MACON, Ga. — Twenty-hour days in the face of desperate poverty, terrible diseases, sometimes-hostile neighbors and even tigers could grind down even the most faithful, but somehow, Leena Lavanya draws strength from her ministry to keep going. Sharing God’s love and shining her light for others in her community give her strength, she told a group gathered at Mercer University to hear her remarkable story. Lavanya, the founder of ServeTrust, a charity ministering to the poor in Southern India, spoke about her ministry and her experiences.
“I don’t know how, but the more I work, the more energy I get,” she said. “If I help one person, it fills my heart. I get satisfaction when I help others. I enjoy my work, I enjoy my ministries. I like to be with my school children, I like to be with the HIV patients, I want to hear and share the problems of sex workers, sitting on their dirt floors. I love to be with all these people. God always gives me physical strength, and spiritual strength.”
Lavanya has been hailed as the “Baptist Mother Teresa,” in part because of her deep faith, but also her ministry’s parallel focus on ministering to the poorest, the sick and the dying of India. She has earned praise from faith groups and her government. In 2009, the Baptist World Alliance presented her with the Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award and, in 2007, ServeTrust was named the top non-governmental organization in India. But she began her ministry not in search of accolades but as an expression of her deep faith in God. She gave herself to God after hearing a speech by the Rev. Tony Campolo at a Baptist World Alliance meeting in 1993. He preached that though many people sing from the hymn “All to Jesus, I Surrender,” few who sing it actually do so.
“Those words touched my heart. I said to God, ‘You don’t need money. I don’t have money to give you, but you have given me this precious life by shedding your precious blood on the Calvary Cross. Here I am God, use me to do your service,’” she said. “So completely, I surrendered myself to God.”
Her eyes opened, she soon saw the suffering of those in her community. Before she had an organization, she began her ministry, starting with simple act of training a sex worker in sewing and buying her a sewing machine. Now, Lavanya’s ministry helps hundreds of people who have been abandoned. ServeTrust works to alleviate suffering in her home state of Andhra Pradesh, in Southern India. Among ServeTrust’s ministries are an AIDS hospice, leper shelter, an old-age home, rural health care, a micro-enterprise center for former sex workers, job training centers for youth and schools for destitute children and orphans.
“They need someone to comfort them, they need somebody to share love and concern with them,” Lavanya said. “Because I am a Christian, I am able to tell them the love of Jesus and many people have gotten comfort from that, from the love of Jesus.”
Lavanya recounted the stories of how her ministries were formed, often from a single interaction, and told of stories of simpler acts of compassion, from persuading suicidal AIDS patients not to give up, to taking in the destitute. “My phone always rings,” she said. Her openness is her ministry and she has won many converts by her actions. She never asks them to convert. She shows them God’s love.
“I don’t want to sit in my house and go to church on Sunday and think that is enough,” she said. “I want to reach the unreached people with the love and compassion of Christ and the Good News of Christ.”
Her story of action in a challenging environment inspired Mercer graduate the Rev. Julie Whidden Long to devote a chapter to Lavanya in her 2008 book, Portraits of Courage: Stories of Baptist Heroes. Long is minister of children and families at First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon and wrote the book in part to share stories of unsung Baptist heroes around the world. She was inspired by Lavanya’s story and included it among 14 heroes since the founding of the Baptist denomination. Hearing Lavanya’s story in her own words was inspiring, Long said.
“I was deeply moved by Leena’s stories and the quiet, humble simplicity with which she carries herself and conducts her ministry,” Long said. “I was struck by the way that she began each of her stories – ‘One day, I was walking on the road...’ and “One day, my car was stopped at the traffic light...’ and ‘One day, I was visiting in the village...’ I realized that she never set out with the goal of doing great things for God. She has simply opened her eyes and her heart to the people around her and responds to their needs out of her deep compassion and love. Leena challenged me to do the same.”