3 - Issue 5
We know that the Love that Swami personifies is the real prompter and doer in our lives. Even though it is so beautifully present all the time everywhere, we are mostly ignorant of this Love until, with its Grace, we get a taste of it. When we taste it, nothing else matters…
About a year and half ago, on a wintry morning in Dallas, I learned something that I didn’t know. I learned that some people in this reputedly prosperous, well-systemized city actually slept on the streets! I knew of homeless people and homeless shelters, but never realized that some of those homeless people were shelter-less as well. I learned this on that wintry morning from a shivering man with fire in his eyes.
“Are you listening to me, man? Nobody believes me…I am going to do something drastic…I’m tired of sleeping under the bridge.”
“Did you really sleep on the streets last night, Sir?” I asked incredulously. “Where?”
“That’s what I have been telling you, man! Over there…under that bridge.”
I looked, nodded as if I understood. He wanted to go to another part of the city about twenty-five kilometers away. I said that I would return in a couple of hours, after finishing our morning service activity, and take him there. I returned as promised but he was not to be found.
Swami had spoken through him and prompted me to find out more about the plight of the homeless people in Dallas.
A few of us went back to the streets at nighttime looking for people sleeping on the streets. Gusts of wind had worsened the already freezing weather. We had taken woolen blankets with us in case somebody needed them; soon, we found people sleeping under elevated highways. As we passed blankets to the people, one man asked, “Do you have a banana? I haven’t eaten anything today!” This was shocking to me! We did not have any food items with us, so while praying to Swami, we drove around the downtown area at that late hour and finally located an open restaurant. We bought liberal quantities of food – in case someone else was hungry. Just before we found the restaurant, we stopped at a traffic light, where I was prompted to look to the left. Then I saw the following words written in bold letters on the building to our left – “God is Love”. I knew Swami was with us!
“God Bless you all!” said the middle-aged gentleman as we returned with food. This was the first of literally thousands of words of gratitude these loving human beings were to shower on us in the following months.
All it takes is a drug addiction, a mental illness or a job loss to remove the roof over your head, before you slip through the societal net and get caught on the rough edges of humanity. Then you try and get into a homeless shelter. If you are not accommodated there, you go to the streets, thinking it’ll be only for a few days or weeks at most, till the weeks slip into years without an end or escape in sight! As a person living on the streets for seven years would tell us later, “You fall into a never-ending, spiraling pit, down and down. You look up and see a faint light at the top, way up where the opening of the pit is. That faint light is your hope that you cling on to every day!”
The middle-aged gentleman then directed us to a spot “under the bridge.” This was a spot where the concrete sloping foundation pillars of the bridge meet the road above. He said some more people were sleeping in the crevices between the pillars and the road, sheltering themselves from the howling cold wind! Since I had a sprained ankle, I could not climb up the slope. My friends walked up the slope, leaving me in the car. As I sat in the car waiting for my friends to return, Bhagavan’s Love welled up in my heart. When they came back, this Love moved me to say, “How much suffering these people have! It is so cold! They are hungry! With Swami’s Grace, we will come here every night and care for them. With His Grace, we’ll provide them warm food, warm clothes and words of warmth every night at least for the next two months till the end of winter season.”
Thus began a mental and verbal contract with the Lord. What has since been called Chaitanya Seva was born.
The Lord both supported and tested the resolve in the execution of this contract. He kept reaffirming His presence in more than one way and at the same time kept throwing challenges and obstacles our way.
The first re-affirmation came the very next evening. As we drove along the down-town streets, we saw a tall, thin, elderly man walking on the pavement. We approached him and asked if he would like some soup and bread. He looked at us with a blank, sad expression in his eyes and nodded, and soon started attacking the cup of soup with such fervor that I knew he was starving. “Sir, when did you eat last?”, I asked. “I haven’t eaten for two days!”, he replied. “Please have some more soup and bread,” we told him. He accepted this whispering “Thank you, thank you!” I noticed then that he was trembling a bit in the cold temperature. He was wearing only a thin shirt, inadequate for the weather. I put a jacket around his shaking body and hugged him. Tears welled from both our eyes as he said “You are a God-send. You are a God-send!”. I knew the internal pull that put us there was the prompting of the Love that Swami is, and in this sense we were sent there by Him only. There was no giver or receiver in this occurrence – just the experience of one heart resonating to the call of another and the resulting mutual happiness.
