November 3, 2008

"Light to India": In Memoriam of a Hero

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The British Columbian newspaper The Province recently published an article on
Lillian Doerksen, a Canadian missionary to India who passed away on October 9.

It’s a fascinating piece. Doerksen spent over half her life raising orphaned girls and opening schools in Maharashtra for the deaf. She is described as Prakash Moushi (“Auntie of Light”) and the “Protestant Mother Teresa” (although I have found that title ascribed to a few other figures). She met important figures such as Billy Graham, and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and even had a three-minute private audience with the Dalai Lama.
[img_assist|nid=33248|title=Lillian Doerksen, often called the “Protestant Mother Teresa,” passed away on October 9.|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
But there’s something that may not be apparent from reading the article.

Lillian Doerksen was my grandmother.

My mom is Bobbie Pothen, the woman who the article mentions was left on the doorstep of the Mukti Mission. Grandma Lil worked hard to make sure that she, like the rest of her sisters, received the best education possible. In my Mom’s case, she was able to make it to the U.S., where she not only got her undergraduate and masters’ degrees, but also met my Dad. In a very real sense, I would not exist if it were not for her.

So let me supplement the information you’ll find in that article. I was close to Grandma Lil. She spent a lot of time in India, but she came back regularly to visit us and we would occasionally visit her. She was very sweet and loving, but headstrong too. When she wanted to do something, she was fully devoted to it and worked hard to finish it.

Many famous or influential people you would never want to meet for fear of being disappointed. Not so with my grandma. With her warm personality, she made friends with whomever she met and always had a fascinating story to share. You were never at a loss for conversation when you were around her, and despite all she had done, you would never felt intimidated by her or less of a person than she was.

Sometimes we are so used to our Western lifestyles that we forget what life is outside of it. But imagine growing up in an old martial system where the bride’s family must pay a dowry to the groom’s and girls were thus considered less valuable than boys. Imagine being born orphaned or disabled and consequently having no access to education or opportunity to improve your life. What Grandma Lil did for these people had a tremendous impact on their lives, which would have otherwise not been given a second chance.

Often people recognized for charity work by the media are often those who keep their hands clean. Those who donate large amounts of money to research or who are spokespeople for groups they barely know. The unsung heroes are the ones in the dirt, who work day-by-day to slowly improve the lives of people. And ironically, they make the most personal difference. That was my grandma.

So thank you, Grandma Lil. Thank you for doing something to meet a need you saw instead of watching, offering some momentary sympathy and then moving on. Thank you for turning down a safe, comfortable life in order to embrace a better one. Thank you for giving better lives to my Mom, my family and many others. You’re a hero, Grandma. Love you.