By Pramod Dabhi SJ
The disciples of Jesus wanted to learn how He prayed and so asked Him, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” Jesus replied “When praying, pray like this, ‘Our Father in heaven… give us this day our daily bread…’”
Fr Abraham Murray SJ took this prayer to heart which ultimately led him to establish St. Alphonsus Social and Agricultural Centre (SASAC). Fr Abraham, who died in 2012, devoted his life to working with the people of West Bengal, India. He accompanied marginalized communities and highlighted their needs while always respecting their dignity. He believed that God is the Father of us all, and we are His children, irrespective of caste and creed.
We are all related to one another. The earth is our common home and we share equal rights, privileges and responsibilities. God’s kingdom implies harmonious relationships with one another and with the earth. This aspect of our Christian spirituality is beautifully spelled out by Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si’. However, if God is our Father, and we are brothers and sisters in the Lord, why is there so much inequality and poverty? The preferential option for the poor tells us to treat the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our society with love, justice and kindness. This was the path Jesus took, and one SASAC follows. Our motto is “Help the poor so that the poor can help themselves.”
SASAC runs programs to address the needs of our brothers and sisters, empower them and help care for our common home. Economic programs include square metre vegetable gardens (smvg), dairy farms, piggeries, mushroom cultivation, weaving, and training programs for graduates. Livelihood projects are supplemented by our educational programs: school education, coaching classes and tutorials in rural areas, vocational training, computer training, winter coaching classes and a hostel for students.
SASAC’s social programs focus primarily on medical health but also includes: good hygiene, legal aid and human rights, awareness of human trafficking and Bal Panchayat (children’s parliament).
Our environmental programs include: tree planting, social forestry, and protecting and preserving water sources. SASAC, in collaboration with the West Bengal Forest Department, plants thousands of trees every year and looks after them.
In February, we started new ventures to strengthen and expand our economic programs. One of these is bee keeping and honey production. This provides additional income to families, involves minimal training and labour, and requires no additional space. It also indirectly helps the environment through pollination. We have also started a floriculture program. Flowers and decorative plants are in high demand during festivals, and hill people love them so there is a steady market. This will also attract more visitors, both locals and tourists, to our facilities.
Finally, we have begun rabbit farming. We hope to teach people about this livelihood and provide them with animals. Rabbits multiply quickly and do not require much space. They eat everything that cows and goats eat, so no special feed is required. Rabbits can be sold in pet shops or for meat.
Fr Abraham, who had a heart for the poor, established SASAC as a strong and visible witness to the values of the Gospel. We continue to promote the wonderful work he started by supporting and respecting the dignity of the poor. We will continue to do so with God’s providence and with the support of many people of goodwill.