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When Leena Lavanya was born in the southern region of India, her grandparents were given the charge of raising her – not because her parents did not want her, but because of a longstanding tradition among the Telugu people: the first child is to be raised by the grandparents.

Lavanya’s grandfather happened to be B. R. Moses, a leader among Indian Baptists, who have a significant presence among the Telugu. Moses served for a while as a vice-president of the Baptist World Alliance. Lavanya’s maternal uncle, Bontha Moses Sudheer, is a pastor and a member of the BWA Commission on Freedom and Justice.

With that kind of influence, it’s not surprising that Lavanya, in 1993, would attend the Baptist Youth World Congress, held that year in Harare, Zimbabwe. There she heard guest speaker Tony Campolo challenge participants to surrender themselves completely to Christ, and she did.

Lavanya went home and got to work. In time, she established a charity called “Serve Trust” and pioneered a variety of ministries. The organization operates residential homes for the aged, for lepers, and for adults and children living with HIV/AIDS. It runs a school for poor children in a depressed area of Narasaraopet, a town of about 100,000 in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. In the town of Chilakaluripet (which means “the place where prostitutes live”), Lavanya operates training programs for female sex workers and their daughters, striving to help them break the cycle of prostitution. The residents of Chilakaluripet are descended from women who were once concubines to Indian kings and later evolved into a caste whose primary function is prostitution. As if those projects weren’t enough, Lavanya’s charity also operates a free HIV/AIDS counseling center, distributes rice and lentils to female sex workers, and provides blankets to Hindu beggars, many of whom live on the streets or in depressed communities.

On March 4, Lavanya — often described as “the Baptist Mother Teresa” — was tapped to be the 2009 recipient of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award. It looks like they made a good choice. The award will be presented during the meeting of the BWA General Council in Ede, Netherlands, in July.

Lavanya was not the only person to receive attention during the BWA’s semi-annual executive committee meeting, held at the group’s offices in Falls Church, Virginia. The committee also voted to recommend Raimundo César Barreto Jr. of Brazil as director of the Division of Freedom and Justice, a new office that was approved during the General Council meeting in Prague last summer. Barreto’s recommendation still requires approval by the General Council when it meets this July.

Barreto holds a doctoral degree in Christian Social Ethics from Princeton Theological Seminary, as well as degrees from the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University and from the North Brazil Baptist Theological Seminary in Recife. He also studied at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, Czech Republic.

Barreto has worked extensively in academia in Brazil and in the U.S., according to a BWA press release, and has conducted research on Christian and social justice issues in Latin America. He has a special interest in working with organizations in human rights, and in advocating for those who have special needs.

Barreto has previously worked as general coordinator for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Social Ethics in Brazil, and is currently the pastor of Igreja Batista Esperança (Hope Baptist Church) in Salvador, Bahia state.

As director of the division of freedom and justice, Barreto will be charged with addressing issues of human rights and religious freedom throughout the world, and will coordinate the relationship between the BWA and the United Nations, where the BWA holds membership in several agencies.

In a world where so many things are going wrong, I found it encouraging to learn of two relatively young adults who are so capabable, and so committed to making it a better place. May God bless them both.

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