Almost from the beginning, Swami put challenges in our way, helped us persist and overcome them.
Only a handful of volunteers came forward at first. The others were concerned about dealing with ex-criminals and drug addicts in desolate parts of the city and that too at night time. “Swami is making this happen. Why fear? He will take care. Let’s look at the people sleeping on the streets as fellow human beings, as brothers if possible, and look for the same spark of love in them as in us.” With this prayer, a few of us persisted. We prepared hot soup and hot chocolate at home every day, picked up fruits, bread and apple pies from the store, and went to the streets every night, pulled by the Indweller to serve and to love.
In addition to food, we found a desperate need for warm clothing—from blankets to socks, from shoes to caps. Again, another challenge was thrown by Swami. There was absolutely no solicitation or collection of funds. But, somehow, the clothing always became available to fulfill the need of the “dharidhra chaitanyas” throughout the winter.
Then there was the greatest challenge of them all – the test of faith and doing what Swami really wants you to do.
Winter was over. Still only a handful of volunteers were doing the seva. The thought occurred that the heart to heart contract with Swami was to serve the people who sleep on the streets only for the winter. How long could we continue this service activity? The logistical requirements of a daily service activity such as this one were a bit daunting. After the winter was over, we made a few attempts, with trepidation, I must admit, to stop this seva activity. Every time we went to serve with this thought in our minds, we would invariably get a comment from one of the people on the streets like “Thank God for you people coming here every day! The food you bring is the only food I get all day!” How could we stop this service activity knowing fully well that there would be a few people who will go hungry because we did not show up? We persisted. Swami corrected our wrong thinking and made us continue.
Then, almost imperceptibly, a few things happened. Inexplicably, more and more volunteers joined. A bakery voluntarily offered to donate regular supply of bread. A dough-nut shop donated regular supply of dough-nuts. What started off as a two-month experience is in its seventeenth month now. About seventy people living on the streets and about forty volunteers are serving each other daily. With His Grace, it will go on as He Wills it.
Several signs of Swami’s blessings have taken place and continue to take place. As a testament to His Glory, let me share one.
One evening, we were given three blankets to take with us for the service. I counted them myself. All the three blankets were given away in early part of the service itself. As we drove to the next service spot, I spotted a man placing his belongings on a pavement and getting ready to lie down to sleep. I asked if he wanted soup, which he did. I asked if he needed a blanket. He replied yes.
As I walked back to the car, it struck me that this man didn’t look like the others on the streets. His complexion and demeanor were very different. For some reason, he reminded me of Maha Vishnu Himself! Suddenly I realized that we had already given away our last blanket! I feverishly prayed to Swami to keep my word and to provide a blanket to this needy person. I asked a volunteer seated in the car for a blanket and he said we had given out all the three blankets. At that instant, a volunteer sitting in the back seat of the car noticed another blanket on the floor! We gave that blanket to the man. We confirmed and re-confirmed among us that we had indeed given away all the blankets we had. Swami had made the three blankets into four in response to heart-felt prayer!
We have learned that the people living on the streets may be ex-criminals, drug addicts or violent people, but they have hearts as pure and golden as God’s. We bathe in their love and attachment to God every day. “Glad to be alive,” says one man with a wide grin. “You are doing God’s work,” says another. Yet another quotes the Bible saying, “When you serve fellow men, you are really serving God.” We agree enthusiastically!
A dignified elderly lady living on the streets asked a couple of weeks ago,
“Which church group are you all from?”
“Sathya Sai Baba group” I replied.
“What does that stand for?” she asked.
“That is nice,” she said and grinned happily.
On another day, after serving, I spoke with a man to ensure he was well taken care of and was happy.
“Are you happy, Sir?” I asked him.
He smiled, clasped my hand in his, and asked me, “Are you happy?”
How could I not be? I had just heard the voice of Love!
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