Buddhist prayer flags wave their welcome on every bridge, and crowded streets invite tourists with signs for places like Hotel Yak and Antrek Wilderness Expeditions. Manali, India, a village in the Himalayan mountains that Hinduism recounts as the place where man was recreated after the god Manu destroyed the earth with water, seems more akin to a Disney theme park ride than it does to the India I’ve seen through a bus window on a 17-hour journey north from Delhi. In the distance, snowcaps peek through clouds and waterfalls magically appear on hillsides of green.
I once dreamt of India. My son was in middle school and I had a closet full of business suits and heels that were worn each day as I designed marketing campaigns that generated advertising revenue. I loved my job and imagined myself doing nothing else. But in the dream, I was wearing a long skirt and t-shirt in a distant place filled with color. “Where are you now, mom?” my son asked. I replied, “India. And it’s beautiful.”
Perhaps this is the India of my dreams.
Because I am seeing true beauty here in those who are tenderly caring for her children.
She greeted us at the entrance of the House of Grace (Dar-Ul-Fazl), a beacon of light tucked into the steep Himalayan hillside high above the crowds. Joy is the director of the children’s home that provides complete care for more than 70 orphans and a quality education for 100 village children.
Her name describes her countenance. Joy.
She isn’t the only one to radiate such contentment and beauty in this place. Every child here, from the toddlers to the young adults now attending college, calls this orphanage their true home and their true family. Though some have ben removed from their homes due to abuse, most are here because of poverty. One or both parents have died, and those left behind simply can’t afford to fill bellies or provide safe shelter. While the children here at House of Grace travel back to their homelands once a year to see relatives, they are always eager to return to the place founded by a woman named Auntie more than three decades ago.
Joy understands them. Because she was one of them.
One of the first children to ever live with Auntie (her real name has been permanently replaced with the term of endearment), Joy and her two siblings found hope and faith at House of Grace in 1982. “My mother had passed away, and my father was distraught. I had an aunt who worked in a Christian home near us, and Auntie came to visit her to talk about her desire to open a home for children. It became clear to everyone that going with Auntie was the right thing to do for us. I went first, and then my brother and sister joined me.”
At the time, the orphanage was located in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in the northwest tip of India. Joy and her family were from Ladakh, a region in that state. Though her family was Buddhist, her father believed his children would receive good care in the Christian home. But tensions mounted, and members of the Buddhist Leaders Association accused Auntie and her team of brainwashing the growing number of Ladakhi children who were living at House of Grace. Joy was in fifth grade when men from the association showed up at the home and demanded their children return to Ladakh. “It was 1988 – I remember it well. They put us in a Buddhist school and hostel. They told our families it was free, but then they demanded our families provide for us even though they couldn’t. We were there for three years. While we were there, my aunt came to see my brother and sister and me. She took us out for a little recreation time, but a rumor spread quickly that she was going to take us back to House of Grace. A group of village men found us, and we watched as they beat her almost to her death.”
What she witnessed fueled a fire in Joy’s heart – a fire that would change her life forever. “My friend and I talked often about how we wanted to return to Auntie. She had shown us love and care, and there was something about it that was true and real. We had to do our morning prayers, so we would bow down before Buddha and pray to Jesus. Those prayers gave us bravery – and we decided to plan our escape.”
Fleeing, however, wouldn’t be as simple as running to a different region of Jammu and Kashmir. Because of the escalating conflict between India and Pakistan and the threat of ongoing violence to Auntie and her House of Grace family, she had moved the home more than 400 miles away to Manali. But Joy and her friend didn’t stop praying and planning. Their answer came in hitching a ride with a family that was moving. She told no one except an uncle, for she had seen what could happen in the bloodied body of her aunt.
Soon after Joy and her friend returned, the village leaders of Ladakh sent her father to House of Grace to remove his daughter. Auntie learned of their plans, and hid Joy and her friend in another village to protect them from harm. The Indian government also stepped in and declared that the children in the home were being cared for properly and should not be removed. Joy remembers the look on her father’s face when the decision was made in favor of the children. “He was such a timid man – he wanted us to stay where we were but so much pressure had been placed on him. When he heard the ruling, I saw him smile for a moment. I needed to see that smile.”
He returned to Ladakh – without her.
Joy and her friend remained hidden for a year to ensure their safety, and then Joy left for higher studies. “I had to move to Delhi from ninth grade through my college years, where I focused on history and education. In the final year of my college studies, I realized something. Though I had been taught about Jesus, had memorized scripture and sung beautiful songs to Him, there was something missing in my life. So in 2000, I came home to talk to Auntie and my House of Grace houseparent about what I was going through. While I was there, I could overhear my houseparent in another room talking to a young girl about salvation in Christ – I wasn’t part of the conversation, but it was though every word was being said to me. And on February 20, 2000, I surrendered my life completely to Jesus.”
Joy shared the news with Auntie and told her she felt God was calling her to return and work at House of Grace. She moved back and first taught at Rainbow School, and then became a guardian in the home.
And since 2013, she has been director, following in the footsteps of the woman who believes all children deserve to be given love and life and the hope of salvation. Auntie is her mentor and her guide, as the woman in her 70s continues to serve the poor and oppressed in northern India. Joy still has to pinch herself on occasion to see that it’s not a dream. “I had never ever thought I would be in this place, and it came suddenly. The advisory council had been talking for years with Auntie about who she would feel comfortable with taking over the home one day. It came as a surprise, as a shock, because I believed there were far more qualified people to be in this role. I didn’t ever say I wanted to do it, but at the same time, I felt as Auntie’s spiritual daughter, it was the right decision. I felt the responsibility was too great – that I couldn’t do it. God spoke to me through scripture – David and Goliath – to trust in Him and not in myself. I received such encouragement.
For months after the decision was made, I would wake up very early in the morning overwhelmed, thinking, ‘I am going to feel like this forever?’ But by God’s grace, I haven’t felt like that. I do feel stressed from time to time, but His grace has covered me. The staff and the children are always supportive. It’s not always easy. But I know God was in all of this. Every single part.”
As Auntie has poured into Joy, now Joy pours into the children at House of Grace. “I used to think ‘I am doing something great for God.’ But in 2009, He told me it is His grace that we are in this ministry, that we are in His Kingdom. So there is nothing I can do for God. I simply serve.
“I keep telling the children – I go to Delhi and I see so many children in the streets and I go to the villages and see so many children in shanties – and I remind them that God has brought us out into this place, His place. He has blessed us with His blessings. He has changed our lives – and it is our calling to do the same. No matter our background, no matter our pain. I pray we can all be like Auntie. My hope is that every child will live with Jesus, spread His love and contribute to the Kingdom. And that maybe one day, a new director will rise from the children living here now.”
You’ll meet Auntie – and hear her amazing story – in Building Eden, a book about women who believe restoration is a reality on earth as it is in heaven. The chapters are still being written, and I’d love to add your words! What great advice have you received from a woman? Do you know someone who should be honored because of the work she is doing to redeem what has been broken in the places we call home? Share your story with me!
And if you’d like to visit Joy and the children at House of Grace in Manali, India, I’d love for you to join me on an Orphan Outreach mission trip. Plans are being made now for Summer 2016!