History and Background
The Orthodox Church has traditionally been built on the strong foundation of missionary, service and charity related activities. The basic inspiration for this work comes from the communitarian way of life of the early Christians and the early Church fathers. Founded on the bedrock of the living examples set by St. Gregorios of Parumala, the late Pathrose Mar Osthathios and other Church forefathers, the genesis of Shantigram goes back, in particular, to the vision of Dr. Geevarghese Mar Osthathios, the Former President of the Mission Board of the Malankara Orthodox Church, who initially raised the need for such a project in the Diocese, way back in 1998. The proposed project was subsequently discussed at the highest level in the Holy Synod meetings and the final assent was given.
The welfare of the nation lies in the development of our villages and countryside, said the Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi. With Christian values as a guiding lamp and a visionary fervor, a historical and revolutionary step was taken by the late Job Mar Philoxenos, the then Diocesan Metropolitan of the Diocese of Delhi in 1998 which blossomed into the form of a project named Shantigram. A community development project of the Delhi Diocese of the Malankara Orthodox Church functioning under the aegis of the Sophia Society, it is situated in the village of Mandawar, in Sohna tehsil of Haryana. This integrated rural development programme aims at the qualitative development of the lifestyle of about 20000 poor and underprivileged inhabitants of 10 villages in and around Mandawar. The project proved to be highly utilitarian and receives much acclaim in the state of Haryana.
The hallmark of Shantigram is to enlighten the people living in developing and unhygienic rural villages located in the Mandawar village. A herculean task of community development was set rolling by providing basic stress on three major aspects namely education, medical and women empowerment.
This hamlet, about 50 kms from the outskirts of the Delhi, saw a beautiful dream unfold by the purchase of a mammoth 25 acres of land in the lap of nature. To realize this visionary journey, it took the efforts of a handful of volunteers and the purchase of a small farm area, which now boasts of the Shantigram Vidhya Niketan, a CBSE affiliated secondary co-educational school, the Shantigram Health Centre, and a centre for women empowerment.
- Shantigram Vidhya Niketan School: With a head count of 538 students that hail from around 30 villages, the school succeeds in inspiring young minds to envision a bright and educated future. The school lays stress on the holistic development of a child by providing them quality yet affordable education. Without mincing words it would not be an exaggeration to credit this success to the hard work of a committed pool of dedicated staff of Shantigram. But much has to be done in the future to bring this incipient plan to its full-fledged realization. Towards this goal, construction has already commenced for the buildings that will provide more infrastructural amenities for the Junior School while laying the basic structure of a Senior Secondary School.
- Shanti Sadan: A boy’s hostel was started to cater to the needs of students who lived far away from Mandawar. With a strength of 18 students from various parts of India provides a home away from home for the students with the amiable and free environment conducive for learning and growth.
- Shantigram Health Centre: With no hospitals within a radius of 15 Km, and the lives of the villagers being maintained in unhygienic environments, they remain vulnerable to numerous afflictions and infirmities. Keeping this in mind, a full-fledged clinic has been functioning since 1998. A team of dedicated health professionals leave no stones unturned to deal with the ailments of the villagers through a clinic that functions bi-weekly and with the presence of a full time residential nurse throughout the week.
- Women Empowerment: From the very beginning, the emphasis was laid on the upliftment of the women by equipping them for a stable and economic tomorrow. In this regard, frequent awareness programs and training classes are held to make them self-reliable and provide them with a secure source of livelihood.
- Orphanage for the poor and the destitute: An orphanage for the destitute and orphaned had been a dream of Mar Osthathios, when he had mooted the idea of this project in the beginning. As a part of this an hostel is being run which takes care of the sustenance of the children, by the means of providing scholarship and living conditions for their comprehensive development of such children.
All these projects have now been brought under the aegis of the Mar Philoxenos Centre for Human and Social Development. As these projects envision a community renewal and revival, they serve to commemorate the memory of Job Mar Philoxenos whose primary vision continues to guide them. As such they agree with the aspirations of the multi-religious community of Mandawar. There are three explicit objectives by which it was formed.
