A worship pastor at Pine Hills Church, 32-year-old Nirup Alphonse had a childhood a little different from that of most Fort Wayne residents.
Born in Singapore, he grew up in India, where his Indian-born father was pastor of a Methodist megachurch in Chennai, formerly called Madras and India’s third largest city.
That life might seem exotic, but it was touched with uncomfortable realities, Alphonse says.
We lived in a gated compound, and we would walk outside and see homeless people with leprosy sitting in the streets with children wandering around, he says. I remember leaving a wedding and seeing a huge garbage can filled with leftovers and a small child fighting with a dog for food.
Visible poverty, he says, was everywhere.
That’s why Alphonse has taken to heart a cause begun by his father, the Rev. Martin Alphonse, a recently retired professor at Multonomah University, a Bible college and seminary in Portland, Ore.
In 1992, the elder Alphonse began organizing a home and school for homeless young girls in the village of Alamathi, about 25 miles west of Chennai, after seeing hundreds begging in the streets.
The Home of Love first housed seven youngsters but has grown in the last 20 years to serve 85 – girls who were living in abject poverty after having been orphaned, abandoned or otherwise separated from their parents.
Nirup Alphonse says having the home continue and thrive is a legacy he can’t push aside, as he knows firsthand that poor girls without family protection face cruel realities in India.
Some in the West might associate China with discriminatory treatment of girls, but it’s also rife in India, where the Hindu culture prefers males for several reasons, he says.
For one, he says, some Hindus believe that if a man is to enter the afterlife, he must be buried by a firstborn son. So, Alphonse says, girls who are firstborn may be given up for adoption or sold. Girls also find it harder to find family-supporting work than boys and require a dowry to be married, something poor families often cannot afford.
There’s a lot of negativity around girls. There’s (sex and labor) trafficking and gendercide – girls are killed just because they are girls, he says. They are thought to be less smart and seen as more baggage on the family. Many Hindus believe there is a curse on a family that has a third daughter.
Many girls living on the streets wind up as prostitutes, a fate his father, who now serves as president of the nonprofit organization that oversees the home, finds horrific.
Alphonse’s father – and mother, Padmini, a teacher – wanted all girls, regardless of their economic or religious background, to have a loving home where they would be valued and get a good education, Alphonse says.
We don’t use the word orphan.’ We refer to them all as daughters, he says.
Nearly 100 percent of the girls taken in are not Christian, he says, and it’s against the law in India to try to convert someone born in a non-Christian home before adulthood. So, Alphonse says, staff at the home work to expose the girls to Christian values, such as love for God and others, service, honesty, humility, courtesy, gentleness, hard work and discipline.
Staff members also try to instill self-esteem in the girls, in opposition to stigmatizing and fatalistic cultural norms that see a person’s life condition as predetermined by experiences in previous lives, he says.
As we show the love of Christ to them, slowly the girls are becoming Christian, and they go back into a non-Christian environment as strong Christians, he says. Many are baptized as soon as they reach age 18, he says.
Alphonse says the home’s residents have included a girl whose parents, both Christian, had been killed for evangelizing and one who was found abandoned under a bench at a train station. Another came to the home because her father was in jail for killing her mother.
At Pine Hills, Alphonse has organized trips to the home for about 50 people, with the last one in November 2012.
He’s also helped student groups from Huntington and Indiana Wesleyan universities travel there, with one group from the latter planning to go in May.
Alphonse says the home’s leaders want to develop the school as a place where girls can get a top-notch education comparable to the best offered in India.
Capital improvements include bringing in the best staff and highly educated teachers who are Indian, he says. We want to have a good facility where the girls can learn and study.
The home would also like to expand to house 1,000 girls, although that is still far off.
Alphonse and his wife Hannah, 27, try to return to the school every year or so.
My parents would always challenge us to love the poor, he says, adding that one of his strongest childhood memories that his father invited people with leprosy to come to their home every Christmas Eve to receive food and gifts.
These were people with missing fingers and missing ears, he says. They would stand on our doorstep, and my brother and I were the ones to give (gifts) to them, and touch and hug them, he says.
So he can’t turn away from supporting the home.
I can’t because I’ve seen it (the need) firsthand, he says. It’s very different when you have to consciously make the choice to do something or not do something.
I can’t stand before God and say, Well, I didn’t know.’