Today, accompanied by Bay Area photographer Laura Kudritzki and a local film crew, I went to visit two slums in Surat, India, as part of the launch of CorStone’s Children’s Resiliency Program with 1,000 at-risk adolescent girls. Six thousand people live in the first slum, 2,000 in the second one. In the 45 years since these slums were established, we were the first foreigners to ever visit. Hundreds of people came out to greet us. Adults, children, for as far I could see. Everyone laughing, yelling, shaking our hands, and calling our names. We visited people in their homes.10 feet by 10 feet, with 5-7 people per shack. When the rains come in June, the floods reach 5-7 feet high, and they have to run. Then the mosquitoes and rats come, as does malaria, dysentery, and death. 2,000 people in a slum, and not a single toilet. They only go to the bathroom before 6am and after 6pm, in a field nearby, because they have too much dignity to be seen.
All the people are Dalits, the ‘untouchables’. The lowest of the low, the rag pickers, and the shit shovelers. With the greatest smiles, and greatest hearts I have ever seen in all the countries and places I have been in my life.
I saw an elderly man standing quietly, dressed in white. I recognized him immediately. I said to my translator, do you know this man? He said yes, he is one of the leaders of the community. I said to the man, you are a man of heart. He said to me, you are a man of heart. We grasped each other’s hands in recognition and he said, I saw you and recognized the face of God. I said to him, I saw you and I recognized the face of God. He said, we have the language of the heart, there is no need to speak. I said yes, and we stood quietly… He said, we are Dalits. No one sees us, and no one will touch us, and yet you reached out and grasped my hand. I said, I recognized you instantly, of course I will touch my friend. He said God is in the sky, and now he is in our faces, and he knows there is no such thing as skin color and discrimination. He said, we are men and we have no dignity here, and yet in an instant you have given us our dignity and we will all remember this moment.
I shook the hand of a child. And suddenly I was surrounded by hundreds of children, each wanting to shake my hand. I think I held a hundred beautiful little hands in the space of a minute. A little girl was smiling at me. Daniel, my translator and guide and dear soul brother said, she is an untouchable and yet you have touched her hand without fear. She has never been touched by someone outside the slum, and she has never seen a foreigner, her life is changed. And I said, yes as has mine.