- Basic Education: establish crèche, pre-school, primary education and non-formal classes.
- Community health: set up morning clinic, a hospital and have field based education in health, nutrition, sanitation and family planning.
- Economic security: create income generating activities and establish women group and actions for self-employment, a safe environment and other related concerns.
Indeed, it is a people-centred multi-sectorial and holistic social support system, for and with the rural community.
Thought for the Month
Shepherds of Significance
The Gospel of St Luke portrays a group of shepherds, who were probably the first people to learn about the birth of a Savior and who visited the new born Baby at the manger and proclaimed the divine birth in public. St. Luke “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Luke 1:1-4) and reported in Chapter 2: 8-20 about the specially chosen shepherds who received the great message of universal importance,
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told”.
I really wonder why the angels appeared to a group of unnamed shepherds at night outside a small village called Bethlehem to proclaim a message of universal importance.
Shepherds were poor people who watched over their flock, a job which lacked any sense of respect or dignity from the society. It was perceived to be the last resort for a jobless man. However, shepherds were tough, tough in every sense of the word. They had to stay up all night and all day in order to deal with troublesome animals, fight wolves, lions, and bears to protect his flock. Moreover, shepherds were intimidating. Bishop Craig Satterlee writes, “Society stereotyped shepherds as liars, degenerates, and thieves. The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their city limits. The religious establishment took a particularly dim view of shepherds since the regular exercise of shepherds’ duties kept them from observing the Sabbath and rendered them ritually unclean. The Pharisees classed shepherds with tax collectors and prostitutes, persons who were “sinners” by virtue of their vocation.” Hence, they belonged to the lower ranks of the society.
But the question remains: Why shepherds?
One could argue that the conception and birth of Jesus Christ was the greatest event in history. God had become a human being, was born in Bethlehem, and was named Jesus. Yet, this good news was proclaimed by angels to these shepherds. If protocol demands, the news of this importance should have been told to the highest authorities in the region, not the world. It should have been announced by the angels to Caesar Augustus in Rome? or to the Roman Governor Quirinius or King Herod? Why didn’t they appear to the Jewish high priest at the Temple? Again the question remains, why shepherds?
The Mishnah, a collection of documents recording oral traditions governing the lives of Jewish people during the period of the Pharisees, considers the possibility that these were not shepherds of ordinary sheep. Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889) provides a fascinating answer to our question in his book’ The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Writing about these shepherds, Edersheim referenced the Jewish Mishnah. One regulation in the Mishnah “expressly forbids the keeping of flocks throughout the land of Israel, except in the wildernesses – and the only flocks otherwise kept, would be those for the Temple-services” .Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and their surrounding fields were not in the wilderness where ordinary flocks of sheep were kept. Therefore, according to the Jewish regulations, the flocks under the care of the shepherds near Bethlehem must have been “for the Temple-services.” These shepherds watched over sheep destined as sacrifices in the Temple at Jerusalem.
Here lay the significance of the Shepherds of Bethlehem. If the flocks of sheeps are kept for the temple services; the shepherds watching over it are also specially chosen for the purpose and not like the nomadic ordinary shepherds of Bethlehem. Edershime wrote, “…everything points to these shepherds watching over sheep used for sacrifice. What would they have thought when they heard: ‘Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord’ ” (2:11). The message of the angels signified, among other things, that the time of animal sacrifices would soon end. The offering of Jesus Christ, the Savior would soon take place. It is no wonder that these shepherds “glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen”. This clearly resonates with the celebratory spirit of Christmas, a traditional time for celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Let’s remember why he came – not only to live but also to die – the perfect sacrifice for sin, once and for all.
Like the Shepherds of significance, we all are specially chosen for God’s purposes and are dignified enough to hear the good news from God and to proclaim to the world. As the chosen shepherds heard the good news and travelled far to see the incarnated God, let us also set for a search in our life to see the divine Child. Let us hurry and join the shepherds saying:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men and women, on whom his favor rests”.
Rev. Fr. Saji Yohannan