On 2nd February Fr Susai Alangaram celebrates 25 years of priesthood. He had just six years of experience as a priest in Tiruchirapally,Tamil Nadu, the southernmost state of India overlooking the Indian Ocean, when he ventured on the task of setting up a project aimed at alleviating the poverty of the children of his parish. He had encountered the Focolare Movement and committed to live for and give witness to unity with fellow priests in a caste ridden society, and with the help of two other priests he started his support at a distance project with 50 children, naming it Ilanthalir, meaning tender shoots of crops, to remind of the tender care needed for the growth and development of these children.
Today poor rural children in various villages of five districts of Tamil Nadu are supported by Ilanthalir in an area stretching 125km further south from Tiruchirapally and 70km to the North. After the 2004 Tsunami children from two coastal villages were also sponsored, and they are presently following their university studies.
The climate in Tamil Nadu is always hot and the monsoons are unpredictable, disrupting crop cultivation and impoverishing farmers. This year there were floods in the northern part of Tamil Nadu and drought in the centre.
Many families below the poverty line are more concerned with earning than educating their children, and this gives rise to illiteracy and child labour. Ilanthalir seeks to provide children with their basic necessities and sponsors their education until they are able to find employment and assist their families.
This year 456 children are benefiting from direct support and 300 more are receiving assistance from Ilanthalir. As the children are of different faiths Ilanthalir makes arrangements for all to celebrate together their major festivals of Diwali (feast of light), Pongal (harvest festival), Christmas, etc. October is observed as the month for the protection of the environment, and each centre organizes a programme of tree planting, cleaning up of public places, etc.
What is striking about the Ilanthalir experience is the impact of the spirituality of unity in a context which would otherwise lead to a culture of survival and isolation. The Word of Life of the Focolare, a commentary on how to live Gospel phrases, is translated into Tamil and distributed to the children and their parents, and once a month they come together to share how they are striving to live the word of God and to renew their commitment to live it. A one day Mariapolis for around 300 people is held every year in Tiruchirapally promoting fraternal interaction. The effort of the children of Ilanthalir to live in this way and their small acts of love make them agents of unity in the family and in their neighbourhood, bringing new hope to many.