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The Ride Back to Agape

by Alex Peterson '19

photo of man with two students in India

My few days spent in Chennai, India with Daniel and Avitha Victor are filled with experiences that I will carry with me forever. I have been impacted not only by the stories of the many lives they have touched and the cultural change they have advocated for, but also by the love they exuded to everyone they met, our delegation included. By their works and their love, I had become moved to a certainty of who these two people the Opus Prize had brought into my life really were: living saints.

I have never had so many rich and impactful experiences packed into such a short period of time. There is an unending pool of memories from which I will continue to draw on in reflection and discernment for the rest of my life. There are, however, two stories in particular which I have already found myself thinking back to regularly and which I would like to share now.

The first was at a school for the blind called Mithra which Agape partners with to provide computer education to their students. We had the opportunity to meet with a former student who now works for the school translating various materials into braille and writing inspirational works which she sends to blind people all around India. This individual had become blind at a young age as a result of a battle with measles. When her neighbors heard about her new disability, they told her family to abandon any hope for the girl’s future as she would only be a burden to them from now on.

I was moved by her telling of how she overcame not only her physical disability but also the expectations of her family and community. Agape and Mithra provided her the opportunity to learn braille and develop computer skills, but ultimately it was her own perseverance and grit that enabled her to transform her place in the world. With her successful writing career, she has been able to secure regular income and, with the passing of her father a few years prior, is now the primary breadwinner in the family. The girl who the world called a burden is now the one who loving supports an entire family.

"There is an unending pool of memories from which I will continue to draw on in reflection and discernment for the rest of my life."

Later in our trip, we traveled down Chennai’s tech corridor to visit two graduates from Agape’s first class. The alums, now adult men, had used the computer skills and self-respect they learned at Agape to become project managers at the second-highest ranked banking software design firm in the world. They told us of their new lives and I couldn’t help but see them as similar to our measure of success in the States: each had high-ranking positions at a reputable company, houses and families of their own, and even modified cars which allow them to drive themselves to work every day. I was impressed by their achievements, despite both being wheelchair bound. I only fully understood the heights they had reached, however, after speaking further with Daniel about their journey.

On the ride back to downtown Chennai, Daniel told me about a low-point for one of the graduates we had just met at the tech campus. As a young man, he was struck by a bus while crossing the street, fractured his spine in three places, and become crippled from the waist-down. Shortly after arriving at Agape as a live-in student, he became afflicted with an illness that left him bed ridden and feverish for several days. Without the means to transport him to a hospital safely, Daniel went to a doctor that lived nearby to plead for assistance on the student’s behalf. After hearing about his illness and disability, the doctor refused to visit him, citing that he did not do house calls. So, the young man was left in bed with only the assistance of the minor medications Daniel and Avitha had household access to and their devout prayers. While stuck in bed and unable to be moved, he developed severe bed sores and, one morning, awoke to find that ants had begun to eat into his crippled legs during the night. Daniel, Avitha, and the student all felt helpless. They continued to care for him until “eventually,” Daniel concluded the story briefly, “he got better.”

What Daniel had painted for me in this story was a disturbingly vivid picture of the absolute lowest point a man could arrive at in life: to be rejected by society only to be left for a slow, agonizing death at the hands of a treatable illness when met with the apathy of those who only cared to see him as different from them. To hear, second-hand, about that dark of a place was chilling- I cannot begin to imagine the despair felt while actually there. However, when juxtaposed with the previous experience of meeting and speaking with the man who that young boy persevered to become, I saw something beautiful.

Where anybody could be expected to despair, Daniel and Avitha maintained hope. Where anybody could be expected to see the tragic end to a life of suffering, Daniel and Avitha saw a beginning. I found myself asking what could give someone the perspective, the faith to persevere when in the face of such unimaginable suffering, to endure the lowest of times through to achieving the pinnacle of modern success. For Daniel and Avitha, and now for me too, that power can only from one place: from the unconditional, unfiltered, and unending love of God, Agape.