Mrs. Hilda and Beulah
May 14, 2017, Mother’s Day
We know what the crèches do for the children but there are mother stories, too. I’d like to tell you two of them in honor of Mother’s Day. One story belongs to Hilda Isaac, the woman whose vision, dedication and boundless love drives the whole crèche project. The other is about a crèche cook, Beulah, who credits Hilda and her job at the crèche with transforming her life.
Hilda is the executive director of the Betsy Elizabeth Trust, which Help Kids India and your church support. She manages five creches, two sewing centers for poor women, and a community health center. She oversees thirty staff members, two rickety jeeps, seven properties, and the education, health, and care of 270 children.
Hilda grew up poor in a small coastal village, Porayar, where two of the crèches are now located. Her parents were Dalit, or untouchables, but could read and write. Like many low-caste families they were Christian. Her father traveled in the military. Her mother was a respected fellowship leader and singer.
In the Porayar area there are numerous Lutheran churches and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tamil Nadu is based there. Tamil Nadu is an Indian state and Evangelical in India means Protestant. I’d like to digress for a minute to tell you how Lutheranism came there. In 1620 Denmark established a colony near Porayar, on the steamy, tropical Coromandel Coast. The Danish king, being keen to spread Christianity among his non-European subjects (the better to keep them in line) sent out the call for Danish missionaries.
Dismayed by a total lack of interest (distance, climate and language no doubt) he moved his search to Germany. Two excellent candidates, German Lutherans, landed in India in 1706, the first pioneer Protestant missionaries to set foot in India. Christianity already had a firm hold in South India: the Apostle Thomas landed there in AD 52 and St. Francis Xavier, the first modern missionary, came in 1542.
One of the pair, Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg, was a remarkable man. To learn Tamil, the native language of that region, he sat in the primary class with the village children, gradually working his way up. He founded a Tamil seminary for training native clergy and established two churches with 250 congregants. Ziegenbalg set up India’s first printing press, putting it to work on his own Tamil translation of the Bible. He championed the cause of women’s education and the abolition of the caste system. He died at age 37 and is buried beside his first church, named New Jerusalem, built in 1718. An golden statue of Ziegenbalg commands the square of the former Danish colony and Ziegenbalg remains a common first name for boys.
Hilda rose out of this rich tradition. Her mother befriended a 20th century Lutheran missionary from Germany who had started a home for orphans and children whose families couldn’t support them. The community was skeptical of this new idea so Hilda’s mother sent her to live at the home, to assure others that it was a safe and nurturing environment. The German missionary’s name was Hilda, and our Hilda was named after her. Hilda calls her a second mother. Hilda says, “She loved me so much. Too much! More than my mother—my own mother.”
As a child, Hilda saw many deaths among the poor children of her community, especially babies. She wanted to change that. When she began talking about becoming a nurse, German Hilda encouraged her to take up early childhood education—the crèche work—instead, knowing that education was the ultimate answer to improving the health and well-being of these families. Hilda went on to college, supported by her mentor, and earned a degree in early childhood education.
A college friend introduced her brother, Isaac Newton, to Hilda. They eventually married and she moved to his hometown, Kodaikanal, in the mountains high above the hot, low plains of Porayar. There she was hired to work in a crèche that had just been started by Betsy Dailey, an American who grew up in Kodaikanal.
As a low caste Indian woman, Hilda’s plight has been difficult. By Indian custom, she and her husband lived with his family. They firmly believed her place was in the home, cooking, cleaning and raising children. As Hilda puts it: “Isaac is the highest caste, I am low caste. And also a dowry problem. The whole family don’t like my social status. That family only for the housewife. Sitting, cooking, washing, cleaning, everything. Like normal Indian ladies.”
She was determined to follow her dream of educating poor children and Isaac’s family did all they could to prevent it, including severely beating her. In time she won out. Isaac’s become a key employee and her best support. He takes care of the gardens and maintenance for the Kodai crèches and drives the school jeep.
Hilda says, “I meet many, many problems—big mountain-like problems all directions, but always God is guiding. . . I love my job. I love my project.”
She lost her first child, a boy, by miscarriage. The loss was overwhelming, but that grief became part of her mission. She says, “I am happy now. I lost my one baby, but now I have hundreds and hundreds.
Hilda and Isaac went on to have two girls, both now in college. Their older daughter, Betsy, will eventually take over the crèches when Hilda retires. Our first day at the two Porayar crèches was Betsy’s birthday. Each crèche had a big decorated orange cake for all the children–Betsy knows every single kid and loves to share her birthday celebration with them. Hilda and Isaac’s younger daughter, Becky, is studying to be a chemist–and intends to help support the creches.
Hilda works side by side with the teachers, cooks and nurses at the creches. Far removed from any desk, she directs the project while assisting with lessons, playing with the children, working in the crèche gardens, and helping—hands on—with any work that needs to be done. She knows each staff member’s story. Most come from poor homes and in too many cases their husbands are alcoholic, abusive, or absent. Here, under Hilda’s loving oversight, they find a sisterhood that nurtures their dedication to the crèches and the children. They feel safe at the schools. Few of her staff ever leave their jobs. The teachers have college degrees, but Hilda supports their continuing education as well.
One evening when we were in Porayar last fall, Hilda, her daughters and I, were walking past Zigenbalg’s church, New Jerusalem, on the way to dinner.
Without any comment, they turned into the beautifully maintained old church and settled down on the floor, as Indians do, near the altar. We stayed quite awhile, talking occasionally, and the word to best describe it, I think, is companionable–just being with their faith, their heritage, and each other. Their lives are busy; it was very peaceful and friendly and ordinary.
