I feel a great loss in my life as I share the death of Savithri Devanesen of Chennai, India, Director of Roofs for the Roofless, poet and friend. I never met her in person but she shared her work, her writing and the writing of her beloved husband Chandran with Kathy Wonson Eddy and myself beginning in 1992-3 when we were gathering materials for the anthology Gifts of Many Cultures — Worship Resources for the Global Community. The connection — often only annually — has been a compass of faith for me personally. She was again involved with Gifts in Open Hands in 2011, though I had no idea that she was in her mid-nineties at the time. I will share here her poem of “call” which her son Dayalan sent me, then brief excerpts from her memorial service and finally an excerpt from her Christmas poem of 2013 included in the annual report of Roofs for the Roofless a mission which continues to change so many lives.
When the temple bells called in the evening,
when the sky was a sparkle with stars,
I brought to my Lord an offering
of sandalwood, incense and flowers.
As I knelt at the altar in silence
I was strangely powerless to rise
for I saw in a sudden vision
tears in my dear Lord’s eyes.
And I gazed again at that vision
when in anguish I heard Him say,
‘My children of India’s villages
are hungry still today.
I know that they work from morning
till the setting of the sun
but all they get as wages
does not suffice for one.
Large families live in small houses
where debts stalks and diseases thrive.
The children are the poor victims
Many die before they’re five.
The hardships they suffer are many.
Go, tell others of their woe.
Tell them my tears are mingling
with human tears below.
“O you who worship at my altar,
come not to get but to give.
Serve in the villages of India
and help my people to live”.
And still in the quiet of the evening
when the sky is a sparkle with stars,
I can hear Him tenderly pleading
for the poor in this land of ours.
EXCERPTS FROM A TRIBUTE TO AMMA BY HER SON DAYALAN DEVANESEN
For many of us the story begins with the serendipitous meeting on that picturesque island of Ceylon, previously known as Serendip and now Sri Lanka, when the charming and charismatic Chandran Devanesen met the very beautiful Norma Goonewardene at a Bus Stop in Kandy. They were both attending a Student Christian Movement Conference. Sparks must have flown and they decided to get married in spite of great opposition from Amma’s Sri Lankan family.
After Amma left her luxurious home in Sri Lanka to join our Dad – she never again lived in a house that she owned or the family owned. But, wherever she lived she created a home of love, joy, fun and food for everyone who stayed there. …
from the diary of a woman from Los Anglees … ‘I visited Chandran Devanesen’s home at Madras Christian College yesterday. Chandran’s wife is the most beautiful woman I have seen especially as she has 3 children and still lovely … The Rural Service Centre run by the college is really the Devanesen Centre. Every day food is cooked for the village children in her home. Every day leper patients etc. come to her garden to wait for treatment. She has open house for the students. She is willing to help any student who comes to her with a problem, personal or medical. She is often short of money, yet gives food away even it means lunch may not appear. When she first married, she often had no money at all for the next meal. Chandran had none either. She used to pray and pray and something would come. Yet she is the calmest soul and one would think that she was never involved in anything difficult. She helps Chandran to keep going – he is so generous and open hearted and yet so sensitive that he would otherwise get completely crushed …”
Dad passed away in 1982 and Amma became the Director of Roofs for the Roofless. She carried Dad’s diary and hand kerchiefin her hand bag. She named the Community Centre and the Rural Community College after him. She always said that she was guided and inspired by his thoughts and love.
Working to support rural development became a big part of Amma’s life…Most of the staff of Roofs for the Roofless have never changed jobs and have been with us 20 to 30 years. When I asked them, “why do you stay?” The only reply I get is, “For Amma”. They are protective of her in every way, especially as she climbed the stairs to her office 5and 1⁄2 days a week till she was nearly 99. Many will remember her always flanked by her faithful secretaries Mary and Savitha with driver Raja not far behind. When I asked Mr. and Mrs.Sekar who run the Dr.Chandran Devanesen Rural Community College why they applied for the job, they said, “We heard about a lady who had pawned her anklets to help her cook who had lost his roof in the monsoon. We wanted to work with her”. Amma not only knew the names of all her staffbut also their parents and their children’s names. Sheknew their joys and sorrows and did what she could to help with getting scholarships for education, jobs and even clothing. She loved to pick the saris for her Christmas gift to the staff and deliver them herself. Last Christmas Emmanuel tried to stop her from going out to the village to distribute saris. Finally they compromised when Amma agreed to give her gifts without getting out of the car …
There is a saintliness about Amma but there is also a naughtiness and a great sense of humour. She was always ready to play a practical joke …
You all know the story of how Amma pawned her anklets to re-thatch a roof knocked down by monsoon rains. This act of giving up something she loved became the start of ‘Roofs for the Roofless’.She never had an Air conditioner in her room because ‘the village people did not have them’.
Her 3 gold bangles were made into chains for Sudarshan, Mithran and I when we got confirmed.( A ceremony that follows baptism). Sudarshan and I still wear these chains around our necks with a little cross. When she gave away her gold necklace – I remember my wife Shashi running out to buy her a chain saying she could not bear to think of her without at least one gold chain around her neck.
When Amma gave up her gold bangles, she chose to wear rustic looking glass bangles in bright red and blue. After my father passed away she wore the glass bangles even when she slept. She would say, “When I die – Chandran will hear the clinking of the glass bangles and know that I have come to meet him”.
Amma died to self in a spiritual sense to love others. Now she has died in a physical sense. but will live spiritually and her spirit will lead us on.
Excerpt from her Christmas poem 2013
…my shattered mind
Wings its flight
through flames of terror and injustice
through destructive technologies
through clouds of poverty and ignorance
through cries of pain and suffering,
Searching for life in the debris of human forms destroyed
by deathblows of mass weaponry,
by furies of nature
by human unkindness,
And my own down trodden spirit
struggles to soar to mystic groves of Hope
to star speckled spkies
of my deathless dreams