I’m driving through Kolkata, West Bengal, in a yellow bus.
Motorbikes, three-wheeled auto rickshaws, pedestrians, taxis and cars weave in and out of each other and us. Everyone hoots, it’s noisy – to an outsider, chaotic – but it seems to work.
There were already about 15 kids on the bus when I climbed on. “Auntie, auntie, sit here,” they said.
I sit next to two little boys who can’t be any older than 5. They’re teaching me a handshake as we pull in at one of the pick-up points on the corner of a busy city center street.
Children run, walk and stumble with their moms toward the bus, ready for a few hours away from daily reality – a life lived on the streets of this dusty, colorful, heart-breaking city.
This is Good News Children’s Education Mission (GNCEM), a BMS World Mission partner, a mobile school and the most eye-opening bus ride I’ve ever taken.
Travelling with us is Subir Roy, who began GNCEM with his wife, Eun Ok, in 1991. He tells me about their wonderful vision.
“Our main purpose is to take care of children who are really neglected,” he said. “We want to let them be educated, to let them know that Jesus loves them and that they are not alone.”
As soon as the bus stops, the process begins. Each of the 50 or so kids is washed clean of the dust and dirt of the streets.
They are given a clean shirt to wear, which is much more than it seems – not just clean clothing but a sign to the children that this is a place they belong.
The morning passes in a whirlwind of eating, singing, learning, playing and laughing.
It’s easy to forget that they spend their nights on the pavements of busy Indian streets.
“There is much risk for our children,” said Eun Ok, explaining the dangers encountered by those living in makeshift shacks on streets or rubbish dumps. “Eleven of our mobile school children have died,” she said.
Perhaps that explains the protective, almost parental attitude of the older children who take care of the younger ones during the morning’s activities, making sure they eat all of their breakfast and lunch and have somewhere to sit.
It was witnessing the immense poverty of children like these that motivated Eun and Subir to start GNCEM.
“Most of the street children are lacking love and many would come to us begging,” she said. “I prayed, ‘Lord, please help them,’ and I felt the Lord tell me, ‘You help them.’ He saw our children crying and our children’s mothers crying, and he wanted us to help them.”
So that’s what they did. Starting with a handful of street kids in a park, GNCEM has gone on to provide hundreds with an education and with hope.
These little children live lives that are far from anything I can comprehend. And as they sing about Jesus’ love and learn how to read and write, they really are just cheeky, adventurous, fun-loving kids.
Five of the older girls gather round me on the ride back and sing about Jesus in Bengali, then in English: “Telephone to Jesus, telephone to Jesus, telephone to Jesus every day. Hello?”
It’s new to me and I instantly like it. They’re smiling, laughing and pinching my cheeks as we drive further and further away from Kolkata’s center, toward home.
Outside, life continues. Women hang colorful laundry on a line by the side of the road. A family of four passes by, impressively balanced on a motorbike. Barefoot children holding dirty babies knock on windows of cars caught in traffic, begging for money. Still, everyone hoots.
Inside I am wondering how I can ever watch these children walk off the bus knowing that, however loved and cherished they are, the place they call home is unprotected, unsanitary and unsafe.
Reaching the final stop, the few remaining kids clamber out of the yellow bus for another day, giving me precious cuddles on their way.
Moms are there to greet some of the younger ones; others wander toward home alone.
Through the window, I glimpse their houses, shabby shelters of discarded metal, plastic sheeting and the throwaway debris of Kolkata, sitting just meters from a rubbish dump.
We drive away – outside the noise continues, but inside it’s quiet – and I wonder if we’re all thinking the same thing.
I say a prayer for the children we leave behind, asking that each and every one of them will make it back to the bus again tomorrow, that they will be safe tonight, and that they will know the God they sang of, just a few moments ago, is with them in the darkness.
“Telephone to Jesus every day. Hello?”
Sarah Stone is a writer for BMS World Mission. A longer version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of BMS’ quarterly publication, Engage, and is used with permission. You can follow Sarah on Twitter: @Sarah_Stone and BMS: @BMSWorldMission.