Living Hope Newsletter – November 2017
Bearing Wrongs Patiently
The Claretian community in Chennai city, located on the Bay of Bengal in eastern India, was finishing their morning prayers on a summer day in 2015 when newly ordained Claretian Fr. Soosai Antony received a call that a young man was left dying near the Chennai airport, just out in the open. When he reached the site near the airport, Fr. Antony found the man unclothed and unconscious. With the help of others, he took the man to a nearby hospital. The doctor explained the treatment would be expensive and the man’s chances of survival were remote. The doctor warned Fr. Antony that the Claretians were taking a big risk.
“I sought God and consulted with him,” explains Fr. Antony. “There was an inner force compelling me not to give up.” The Claretian provincial administration assured Fr. Antony of the needed support. Treatment for the man started in the ICU where he finally responded after three days of intensive treatment.
After a few more days, the man was discharged from the hospital and brought to MANASU, a nonprofit mental health organization started by the Claretian Chennai Province in 2011. It was created to provide service to those with mental illness in Chennai, a city with a population of more than 7 million people. Their mission is the rescue, recovery, and rehabilitation of the mostly homeless mentally ill patients, with the goal of reuniting them with their families whenever possible. This is in addition to providing mental health services to Chennai’s sprawling population.
“The man was moving around like an emotionless robot when he arrived,” says Fr. Antony of his patient. But after months of psychological and physical treatment, the man began to respond to MANASU staff. The man eventually gave his name and said he was from a family in the Indian state of Bihar, over 1,300 miles away. “We contacted his family and informed them of his whereabouts,” says Fr. Antony. “His recovery was so good that within three months of his arrival, he began to assist the other inmates.”
The once-homeless patient was reunited with his family in November 2015. “The man’s mother was overjoyed on seeing him,” says Fr. Antony, “She said, ‘My son was lost and is found; he was dead and has come back to life!’”
According to a 2008 World Health Organization study, India accounts for 11.6% of neuropsychiatric disorders across the globe. “The numbers of confused, naked, homeless, hungry, and disoriented people wandering the streets of Chennai are increasing day by day,” explains Fr. Antony.
Most of the patients at MANASU are migrant workers whose search for employment led them to Chennai city, a popular destination for many laborers looking for work. Chennai is a textile industry hub with a large number of apparel industries located in the northern suburbs of the city. The stress of separation from their families, the challenges adapting to their new environment, and the sometimes violation of labor rights and bad treatment by their employers make it hard for many laborers coming to Chennai to be able to adjust properly.
“The rights of migrating people are often violated,” explains Fr. Antony. “Our XXV General Chapter document—a document for Claretians worldwide— states, ‘We are challenged by the situations of inequality and injustice that are causing an ever-wider gap between the rich and the poor, and the growing number of those excluded and neglected.’” The Claretians also work for the human, economic, and labor rights of the migrant workers.
The Claretian Missionaries’ Declaration of the XXV General Chapter document also states: “One cannot be Claretian if he acts as if the poor did not exist. Nor can he be Claretian without denouncing unfair structures, fighting against the system that subjugates the poor, and proposing alternatives.”
Since 2011 MANASU has housed more than 80 patients and has reunited 50 patients with their families. The organization also promotes mental health among students and the general public by educating them about the value of life and the ways of handling stressful situations.
The Claretians at MANASU believe that people develop self-worth when their life produces good. The patients at MANASU grow vegetables, flower gardens, and take care of the goats and chickens. They also contribute to the upkeep of their living quarters and the cleaning of the campus, including the kitchen. “This enables them to grow in self-respect and self-worth,” explains Fr. Antony.
“The community of Claretians at MANASU is very faithful to the morning prayer, meditation, Holy Mass, the Divine Mercy prayer, and the Holy Rosary,” explains Fr. Antony. “The patients must participate in the morning Eucharist and yoga. The Eucharist serves as a therapy, though sometimes the patients do not understand it in the beginning. From the day they arrive, every patient must bathe, wash clothes, and feed themselves. These self-help efforts bring self-confidence. They are all also treated with respect and dignity.” In fact, most of the staff working at MANASU are former patients.
The community provides group activities including painting, singing, and dancing. From the time the patients wake at 5:30 a.m. until they go to sleep at 8:30 p.m., they are kept engaged, which helps restore their psychological and physical health.
The restoration of human dignity at MANASU is done in partnership with representatives from across the entire Chennai community. Volunteers participate in the mission, the local people extend support, and officials from the health, police, and social welfare departments of the government take pride in partnering with the Claretians in their mission.
In India, 58 million people are affected by some kind of mental illness. In the districts of Chennai there are only a few treatment facilities devoted to caring for the mentally ill; all of these are overcrowded.
“The infrastructure that we have now is enough only for 20 persons at a time,” explains Fr. Antony. “There is also a constant stream of requests from people to admit their family members suffering with mental illness. So there is a necessity to expand our infrastructure for accommodation.”
The clients, staff, and Claretians at MANASU all reside in rather humble quarters. Fr. Antony feels there is much work to be done in order to make the ministry even more effective. “We are being evangelized by these people who are afflicted. Their presence makes us more compassionate,” he says. “The MANASU community is privileged to welcome, listen to, accompany, and care for these most vulnerable people.”