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 | By Marissa Nichols

I Take Your Dust on Me

An Outreach Inspired by the Holy Spirit

Missionary Disciple Annette Venables' Tribe Rising India: A Bay Area-Based Outreach to the Santhal Tribe of Eastern India

Few local Catholics have ever heard of the Santhal tribe, the largest tribal population in South Asia, located in eastern India. They seemingly have no connection to either California or Catholicism. However, as the lesser-known adage goes, it all started when a Jesuit walked into a parish...

In this case, Father Maria Joseph Savariappan S.J., who was studying at the University of San Francisco, walked into Annette Venables’ parish, Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Mill Valley, as a visiting priest in 2017. In the pews, Annette listened intently when Father Maria Joseph shared about his life in India, of the transformative Jesuit mission in West Bengal, specifically their mission to educate the Santhal tribe. For her, what grew out of his visit was a life path that she was completely unprepared for.

This unexpected turn of events occurred following a conversation with Father Maria Joseph. Annette recalled, “We were standing on the steps, and Father was saying, ‘It is just so difficult for me when I travel to Europe, or I come here to the United States, to try and explain to people what our lives are like; it is something that you really have to see.’” Her reaction surprised her: she agreed on the spot to travel to India to see for herself.

“To this day, I do not know how or why those words came out of my mouth. I really feel like that was a Holy Spirit moment. I came home and told my husband about my plans, and he almost fell off his chair.”

Her experience reveals how one missionary disciple, open to such grace-filled moments and through the powerful testimony of a priest in a liturgy, can touch lives and change the world in ways they never imagined possible.

Outreach Inspired by the Holy Spirit

Only a couple of months after that conversation with Father Maria Joseph, while she was also participating for the first time in the spiritual exercises at the Jesuit Retreat Center in Los Altos, Annette went to India. "Most likely because I was in the middle of a personal spiritual transformation, I went abroad with a heart wide open to whatever the Holy Spirit wanted.” She also traveled with her spiritual director’s blessing. However, no one – not herself, her director, or her husband, Paul Venables,who was also participating in the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises — foresaw what came next in 2019: the creation of Tribe Rising India.

Before this, Annette had no connection to or desire to travel to that region. “I had no interest in going to India, and the only thing I can attribute it to is just having that open heart from reconnecting with God through the Ignatian exercises.”  Even after making a leap of faith, Annette admitted feeling deeply apprehensive about the trip. “I was honestly never more afraid of anything than when I boarded that plane.”

In India, Annette stayed at the Jesuit retreat center in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) near the mother house of the Missionaries of Charity. She spent time praying at Saint Mother Teresa’s tomb. "There is just a beautiful spirit in that place,” Annette recalled. “When I was at her tomb, it was like I suddenly had the wisdom to ask myself, ‘What am I afraid of?’” She walked the streets of West Bengal and witnessed the vast difference between the social classes or castes, where people were begging and living in the dirt by the roadside across the street from an Apple store. “The next day, I met the children, and the rest of the trip was amazing.”

The Outreach to the Santhals

To put the need in context, the Santhals are over 10 million people (about half the population of New York) and the largest modern-day tribe in India. They are below the lowest caste, called Scheduled Tribes — what used to be called the Untouchables — in India. The literacy rate among tribals in India is only 25%, and the adults are day laborers. The Jesuit’s mission in West Bengal was to educate the Santhal children, who commonly leave school by the fourth grade.

Tribe Rising India has built a large school, Saint Xavier’s, in the town of Gurap. Currently, 500 students are set on a path they would not have accessed before by receiving quality education and being empowered to break the cycle of poverty. Annette’s school can hold up to 1,200 students, and because of Tribe Rising India's success, the whole Jesuit province has recommitted itself to Santhal education, with more expanded schools being planned.

“It's the structure of the Jesuit education system there that allows us to do this,” she explained. This collaboration between Tribe Rising India and the Jesuit order is a testament to the transformative power of grace-filled moments, impactful homilies, and the potential one person has, in collaboration with her local community, to make a significant difference in the lives of those in the most unexpected places.

St Xavier’s Gurap

The school provides a solution for the low literacy rate and the socio-economic challenges faced by the tribals. To attend public boarding schools, a perceived required step to higher education, the Santhals were previously forced to leave behind their village and, therefore, their culture. The Jesuits, in contrast, established their schools amongst the Santhals to help preserve their culture even while inviting them to experience the Catholic faith.

The school is also staffed by Jesuits who grew up in poverty and by students’ parents. Paku is one such mom to 9th grader Payel and 5th grader Piyali. Paku places her daughters’ education above all else. "I am very proud of my daughters! The program and studies at Saint Xavier’s Gurap are excellent. They can focus on their learning and dreams for the future here at school.”  Paku also commented that her daughters are more confident and that she and her husband, a mason, are dedicated to doing whatever it takes to keep their daughters in school.

Tribe Rising India is changing the narrative of a culture where most students run away as teenagers because they are worried about burdening their families. “They maybe feel a little bit more self-assured that there's a place for them or that they have a right to change their lives,” Annette said. “Education opens worlds.”

Annette described how the tangible benefits to families and students are also immediate, “Families have shared how relieved they are to have a school that cares for their kids. They have told us things like, ‘We go off to work all day long, and worry that our children are unsupervised; that they're not eating, that they're not learning.’” In addition to the supervision, meals, and tutoring, students have access to a registered nurse who works at a neighboring school; girls can also discuss unique hygiene issues related to women, which is still taboo amongst tribals.

“I take your dust on me.”

Annette has found herself profoundly transformed in her faith through the witness of the Santhals: “They're an incredibly welcoming people.” She spoke of one powerful example that illustrates this: “They have a ceremony that involves washing of the feet and anointing of the head. Then they wipe their hand across their own heads after they have bowed to you. It is the opposite of ‘shaking the dust from your feet.’ It is more ‘I'm taking your dust on me.’”

This ceremony encapsulates how, when a missionary disciple undertakes any outreach, they aretaking on the burden of the other, or the other’s ‘dust,’ so to speak. The humility of the Santhals has deeply impacted Annette, who now works tirelessly from California to aid the mission of the Jesuits through Tribe Rising India. “These people, who have nothing, welcome you into their lives and want to give things to you and sacrifice for you. Their gratitude is immense.”

There is still much work to be done, and all aspiring missionary disciples should never be afraid to give themselves unexpectedly, as Annette has done, even if they are cognitively unsure. True to the Ignatian spirituality she was formed in when Tribe Rising India began, Annette offered this bit of wisdom: “Saint Ignatius always said the longest 18 inches in the world is from the head to the heart.”  Had she never met Father Maria Joseph, one of the most joyful, open-hearted people she has known, as she told The Valley Catholic, “I never would have taken that leap of faith.” In her case, this long 18-inch journey, which went backward from the heart to the head, was very brief after she met the children Tribe Rising India now serves.

Annette Venables and her husband, Paul, are parishioners at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Mill Valley.

Marissa Nichols is the managing editor and lead writer for The Valley Catholic, the magazine for the Catholic Diocese of San José.

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