The Early Years
The founder of the Ashray Social & Health Centre in Nagwa is Father Francis. Frans Baartmans was born in The Netherlands in 1936. To list this man's accomplishments would be far too lengthy and unnecessary. However, to get a sense of his powerful essence, it seems appropriate to mention a few: He was ordained a Roman Catholic Priest of the Saint Joseph's Society of Mill Hill in 1961. The first adventure Frans embarked on was living and working with the Dayak people in Borneo. He assisted in fighting the deforestation of Borneo in a legal manner by beginning the first transcription of their native language. After ten years with the Dayak, he went to Kenya in 1974. Having lived a year with the semi nomadic people of Baringo Father Francis decided to study Anthropology & Ethnic Theology at the University of Nijmegen. After studying for four years and receiving his degree he was encouraged by his society to accept an invitation of the local Church of Varanasi. In 1979 Father arrived in India and began his love affair with this country, its culture, and its people.
India Becomes Home
When he arrived in the city area of Nagwa (Varanasi), there was but one literate child, a boy, ten years old going to school. The need for education was immediately observed; for how to elevate a community without education? Father saw the pain of this neglected community - the caste of the Chamars - and felt the need to share in its weight. Like everybody else Frans started out living in a small mud hut, a stone's throw away from the confluence of the river Assi and the Holy Ganges. He has resided there amongst 'his peers' for over thirty years. He inspired many to regain and preserve their dignity by giving out small loans, so the people could invest in their quality of life and thereby increase their independence. He rode it out with the Indian government for a long 16 years to get underground sewers placed in the slum, so that bacteria and disease filled water did not continue to run along the tiny alleys any longer.
Desire To Understand
Fr. Francis not only worked with the people but he continued to satisfy his mental appetite by completing a PhD in Indian Hindu Philosophy and Theology at Benares Hindu University. To understand the community that he lives amongst, Francis finds it necessary to study in depth the treasure trove of Indian thought. He specialized in Hindu Symbology and published a book called 'The Holy Waters, An Analysis of a Primordial Symbol in Hindu myths' (1995). Currently Father Francis is negotiating with publishers about his new book, which will be called 'Hindu Concepts, Images and Symbols'.
The Birth of Ashray
Father had dreamt of a tiny home where all were welcome, where the people most in need could come and feel respected. Where children would play and come to study as he recognized that it is they who will lift their family out of millennia old traditions of being utterly despised or forgotten by their society. This home was created in 1993 and is now called Ashray, meaning 'refuge' or 'sanctuary'.
Who He Is
Father is seen in glimpses as he is busy cycling about the city helping those in need, regularly giving lectures or talks about the many facets of Hindu traditions. He is always on the move trying to find solutions to the problems of poverty. These problems can not always be solved, but there is always a word of consolation or a tender embrace to uplift a sad soul. Unbelievebly his home is always open. His presence in the Nagwa slum is cherished by those who know him. He is a true inspiration as it is his dream to see us all join in this brotherhood called Humanity.
A Candid Word Written By Fr. Francis:
I was low in tenderness... Can we provide for empty hearts?
Can we walk by our brother's and sisters side? Or am I tripping with self care, making me short sighted even in the global village I now live in?
From my own full glass of gratitude for what I have recieved - I fashion a cup of brotherhood - No one shall give in to despair, or sink in the pit of poverty.
For every sigh there is a smart song,
For every tear a smile,
For every problem, a friend.