Arduous travel. Troublesome malaria fears or pills. Hard beds on cold nights. Lack of running water, baths from a bucket and hand-washing your clothes. Spotty electricity. Restrictions on independent action. Feelings of being odd, white, American, female.
These were the difficulties experienced by Grace McGrath and her companions when they visited northeast India in winter 2013. If she were to do it all over again, would she?
In a heartbeat. (In fact, she already returned this past summer.)
“We encountered such friendly, vibrant, interesting and committed adults, with open hearts and gracious hospitality; children with such love, vitality, curiosity and appreciation for everything they have received; and such indescribable natural beauty, that it was easy to forget the inconveniences,” Grace recalls of her time in India.
“I am still noticing how God has changed every aspect of my world by this experience and I can’t wait to return for more. The life I enjoyed in India was a life of what is essential versus a life of vain endeavors. My Catholic faith felt integrated with every moment of my time. My heart was made new, and my world broadened.”
Grace’s “Jesuit journey” can be traced to 2006, when she was living near Detroit. Her activities included work for the Colombiere Center for senior and infirm Jesuits and engagement in prayer life development with the World Community for Christian Meditation. When the latter organization held its annual retreat at Manresa Jesuit Retreat House in Bloomfield Hills, she was “impressed in prayer by Saint Ignatius of Loyola.”
In 2009, Grace moved back to her hometown of Omaha, joined Saint John’s parish at Creighton University and, although technically retired, began working part time as a tutor at Creighton. Seeking a path to deeper expression of her Catholic life, she spent a year as an Ignatian Volunteer. Her journey then continued with the Ignatian Associates, through which she engaged in the Spiritual Exercises, directed by Fr. Dennis Hamm, SJ.
During that time, Grace and her son Gabriel became friends with Fr. Anand Pereira, SJ, who was working on a doctoral degree at Creighton, and who invited them to join a group visiting the Kohima region of India with him.
“I have had a love affair with India since my childhood, and am tremendously grateful for Indian figures of many religious paths who shared their knowledge and experience of the living God with me,” Grace reports. “I welcomed the opportunity to experience the country for myself, and to see Fr. Anand’s home and ministry there.”
While a 17-day tour was planned for the full group, Grace sought a more immersive experience, and arranged to stay at Eden Gardens Children’s Home in Khuzama for three months. During that time, she volunteered at Sacred Heart, the village school, as a substitute teacher, English tutor and more. She also worked with Fr. Raymond D’Souza, SJ, who oversees the Children's Home, to create a Facebook page for Eden Gardens.
Reflecting on her experience, Grace says, “An exchange like this brings a new consciousness. It blesses the visitor and those visited. It changes the world, and if you bring an open heart along, it changes it for the better.”
Some of her specific impressions included “witnessing the dedication, scholarship, faith and integrity with which the priests and sisters serve and respect the tribal peoples of northeast India.”
“I believe our world needs a union of clerical and lay people to provide wisdom and balance,” she adds. “The Jesuits I met in India made me feel like my talents, time and treasure – my whole person – were and are connected integrally to their work. I feel like my older brothers opened the Catholic doors to let me come in to share life with them and serve with the true love that has always been in my heart.”
Grace plans to continue that service now that she is back in Omaha.
“I hope to be a ‘sprout’ of the American good while in India, and a ‘seed sower’ of the Indian good while in America,” she explains. “My new friends and loved ones made me believe they benefited from my visit, and I am still in awe of how much I learned and benefited from my time with them.”
“Fr. Anand suggested to us at the outset that we were going to meet a people who live with a song in their hearts,” Grace recalls. “I wanted to meet that song, and I was not disappointed!”
Visit the Eden Gardens Facebook page which includes many photos of the children. And, as Grace states, "their gratitude, simplicity, love and appreciation for everything they have received will melt your hearts!"
EDUCATING THE CHILDREN OF NORTHEAST INDIA
“While in India, I was blessed to make friends with a girl who was
unable to go to school because there was no one able to pay for it,” says Grace
McGrath, who was amazed it would take only $750 – which she provided – for
tuition for the girl and her brother to live at Eden Gardens next year.
“In his wisdom and Jesuit sense of justice, Fr. Raymond D’Souza, SJ
refuses to educate a boy first (as is the local custom) if his sister is in
line and being skipped over. His policy is a key reason girls in the area are
going to school,” she adds.
Readers can support students like Grace’s friend
– and those who wrote the essays viewable here.*
(*The essays were written by children who would
be tenth graders in the U.S. school system, and who can continue their
education only with outside financial assistance. “I had told the students that
my granddaughter had dropped out of high school, and they sought to encourage
her through their messages,” Grace explains.)