Studies have shown that at any given time, it is the poor and the marginalized sections of society who are always the most vulnerable, much more so in a crisis or disaster. It is not surprising that in the present crisis brought about by COVID-19, once again the unrecognized, unacknowledged, unseen sections of India’s millions are bearing the brunt of the suffering.
The migrant workers of India have been particularly hard hit. Migrating in droves from the many villages that dot India’s landscape, workers flock to big cities to support their families back home, living in congested urban ghettoes to survive. Often seen disparagingly as “intruders” and “outsiders” in the places where they live and work, these workers became refugees almost overnight in the wake of the national lock down. Stranded, jobless, and helpless, most opted to make the long trek back home. Tragically, many died on the way from sheer exhaustion and hunger.
These tragic stories captured center space on social media recently, prompting the government and the public to take some form of action to alleviate this suffering. The plight of the migrant workers of India—desperation, tiredness, and hunger writ large on their faces—was suddenly pushed to the forefront of public consciousness in a way that has never before occurred. Sadly, it took a crisis of pandemic proportions to give voice and visibility to this otherwise silent, unseen, and oppressed group of people. In this, India is not alone. Many Native American tribes in the US have also suffered disproportionately under COVID-19, calling attention to suffering long ignored and unseen.
Yet for India, the COVID-19 crisis has not only exposed the exploited condition of the migrant community, but it also reveals how heavily our nation’s economy is dependent on these vulnerable men and women whose hardships we have long ignored. Without this workforce, many factories and industries have been severely crippled and it is no exaggeration to say that it seems as if the economy will come to a grinding halt. Though India’s economic growth is planned out and strategized in business schools and boardrooms, it is this grassroots labor force that makes it all a workable reality. Realizing this, the government, companies, and building contractors are now trying to woo migrant workers with more rewarding offers to get them to stay. It is my hope that these steps toward awareness will help us to look at these men and women with new eyes, that the unseen and unheard among us will be treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. It is my hope that we will work towards bettering their lives and correcting the oppression of their work conditions.
As a part of the Christian community, I affirm these hopeful signs of a greater, more just awareness. I believe that we are called to affirm people’s worth not because of what they can offer us but simply because they are human. The Bible asserts that every human being is created by God in God’s own image, which affords us both worth and purpose. Though the world does not allocate dignity in this way, we profess a holy God who is at work renewing all creation. I long to see a world that reflects this redemptive hope. I long to see my country treat each person, whatever his or her political or economic status, with the respect that he or she deserves. I long to see every contribution toward the development and growth of the country truly recognized and appreciated.
From this biblical vision of justice, two hopeful lessons come to mind. First, I am called to speak out. For the Christian, it is a biblical mandate to be the voice of the voiceless. Speaking out does not simply mean “protesting against,” but implies a proactive engagement with policies and laws that will result in equitable opportunities and dignity for the poorest of the poor. We need to engage with institutions and authority to work toward a fair and better future for the least of these. This demands hard work, research, and persistence. Living in a country such as mine, where the dominant worldview is one that attributes a person’s present condition to acts done in previous lifetimes, the task is not going to be easy. Nor will this mindset built over centuries of conditioning change overnight. We need strong, moral voices in our nation today to speak up for marginalized communities.
Second, I am called to reach out. As a follower of Christ, I am not only called to speak out but also to live out God’s eternal story of grace and kindness to the poor and oppressed. Recently, NDTV aired an interview with Mr. Cherian Thomas who shared stories of World Vision’s reach to the children of our country, especially those from the poorer sections of society. His heart-warming account called to mind the prayer of Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, who is said to have prayed: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.”
With a similar call to participation, theologian Christoph Schwoebel notes: “If the Cross and Resurrection of Christ point to the fact that God re-creates human dignity where it has been violated and abused, the Church which claims to be the Church of Christ is committed to sharing the situation of those who have lost their dignity in human eyes and to communicating to them the message that their dignity is re-created by the one who first bestowed it upon them.”(1)
Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God. Let my commitment to sharing God’s re-creation of dignity where it has been violated go unfettered. This should be our prayer every day of our lives.
Tejdor Tiewsoh is a speaker and trainer with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Shillong, India.
(1) Christoph Schwoebel, “Recovering Human Dignity,” in God and Human Dignity, ed. R. Kendall Soulen and Linda Woodhead (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006), 58.