so is hopelessness. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, or to be defeated by it. There are those, such as transgender people and the disabled, who are rejected and devalued even within their own communities. It is to such people that Jesus gravitated. These people, who ostensibly have nothing, show a strong inclination to respond when they see the love of God expressed. That is why Bright Hope World focuses on reaching out to such people. It is why we feel such a deep sense of awe when we see our partners working in step with God, to be vessels for His love to the unloved in the darkest of places.