Leena Lavanya awakens at her home in India about 4 a.m. each day after a four-hour sleep. She prays for two hours, then makes her rounds from 7 to midnight.
Rounds include a leper colony, a hospice home for HIV patients, a home for the elderly, an orphanage, a prison, a computer school for marginalized youth and tribal villages in parts of the jungle that many men wouldn’t go.
Because of her work with the poorest of the poor in India through her organization, Serve Trust, Lavanya is known as the “Baptist Mother Teresa.”
She’s embarrassed by that label. She prefers to forge her own path with what has become known as the most effective nongovernmental agency in India.
The roots of her ministry were nourished by two situations as a young person, which Lavanya described during a recent tour of Arkansas churches and institutions, including Ouachita Baptist University, Hendrix College and Heifer International.
Carolyn Staley, associate minister at Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., helped bring Lavanya to Arkansas, 32 hours from her home in India. Staley, when she was working in literacy programs in the Washington, D.C., area during Bill Clinton’s presidency, first met Lavanya at a church in McLean, Va.
A bond was quickly established when Staley introduced Lavanya to literacy programs and computer programs to help impoverished people in this country earn a GED. That connection, forged in the 1990s, has grown.
“I was impressed with how Leena came from such a poor background herself economically but still has been able to look around her right where she lives, in her own neighborhood and ask, ‘What does “I surrender all to Jesus” mean?’ She went back and opened her house to homeless children until she didn’t have room for one more child. She has constantly looked around her right where she is and sees lepers and orphans and the poorest of the poor and says, ‘I can do something about this.'”
Lavanya’s core philosophy goes back to her childhood.
She described her Christian parents in India as “real prayer warriors,” whose sense of mission caused her to wonder at an early age, “Why are lepers at our house on Christmas Day?”
In a youth conference in 1993, words by Tony Campolo stuck in her mind: “All to Jesus, I surrender all. We sing the song but we don’t do it.”
Those words came back to her a short time later in India when Lavanya met a prostitute on a bus and was trying to talk her into quitting her way of life. “She told me she wanted to quit prostitution, but she asked me if she did, was I willing to give financial support to her eight kids,” Lavanya said. “And I thought counseling was easy.”
She bought the woman a sewing machine. That led to a new livelihood and way of life.
Another time during her journey, she encountered child laborers rummaging though garbage dumps in the slums. In building relationships with them, she started a home for children in the slum area. It began with eight youngsters and now has 82.
Another encounter led to a 12-year-old beggar girl who had been sexually abused by her father and sold into prostitution. She became HIV positive and was kicked out of the brothel; her family had nothing to do with her. While she was an hour away from her home, Lavanya visited her once a week.
“Because she was my neighbor, and she’s also created in the image of God,” Lavanya said.
While she was driving over the countryside for a few days, she kept seeing a boy crying under the same tree – in 103-degree heat. One day she stopped her car and held the boy. She found out that his parents had died from the effects of AIDS, and his relatives had banished him to the same spot under a tree – alone.
One thing led to another and her organization built a house for AIDS orphans. “Twenty of them are going to school and are happy,” she said.
One day while her car was stopped at a signal light, she was approached by an 80-year-old crippled beggar woman who had been neglected by her family.
Lavanya invited the woman to her home and gave her food. That eventually led to a home for older street people that currently houses 10.
Lavanya’s 1995 meeting with Staley in Washington, D.C., prompted another ministry that has taken hold. After seeing the effects of literacy programs for young people in the United States, Lavanya returned to India and started a computer school for youth. It has led to jobs and marketable skills for marginalized young people.
“Young people are so full of energy,” said Lavanya, “but don’t know how to use that energy the proper ways.”
The projects have continued to snowball. Her organization now regularly furnishes food packages once a month to help 50 malnourished children. She gets anti-bacterial soaps to tribal groups to help prevent skin diseases. She started an elementary school to help get children off the dollar-a-day life of rock crushing.
There’s a prison ministry and a video ministry that involves about 30 churches. She’s helped develop some small businesses and shops that so far have created a new life and career for 90 women previously in the mafia-run sex trade.
“God is using me as his instrument to reach people, people who are dying without knowing Jesus Christ,” she said.
Her work has not been popular among radical Hindus or the mafia in her country. She’s on a most-wanted list and her face is on a wanted poster produced by Hindu fanatics.
She responds to that with a simple biblical statement: “To live is Christ; to die is gain.”
David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.