We had the privilege of hearing Leena Lavanya last night at Richmond’s First Baptist Church. Leena is from Narasaraopet, Andhra Pradesh, India, where she works with lepers, AIDS orphans, prostitutes, and others who rank among the poorest of the poor. She has been called “the Baptist Mother Teresa” and is this year’s winner of the Baptist World Alliance’s prestigious Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award.
Leena was raised by Christian grandparents (her grandfather was a seminary professor and one-time vice-presisdent of the Baptist World Alliance). When she was in her early twenties she won a scholarship to attend the Baptist Youth World Conference in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she was challenged by noted speaker Tony Campolo to dedicate her life to Christian service. “He talked about that hymn ‘I Surrender All,'” she said. “But he told us, ‘We don’t surrender all. We surrender a dollar, a pound, a rupee.'” In that moment Leena decided that she would surrender herself completely to Christ.
And then she began to tell us what happens when you do that.
It started when she found herself seated beside a prostitute on a bus. She struck up a conversation with the woman and eventually told her, “You should give up your prostitution. You should start a new life.” “Fine!” the woman answered. “If you will feed the eight people in my family I will start a new life.” And so Leena and her grandparents gave up breakfast for three months, saved the money, and bought this woman a sewing machine. Then they spent six months teaching her how to use it. Now the woman owns her own small business.
Leena talked about finding a boy crying by the side of the road. His family had learned that he was HIV positive and put him out of the house. “They had a nice barn,” Leena said. “Their animals were well-kept. But they put their son out of the house!” She had to do something. And so she found a place for this boy to live, and then discovered that there were others like him. Now there are twenty boys living in an orphanage run by her ministry, Serve Trust.
One of the most touching stories she told last night was about her work with “leprous people.” She said these people lie under trees outside the towns and villages. No one will touch them; no one will take care of them. But she had surrendered all to Jesus, and Jesus ministered to lepers. And so, approaching them hesitantly, she began to talk to these people. She began to feel compassion for them. Before long she was caring for them, even dressing their sores. “Why are you doing this?” one man asked her. “Because of Jesus,” she answered, cheerfully. “Who is Jesus?” he asked, and she began to tell him. When she finished he told her through tears that he wanted this Jesus in his life.
But he also wanted to be baptized, and since Leena is not a pastor she asked the pastor of the local church to baptize the man. The pastor came and had a look at him, but eventually shook his head and walked away. The man was very sick, almost at the point of death. How would they get him into the baptistery? So, Leena began to tell him that it wasn’t absolutely necessary to be baptized. Look at the thief on the cross! Jesus said, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” But the man still wanted to be baptized. He pleaded with her. Finally, Leena said, “I dragged him over to a water spigot, turned it on, and as the water poured over his head I said, ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!”
He died a month later.
She went on and on like that last night, telling one story after another about seeing human need, feeling the pain of others, and doing something about it. Her organization, Serve Trust Ministries, operates a home for the aged, a home for lepers, homes for HIV/AIDS-infected children and adults, and an HIV/AIDS counseling center. She has been instrumental in starting more than 40 Baptist churches in the villages surrounding her hometown of Narasaraopet. And yet she retains the bubbling enthusiasm of the young woman who went to a Baptist Youth Conference in Zimbabwe nearly twenty years ago. When she finished speaking last night I stepped to the podium and said:
“Now I think we know the difference between surrendering some and surrendering all.”