Sister Lucy Kurien doesn’t think she’s qualified to give advice. By the end of this article, you may politely disagree.
Kurien was motivated to become a nun by the work she saw Mother Teresa doing for leprosy patients. She joined the Holy Cross order at 19, and worked for its Human Organisation for Pioneering in Education (HOPE) in Pune, a city in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.
The organization offered vocational training for women, but not shelter, although there was a clear need for it. One day, Kurien was forced to turn away a heavily pregnant woman who was terrified of her husband, and begging for a place to stay. He murdered her that night.
The incident shook Kurien to her core. “I blamed myself for not having the courage at the time when she needed me most,” she says.
Kurien resolved to start a shelter for women and children from all religious, caste and class backgrounds, who needed to escape domestic violence and poverty. She named the home Maher, and gave it a motto: “Always room for one more.”
Kurien opened the first Maher shelter on a small plot of land on the outskirts of Pune in 1997. Today, there are 52 of homes across six Indian states, including special homes for older women and those with mental health conditions. Maher also has shelters for children and men.
Here’s how Kurien fought the odds to follow her conscience, the impact of COVID-19 on Maher, and her message for people of all different religions.
Do the Right Thing First and the Details Will Follow
Often the difference between people who bring their dreams to life and those who let them fade is faith. Not necessarily of the religious kind.
All of the most important ideas look impossibly large when you’re standing on the first rung of the ladder. Or maybe you don’t even have a ladder! But if you truly believe that your idea is not just good but necessary, start climbing. Have faith that the path to your goal will emerge.
“I said to myself, this is divine work, and somehow the money will come.”
When Kurien resolved to start Maher, she had no resources. She had no qualifications or experience. She didn’t speak Marathi, the local language in Pune. She had no money, and the Catholic Church refused to send any funds to support a secular organization. Meanwhile, other religious bodies believed the homes would be used to promote Catholicism.
But Kurien believed in her mission. “I said to myself, this is divine work, and somehow the money will come,” she says.
Ultimately, she was introduced to a donor whose funds helped her to build her first shelter, and welcome the first of many women who would find safety under her roof.
Kurien’s faith was tested again during the COVID-19 pandemic. Watching crowds of now-unemployed workers streaming through Pune, with no food and thousands of miles to walk home, she knew she had to help.
She started giving away the food at the homes — even though she didn’t know whether they would be able to get any more. “I just started serving people,” she says.
Seeing what Kurien was doing, the local community stepped up. People got permission to break the lockdown to bring food to the Maher homes. Shopkeepers even opened secretly for them in the middle of the night.
“It was through the sheer goodness of the people that we were able to help so many,” Kurien says. By the time the program ended, they had served meals to 30,000 people, and given grain to 64,000 families.
Whatever your big idea is, sometimes the difference between making it real or not is not what you have on hand: It’s your faith in your own abilities and the people around you.
How COVID-10 Made an Already Difficult Mission Harder
The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns it necessitated increased the numbers of people seeking Kurien’s and Maher’s help. Suddenly, fewer people were in a position to offer donations, just as more people than ever needed their services.
It wasn’t just food and shelter people were seeking. Maher advertised a phone number on its website that people could call for advice and emotional support. Kurien says that they started out with two counselors manning the phone lines, but were so inundated with calls that they had to assign more. The phones rang around the clock.
Fortunately, Kurien says, although several of the social workers and children were infected with COVID-19, all but one didn’t get seriously ill, and they are all better now.
Do the Right Thing First and the Details Will Follow
Despite being a Catholic nun, Kurien has always been very clear that Maher welcomes people from any religion, as well as any class and any caste.
This belief is even built into the name. Kurien didn’t want to name the organization after a saint or anything else that could be identified as religious. She chose “Maher” because it means “mother’s home” in Marathi. The name conjured up feelings of warmth and welcome, without belonging to any religion.
"Let there be love in your heart."
Kurien’s decision to keep Maher religiously neutral was tested early in her planning, when she still had no money. She was offered a large donation by an American priest — if she agreed to teach the children in her care about the Bible. Kurien declined the offer multiple times. “I don't want to do anything that my conscience tells me is wrong, so I don't want that money,” she says.
On Kurien’s wall hangs a sign in Sanskrit and English that reads “वसुधैव कुटुम्बकम् [Vasudhaiva Kuṭumbakam] The world is one family.” She says that she wants to teach all the children in her care not to focus on the differences between groups of people, but what she sees as the common teaching in all religions: love.
Despite all her hard-won experience, this is the only piece of advice Kurien feels qualified to offer. “Let there be love in your heart,” she says.
The conversation with Sister Lucy Kurien continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast. We talk more about her work at Maher, people and books that have inspired her, her experience meeting Pope Francis, and so much more. Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and keep up with my company imageOne. Check out my website or some of my other work here.