Leena Lavanya, founder of ServeTrust, a charity ministering to the poor in Southern India, will speak at Mercer in Macon and Atlanta on Tuesday and Wednesday. Known as the “Baptist Mother Teresa,” Lavanya’s ministry has helped thousands in India and inspired others around the world.
Lavanya was given the Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award by the Baptist World Alliance in 2009 for her work. Her quiet commitment to the service of others has inspired accolades and the attention of several authors, including double Mercer graduate the Rev. Julie Whidden Long, who wrote a chapter on 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.
“I chose to include her because she was known as the ‘Baptist Mother Teresa’ and was doing many of the same things as Mother Teresa, but without the notoriety,” Long said. “She was an ordinary person who saw the needs of those in her own community and began to minister to them.”
The granddaughter of Baptist converts, Lavanya grew up with a keen sense of compassion for others, and upon hearing a speech by the Rev. Tony Campolo at a Baptist World Alliance meeting in 1993, she was inspired to change her path. As Long wrote, “Campolo challenged the group that while they often sang the hymn, ‘All to Jesus, I Surrender,’ few Christians ever surrendered very much. Leena decided then to take the words of that hymn seriously and to surrender her life to serving Christ by caring for the poorest people in India.” Lavanya returned home and began her ministry, ServeTrust, which is working 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.
It was through Mercer that book led to Lavanya’s invitation to Mercer. Dr. Darlene Flaming, an associate professor in Mercer’s Columbus Roberts Department of Christianity, read Long’s book as part of her research for a class on Baptist traditions and was inspired by Lavanya’s story. After some Internet research, she found that Lavanya traveled to the U.S. periodically for fund-raising and contacted her ministry partners about her next visit. With a few more connections, Lavanya was scheduled to speak in Macon and Atlanta, and at Long’s church.
“I’d never heard her story before, but I was so moved I had to learn more,” Dr. Flaming said. “Her story is so inspiring that I wanted others to hear it.”
In Atlanta, Lavanya will address the McAfee School of Theology’s chapel service on Tuesday at 10:45 a.m. in Cecil B. Day Hall, preaching on “You are the salt of the earth...” from Matthew 5:13. Later that day, she will travel to Macon and speak about her work at 7 p.m. in the Presidents Dining Room of the University Center. On Wednesday, she will address the Macon University Worship service in Newton Chapel at 10 a.m. with a “Conversation on Faith,” with University Minister Dr. Craig McMahan. Following the service, she will join local ministers and church leaders for lunch at the Religious Life Center. She will end the day talking to the Wednesday service of First Baptist Church of Christ at 6:30 p.m. in the church’s fellowship hall. All events are free and open to the public.