Dust coats everything in a pale shade of brown, hiding reality from those who walk by. If they glanced for a moment, they would see what is going on. From toddlers to old age the poor beg. Some for themselves and others for someone else. A few sit in front of plastic sheet houses that cannot keep weather and people out. The luckier ones in front of tin shacks, but not inside for it becomes a sauna in the heat of the day. As the light fades the women move toward dark corners in order to sell themselves to feed their children. But still, after all that, it is not enough, it’s never enough. In order to survive in India you either have to be rich, courageous or numb. Dr Lalita Edwards is more than courageous.
Edwards is a gracious Indian in her 60s who is still going strong. Her silver hair, warm smile and grandmotherly qualities appropriately fit the image of a woman running a home for orphaned children. Her orphanage is called Santvana, meaning “comforter.” Edwards is exactly this: a comforter.
All the children at Santvana have come from difficult beginnings. Most used to run around barefoot in the trash and scorching concrete of Indian streets, returning home at night to sleep in slums and brothels. The children of the prostitutes were often drugged and pushed under the beds in order to keep them from disturbing their mothers work. But because of Edwards, they now have their own beds. They no longer fear for anyone coming to steal them, and force them to beg for them or worse sell them to a brothel. She also has night care programs for the children of prostitutes and is currently doing evangelism among the eunuchs who sell their bodies. And yes, eunuchs still exist.
Edwards hasn’t always had the orphanage. In fact, she has only been running it for five years, and her other ministries for even less. It has been a long road to get to this point.
Edwards was brought up in a rich Christian home, with all the comforts and education one needs to survive in India. However, she was never truly exposed to its harsh realities—they were all around her, but she didn’t look. The poor were just another part of India’s beautiful chaos. As she got older, she decided to become a doctor. With good grades she was practicing medicine before she knew it.
In 1974 she got her first job in family clinics, working with women from all different walks of life. For the first time she saw her own country through the eyes of the women—poor women, homeless women, abused women, raped women, prostitute women. Bit by bit her heart began to break for the people of India. She finally decided in 1991 to give up her financial securities as a doctor and to dedicate the rest of her life to the poor and outcast. Working for World Vision challenged her faith in a whole new way. It was a struggle to change and become a woman totally dependent on God, but slowly she began to completely trust Him. After three and a half years, she felt she was needed else where. Edwards then started an AIDS project in Mumbai, along with working in the joyless red light district with the prostitutes and their children. She also began to give lessons in schools about the truth of AIDS and HIV, for there are still stigmas surrounding those who afflicted with these diseases.
In 2002 she moved to Pune to start working in the red light district there. It took a long time for the women to trust her, and every day was hard. Watching the children grow up and take their place in the brothels broke her heart. She wanted to do something for them, but it wasn’t until June 2005 that she finally got a chance. In one week, different individuals gave her six children to look after. Three from the red light district. Three others from the slums. Four of them had HIV and half of them were younger than 2 years old. Edwards was living in a small flat at the time and had very little money. She asked charities for help, but they replied with silence. It wasn’t until December that she got her first big donation: $480.00
New children arrive almost every day at the orphanage, like a sister and brother who recently became new additions to the group. The siblings still have a mother, but sadly she works as a prostitute and could not offer them any future except the life she is living. So Edwards took them in. When the children started crying , possibly due to the fact there was no telling if they would see their mother again, Edwards called them to her and wrapped them in her arms. She held them in her tight embrace. She had just met these two children yet she loved them for all their problems. The children stayed in arms until their tears stopped.
Other recent additions to Santvana included two teenage boys, who were planning on becoming eunuchs. They had been going to a conference for male prostitutes that promised “good things” if you went three times. The teenagers and a friend went by train for a third time. In India, trains are packed full and they leave the doors open. Tragically their friend fell to his death. The boys got scared and returned home to their local church for help. Someone at the church had heard about Edwards, and the boys turned up at her doorstep. Edwards spoke and comforted them for a while and ended up offering them a place to stay. Edwards has already experienced so much life, and offers tidbits of wisdom she’s learned throughout the years. One particular piece of advice she has personally experienced: “You have to be thrown into the desert—you can’t learn in the king’s palace.”
To find out more about Edwards’ ministry, visit StreamsOfMercy.org.
Charlotte Blair is a British girl living in the Texas countryside. Charlotte’s passion for writing takes her around the world to find stories about extraordinary people. She currently works with the organization Youth With A Mission.