Swetha belongs to the lowest caste in society. She cannot even tell us her age – as Dalits seldom have any papers. She is largely excluded from Indian society – this is the first discrimination.

But when the Dalits become Christians they lose even the support the state provides to the poorest in society – this is the second discrimination. Swetha looks as though she is in her mid-30s, but poverty and years of discord with her husband have worn her down. Is the source of their problems a customary disregard for women? Or jealousy about Swetha’s faith, which has become so important to her? Swetha cannot or will not say. But this much is true: women are less valued than men. This is the third discrimination.

Swetha has put up with a great deal – blows, suffering, helplessness. And yet she is determined to remain Catholic – and remain with her husband. ‘When he hit me on the head with a heavy object, I was knocked unconscious’. But she did not leave her husband. ‘My faith gave me strength. I went back to the church again, as soon as possible; not only on Sundays, but as often as possible.’ This, and the lack of sons were the sources of tension in her marriage.

Both of them are Dalits, who used to be called the untouchables. Dalits are disregarded, jobless, without a future. And treated accordingly. Commonly they are seen more as beasts than as human beings. Swetha’s three daughters blink suspiciously; they rarely smile. Even for children each day is a burden.

According to the UN, one in every two or three of India’s approximately 1.3 billion is so poor they have to get by on less than US$1 a day – for Swetha and her family it is a constant struggle for survival.

One day, when an unknown woman told her about the Bible, Swetha really pricked up her ears. ‘My father bought my brothers schoolbooks. But I had to go out to work. I learned to read only later; I wanted to know more about this Bible.’ The Good News of a King who goes out to the least and the lowest, who addresses them personally, who even gives his life for their redemption – this was something unheard of for the Dalits.

It is the Bible that changes people, transforms and heals them. That was Swetha’s experience. ‘After the quarrels with my husband, I became ill, again and again, very ill. Nobody helped me. But then he himself began to come with me to church. He could see the good that the Church and the Mass was doing to me.’ 

Soon both of them were attending a Catholic marriage seminar. The SCCs, or ‘Small Christian Communities’ organise Bible courses, prayer meetings and other forms of pastoral outreach. Today there are some 85,000 of them in India.

The Dalits are welcome, there is no discrimination. Here in the SCC for the first time they have experienced a sense of community and dignity as human beings, as children of God.

ACN is supporting these communities, along with many other projects in India. In 2017 alone the charity invested some almost 6.0 million Euros in the future of the  Catholics here.

This article can be found in Mirror 0218.