A low wall runs along the street outside the New Jerusalem Church with texts painted along it. One could be for Hilda, from Mark 9:35: If one of you wants to be great, he must be a servant of the rest. I don’t think she cares about greatness, but Hilda is a true servant leader, leading by example, putting the needs of others first, and helping people–both staff and children–to develop and perform as highly as possible. Hilda’s faith and love are her strength, her guiding principles.
Continuing with Mark, 9:37: Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me. To be with Hilda is to recognize the power of love to do good in this world.
Hilda has been honored for her good work. In 2016, she received three all-India awards, including the Mother Theresa Award. Her contribution to education and health care for children living in poverty, empowerment of women, and social work were cited. This past February she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Jeeva Theological Open University in Chennai. But she can’t keep a straight face if you call her “Doctor.”
Hilda is a role model for her teachers and anyone who wants to help improve the lives of others. She stays in touch with her crèche graduates, encouraging girls, especially, to be strong, to graduate HS and college before marriage, refuse abuse, have careers they enjoy. Ziegenbalg would approve. She has seen many of her students go to college, become nurses, teachers, engineers, and skilled in the trades. Creche graduates are confident, focused, articulate. They know that education is the best path to improving their lives.
Hilda says, “The low poverty children not respected. Only you get a good education, you get a good job, they giving the respect. Now low caste want a good education, changing the world, changing India. I dedicated my life, I love my Indian children. Everything God is planning.”
Beulah is a cook at one of the crèches in the mountains near Kodaikanal. She grew up in hot lowlands of South India. When she was 18 she met her husband on their wedding day. Like Hilda, Beulah’s husband took her to live with his family in Kodaikanal. She wasn’t used to the altitude at 7,000 feet, or the local customs, she had no family and no friends. And she was “not an educated lady”–she didn’t know how to talk decently. Beulah says, “I had no knowledge in my mind.”
Beulah and her husband Benjamin, both Hindu, are also Dalit, or untouchables, and grew up in poverty. They started marriage with no resources–they were illiterate and Benjamin, a day laborer, was often without work. Luckily, Beulah found what’s called “bungalow work,” cleaning house and cooking. Beulah worked for an American woman who took an interest in her small, bright-eyed would-be cook, and she taught Beulah how to find her way about in a kitchen. This American lady was a friend of Betsy Dailey’s, who had hired Hilda to start the first creche with her. Betsy Dailey and Hilda also took an interest in Beulah.
Beulah recalls that she didn’t know how to cook or clean, and was afraid of people. Hilda “talked friendly” to her and told her there was no need to be afraid. After her daughter, Jasminepriya, was born, Beulah’s widowed sister came to live with them to take care of the infant.
As Beulah was gaining more skill and confidence things were deteriorating at home. Benjamin was drinking more and as Beulah says, “My husband is beating me all the time.” Steady work eluded him. He was frustrated and resentful of Beulah’s even moderate success. He called her uneducated, stupid, and ugly and took his anger out on his wife.
Benjamin left the home when Jasmine was three. Hilda brought the little girl into the crèche and then invited Beulah to come to the crèche, too, to work. According to Beulah, Hilda taught her everything: dancing, “the style”, cooking, English.
Beulah has a strong desire to learn and a knack for identifying good mentors. This led her to three-year old Becky, Hilda’s younger daughter, whom she took care of sometimes. Becky was precocious and took on her little shoulders the role of Beulah’s teacher, bringing her up to snuff over the next few years on nursery songs, reading and writing.
Beulah’s child, Jasmine, was a sweet-natured and bright child. With a good head start at the crèche, she got a scholarship to a convent school and later, to college. As with many staff children, Hilda saw to it that Jasmine had the funds she needed. Now 25 years old, Jasmine has a BA and a good job teaching second grade.
We know personally that Beulah is an accomplished cook. She turns out two tasty, healthy meals six days a week–with two burners, no refrigerator, cold running water, and no can opener–it’s all fresh. She visits students’ homes with other staff and participates in the daily routine at the crèche. The crèche staff are Beulah’s friends, her other sisters. She attends monthly teacher seminars, can read and write enough to get by, and spoke to us in English.
Beulah has made a modest but good life for her sister, whom she supports, her daughter Jasmine, and herself. She says, “I like my work, like the childrens very much.” But Jasmine is at the age when a girl should be married. Although her earning potential might mitigate her low caste, the families of suitable boys are understandably concerned about her parents’ marriage.
Over the years apart Benjamin steadied his ways, quit drinking, and finally found regular work as a watchman. He got wind of Jasmine’s predicament and presented himself, sober and polished, to Beulah for a second chance.
Like everyone at the creches, Beulah has a generous heart and loving nature. She was willing to give him a try. Now she complains, “Benny comes home, too much love!” Now Benny says Beulah is educated, smart, and beautiful.
Jasminepriya helps her parents financially, easing the stress, frustration, and helplessness of poverty that lead to their earlier troubles. Today they are a happy family. Versions of their story are common in the crèche neighborhoods and Jasmine’s prospects for a good match are much brighter.
Both Hilda and Beulah, in their own ways, are living out the vision of Saint Teresa of Avila, born in Spain in 1515, who wrote:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion
is to look out to the world.
Yours are the feet with which Christ is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which Christ is to bless all people now.
Hilda and Beulah’s faith in the power of love–of compassion–to do good in the world, to become Christ’s eyes, hands, and feet, has given countless impoverished children and their families the means to create a better life for themselves. Which is really what all mothers, everywhere, hope for and want for their own children. As Hilda said, “Everything God is planning,” — with some serious help from the mothers of the world.
Help Kids India, Inc. is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization.