Saturday, July 12, 2008

WYD: Interview with Rakesh Singh, India

WYD Delegation Leader Promotes Young Catholic Villagers

July 9, 2008

Rakesh Singh leading the 500 odd youth delegation from India to World Youth Day (WYD) 2008 at Sydney, AustraliaRakesh Singh, India

NEW DELHI (UCAN) -- The young tribal man who is leading India's 510-member delegation to the World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, says village youth should have opportunities to develop themselves.

Rakesh Singh, 27, comes from Krishnachandrapur, a village in Orissa state's Mayurbhanj district, about 1,500 kilometers southeast of New Delhi. In 1999, Hindu extremists brutally murdered Graham Stuart Staines, an Australian missioner who ran a leprosy hospital in the district, and his two minor sons.

Singh, who belongs to the Bhumij tribal group, says those murders became "a litmus test" for his leadership skills in a predominantly Hindu milieu. Later, he was elected to head the Indian Catholic Youth Movement, under the Indian bishops' conference, and began to notice "a big gap in opportunities" between village and city residents.

After his two-year term, the bishops entrusted him the job of coordinating preparations for Indian youth to attend the World Youth Day 2008 celebration. His efforts in the past year have ensured that India could send its largest contingent to the international event the Church organizes every two or three years. According to Singh, a majority of the Indian delegates are from rural areas.

The youth leader spoke with UCA News on July 1, as he was getting ready to travel to Sydney to attend the July 15-20 event. The interview follows:

UCA NEWS: What is the significance of this World Youth Day for you?

RAKESH SINGH: I attended the earlier World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005. Only 250 people from India attended that event. This time, 510 Indians, some 400 of them young people, are attending.
The event is very important for the whole Indian Church. We want to gain experience to conduct similar programs in our country. Who knows, India may hold the World Youth Day after 20 years? We will then have some people who have attended the international event.

For this World Youth Day, we started preparation a year ago. We wanted to reach out to all 160 dioceses in the country.

We launched the preparation on Palm Sunday in 2007. While launching it, we asked young people to do something for society. We also asked young people to undertake something in their parishes such as educating parishioners about the need to eradicate poverty. We held a number of conferences, road shows and T-shirt campaigns, so things were clear from the beginning. We got a good response. We have been able to reach out to people where opportunities are comparatively less.

UCA NEWS: How will the World Youth Day help the Indian youth?

RAKESH SINGH: It will expose our youth, most of them village-based, to the big world. They will mingle with youths from other countries. One of the days in our program in Australia is assigned for social work, when people will be working in the streets, planting trees, cleaning a garden or a cemetery. They may also go to institutions like old-age homes, and spend time with local people. This will broaden their mind. I hope they will understand the dignity of labor, which most developed nations respect. In India, we look down on menial jobs. Sharing of expectations by our participants has convinced us that the exposure is the kind of program they really need.

UCA NEWS: How many delegates are from villages?

RAKESH SINGH: We have about 60 percent from villages. The intentions are different. Rich people want to go overseas on holiday, but only a few are ready to go on a pilgrimage. Young villagers if given opportunities will prove themselves. Many a time the Church officials look for only experienced hands to work and solve problems. But I feel not only experience but our outlook and relations with others also matter in solving problems. People with experience will not be able to solve problem if they lack good relations and clear thinking. So there are a lot of young people who think clearly and are willing to take up responsibility. I am not saying the Church has to dump all responsibilities on young people. But the Church has to realize their capacity and believe in them.

UCA NEWS: Has your own background played any role in this focus on rural areas?

RAKESH SINGH: I was born and bought up in a small village in Orissa. The school was 16 kilometers away. My mother, a teacher who studied in Kolkata, knew Blessed Mother Teresa (of Kolkata). So my mother wanted me to take up social work. It's because of God's grace that I got these opportunities. But there are lots of people who do not have the platform and opportunities. There are lots of facilities and opportunities in cities, which I never knew when I was in my village. So if such facilities are made available to village people, they will also grow. There is a big gap of opportunities between village and city people.

UCA NEWS: With your village background, how did you become a leader at the national level?

Even during school days, I wanted to become a leader. During my university days, I stood for college president. I was the only Christian student among the college's some 5,000 students, who came from different religions. The election was also a litmus test of my acceptance as a Christian, as that was the time when Graham Staines was killed.

A year later, I lost my father and I went through a lot of problems. Then I asked my mom's permission to volunteer at the national youth office in New Delhi. I was the eldest of three sons. She told me that she would love that. None of her sons has become a priest, so she would love me working for the Church as a lay volunteer.

I was more involved in activism during 2001-2003. In 2004, I came to the Indian Catholic Youth Movement as a representative from Orissa region. There I was elected the national president.

The work in New Delhi gave me a lot of opportunities to learn. During 2004-2006, I was elected the Asian president of the food sovereignty commission of the international Catholic organization working for rural youth. I was also involved in the Catholic students' movements in India.

UCA NEWS: Can you tell us more about your village?

RAKESH SINGH: Our Krishnachandrapur parish in Mayurbhanj district has some 350 Catholic families. It is the same district where Graham Staines cared for leprosy patients. Father Arul Doss of Balasore diocese was also killed in the same district that year. [Editor's note: Staines was killed in neighboring Keonjhar district.] Our state has witnessed many atrocities against Christians.

The killings of Staines and others saddened me because such things should not have happened in a secular nation. On the other hand, Christians also should be blamed. We are not able to express our faith well, especially to those who suspect us. We have not helped people understand our work. There is a communication gap among various religions. There is a lack of dialogue. My experience is that how we relate with others matters a lot.

Christians in India are a closed community. We should come out and express ourselves. We should have friends from other religions. We should also accept others.

Reproduced with permission from UCA News (

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