“‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked” (John 1:46)
This was a rhetorical question from Nathanael. Nothing good ever came out of Nazareth. No one of distinction came from there, no one wanted to live there and nothing good ever happened there. It was not Jerusalem, not a bustling city with prestige, it was just an obscure village hidden in the hills of Galilee. Nazareth. Could anything good come from there? Not likely.
In our world today we have a lot of names for places like Nazareth. Places labeled ‘a dump’, ‘backwards’, ‘poverty-stricken’, ‘dead end’ or ‘hell-hole’. Nazareth comes in many forms and these towns and villages can be found in every country and county, in every state and territory. Beyond the prejudice and preconceptions live the ‘Nazarenes’, the forgotten people of these forsaken spaces. Most the time we would rather not acknowledge the Nazareths, as to remember they exist is to acknowledge those that live there.
In November I encountered a Nazareth in the small village of Sugia in Jharkhand, India. Surrounded by the industry of the coal mines, Sugia is at first glance an unremarkable village nestled among other indistinguishable villages. Black coal boulders were scattered by the road side, as if spat out from trucks that had trundled by without any regard for those that live there. Sugia was not an ugly village, rather it was nondescript, unexceptional, plain. Could anything good ever come from Sugia? If you were to only take one fleeting look perhaps your answer would be a quick and easy no.
For many of the families living in Sugia, poverty and discrimination marks their lives. Levels of illiteracy are high, especially among the women, and it is difficult for those women to make enough money to support their children. For most people eking out a living in the coal fields, or seasonally on small farms, life is precarious. Just as Galileans despised people from Nazareth, in this part of India some women, especially those from excluded tribal groups or from certain castes, feel despised. Some of the women I spoke to in Sugia described occasions when they been beaten or verbally abused in their homes or in the street simply for being a woman. Being shunned became normal for some of the women of Sugia.
I journeyed to Sugia with All We Can to learn more about the lives of the women its local partner the Srijan Foundation supports. The Srijan Foundation identifies areas like Sugia, the communities others would rather forget about, where they feel that a difference can be made. It then sets up Self Help Groups (SHGs) with groups of between 12 and 15 vulnerable women. These groups act as a catalyst for change in the community, starting with small simple steps. Women are offered training in their groups that enables them to start breeding small animals like chickens and goats for sale, they also receive information on their human rights so that they can seek out the government support they are entitled to.
Rita Devi is one of the women in the SHG, small and stoic and always immaculately dressed. Rita told me of the life she used to have before the Srijan Foundation set up the SHG in Sugia: “I had no confidence, I was quiet and scared to talk. I did not even have the confidence to go to the bank by myself.” This is hard to believe now as Rita has gone on to become one of the most active women in her village. She runs a small nursery school group, she is the secretary for her SHG, she offers advice to other women on maternal health care and she rears goats to bring in extra income for her family.
She is not alone in this quiet but powerful revolution taking place in Sugia. Other women in her SHG are standing for local election and taking part in regional politics, some have started their own businesses and others have joined together to take action on community problems. Suddenly the women that were once derided are being praised for the transformation they are bringing about.
Can anything good come out of Sugia? Well it already has, women are breaking the stereotypes and are slowly making Sugia the kind of place that will be known for its community focus and entreprenurial spirit. One member of the SHG declared: “What the Srijan Foundation have started with us we will continue to do! We can see what we are doing is good and we can stand on our own now”.
As for Nazareth, at this time of year we remember that something very good came out of that place. That out of the darkness came a great light and his name was Love. God came to earth as a baby to serve the poorest of the poor, the destitiute and the despised and he came in human form to remind us that his grace can be found in the most unlikely of places.