Despite its Eastern mystique and pockets of great wealth and opulence, thousands in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, live in abject poverty. They know only homelessness, hunger, prostitution, drug addiction and a growing AIDS epidemic.
Yet India's abandoned have become one man's mission field. Since 1990, the Rev. K.K. Devaraj has combed the streets of Mumbai's notorious red-light district offering refuge to abandoned children, addicts and women sold into prostitution.
Devaraj, or "Uncle," as he is called, is described by locals as a gentle man with a big heart. Though the city's name has changed, the ministry Devaraj leads is still known as Bombay Teen Challenge (BTC). The outreach operates six safe houses for women rescued from sex work, as well as health clinics and homes for street children and AIDS orphans.
"Uncle saved my life, and gave me hope and a home," said Vanita, who was rescued in 1999 at the age of 11.
"I met Jesus and His love through [the ministry]," said another teen known as Neelam. "They helped me study and gave me medicine when I was sick. I want to share Jesus with others and hope to be a minister myself."
BTC sends medical vans daily into the heart of the city to offer food, health care and the chance of a new life. It also operates a drug-detoxification program and offers former addicts education, job training and employment opportunities.
"When [Devaraj] walks through the streets, he's like an apostle, an apostle to the people God has called him to," said Mike Zello, who oversees 590 ministries in 86 countries as director of Global Teen Challenge. "And he has a tremendous amount of respect."
Just blocks from the hub of Mumbai's sex trade, where more than 10,000 prostitutes work and live under abysmal conditions, BTC operates a clinic for HIV-positive prostitutes. "I've been offered many jobs where I could earn considerably more money and enjoy great prestige, yet God has called me here," said a volunteer doctor. "I cannot imagine leaving this remarkable place."
After visiting Mumbai in 1998 and touring the city's brothels with Devaraj, former Rep. Linda Smith launched Shared Hope International, through which she funds safe houses for women who had been sold into prostitution. She helped Devaraj build six such homes in India, and has also lobbied to end the trafficking of women worldwide, including in the United States.
"The thing I always liked about Devaraj was that he always looked at these women as beautiful and not as prostitutes, but as recoverable,".Smith said. "He never just wrote them off like most societies."
In Mumbai, the women's stories are both heartrending and inspirational. One woman was drugged by her uncle and woke up in a cage. Another known simply as Sunita was sold by her father and forced into prostitution to repay her "debt." She later became a brothel operator.
"Devaraj never judged me, never gave up on me," she said. "He told me every day that Jesus loved me and would always welcome me in His family. When I finally responded to God's call, I could not leave [the eight girls working in the brothel] behind. So when I left, I took all of them with me, and we all serve the Lord today."
Many women are lured to Mumbai under false pretenses, only to find themselves forced into a life of brutality and shame. BTC maintains a constant presence among the brothels, operating a Spirit-filled church in the area and offering prayer, acceptance and hope. "Whenever you are ready, your Father's house is waiting," Devaraj tells them.
Hundreds have responded to his invitation, and Devaraj has no plans to slow down. The ministry operates a night shelter for children whose mothers work in the red-light district, and for those who have been abandoned or orphaned by AIDS. Devaraj also is building a hospice for HIV-positive children.
"It's not easy, all you see," Devaraj said. "It takes courage. Silver and gold we do not have. And food and medicine is not enough. But what we have is the bread of life. We have fruit that lasts and life everlasting. It is this we freely give."
Michele L. Lombardo in Mumbai, India