So, having already accepted to study in Derby, I withdrew my application and entered into a 'gap year'.
That gap year has now become two years of 'gap' and I have no regrets. At first, to my mother's dismay, I had no idea what I was planning to do. I knew I wanted to pursue my vocation to enter the priesthood and that I wanted to enter seminary but I felt I wanted more time to discern my calling before making any formal steps. I planned to volunteer with a Catholic organisation as I knew I wanted to spend some time in a religious environment, growing in spirituality and discerning, but also putting into action my faith and doing something proactive. I wanted somewhere far from home, completely outside of my normal life, somewhere I could pursue my faith and vocation unhindered.
After a quick internet search, I soon found BOVA, Bosco Volunteer Action, an initiative run by the Salesian province of Great Britain. BOVA send people of all ages for placements in Salesian projects all over the world. By chance the chaplain of my school at the time had been on a year-long placement with BOVA and had told me a little about his experiences, and the co-ordinator of BOVA, Anita, happened to have also been chaplain at my school. BOVA seemed to tick all the boxes for me and so, after two training weekends at Savio House, near Macclesfield, it was arranged that I was to go India for a ten-month placement. I would be going to a project in a village called Ajjanahalli, 40km from the city of Bangalore, in the south-eastern state of Karnataka, and I arrived May, 2017.
Even in such a foreign culture, where, at first, I spoke none of the language and was not at all understood, I have come to see that the basic principles of humanity transcend culture and language. The language and cultural barrier has never been so great that it could not be overcome by the politeness, kindness and respect that unite us.
We have eighty boys here, and all our work here revolves around them. We are here to serve and care for them. Our work here is not that of a school; the boys go to school during the day in the village. We are a hostel, a home for our boys when their families are unable to care for them. Our boys come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are orphans; some 'semi-orphans', with some relations but no parents; some are rescued from child labour or abuse and come to us through the Child Welfare Committee; some come from Don Bosco centres in the city where they have been rescued from the streets. Those with homes mostly come from the city slums.
Coming on placement here I knew I would encounter poverty, and I have, but life here is not as bleak as it sounds. Indeed, every one of these boys and their families would be classified as living in poverty by the Western definition. Even our cooks and staff earn the equivalent of less than £2 a day. Compared to our standards in the UK such a wage sounds unthinkable but material poverty is not a problem here for our boys. They have all the food and clothes they could need. Each and every one goes to school in a clean school uniform with all the equipment they could need. They have books and bedsheets, toys and sport equipment. They want for nothing. What they lack is something that cannot be measured. As our vice-rector, Fr Devassy, once observed to me, our boys' poverty is moral, social, emotional poverty. They suffer from a poverty of love. We care for them to the utmost of our ability but that cannot make up for the family they lack. Many of our boys are a by-product of the industrialisation and globalisation of India, left behind in the slums as parents look for work. Others are victims of parents' reluctance to take on the responsibility of parenthood, instead seeking their own interests first. All are testimony to the tragedy that occurs when family does not take first place in our society.
Family is what we try to imitate here; we, the community, are the boys' brothers and fathers. All we do is for them and we try our very best to provide the care, love and attention that they should get from their family but nothing can ever replace that true familial bond. For that reason, wherever possible we try to place boys back in their homes, and we only take boys from whatever family they have is truly desperate circumstances. For me, the greatest opportunity I have been given here is to nurture and develop a relationship with these boys as a friend and a brother. Each day I am inspired by our vice-rector, Fr Devassy, whose love and devotion to the boys is displayed best in the boys' name for him: the don't call him Father but 'appaji' - the local word for Dad or Papa. Indeed, each of the four priests here give me endless inspiration, each living out their vocation in their own way.
These last months have been my first experience of life in a community and although life can be difficult at times they have been very fruitful. I am blessed that I have been welcomed so fully and that I have been allowed so much access to the life of the community here. I came here not to escape real life but for a change of pace and for the opportunity to spend some time completely freely and independently, with the goal of growing in my spiritual life. I have been able to do exactly that and in ways that I did not expect. The community here has most of all shown me how to make my work my spiritual life – how to serve God in serving these boys. It is not in quiet prayer time spent in the chapel that I have found myself being drawn closer to God, but in the very work I am here to do. Each day, as I grow in love and strengthen my relationship with these boys, I grow in love for God too. As I left England, I had apprehensions that what I was embarking on was not God's plan for my life, but as I see now how much grace God has given me this year I have no such doubts.
As I look to the future, I believe that this time has equipped me better for whatever path God has planned for my life than three years of university could have, and I hope that this step on my journey is a step on the right path towards God's will. There is so much pressure today for young people go to university and do the 'normal thing', and for many that is the right path. But if you, like me, feel you are called to something else I have one thing to say: 'don't be afraid'. Don't be afraid of your vocation. God has something planned for each one of us, and it’s our duty to find out what that plan is and then, when we have found it, to pursue it with all our heart, regardless of the desires of other people. If you are a parent, a teacher, or at all involved with young people I implore you not to stifle vocations but to foster them. We must never put our own desires first but must follow God's will because in that is our true happiness.
I have less than three months left here in Don Bosco Ajjanahalli and I pray that they may be as fruitful and grace-filled as the previous ones have been. Please, pray for me as I continue my journey here in India and when I return home. The support I have received from people has been phenomenal. And I am sure that it is only through the prayers of people back home that I have been able to have such a blessed time here in India.