Maher Ashram India – Where Women Thrive

Women waiting for the arrival of Pratibha Patil, India’s first woman president, at Maher’s 20th Anniversary

In 2016, I celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD) at Maher.  When I made my plans, I had no idea Sr. Lucy Kurien, Maher’s founder and director, and Hirabegum Mulla, chair of the Maher Trust, would be in Delhi.  Sr. Lucy was to receive the prestigious Nari Shakti Puraskar for women’s empowerment from India’s President and to participate in discussions with the Prime Minister.

Sr. Lucy Kurien receiving the Nari Shakti Puraskar for women’s empowerment from President Pranab Mukherjee

Maher is known for its rousing IWD celebrations.  I remember one staff member wondering that morning if women would come since Sr. Lucy and Hira were away.  It wasn’t long before women wearing a rainbow of sari shades began arriving on foot, in bull carts, on the backs of motorbikes, in rickshaws.  The crowd swelled.  The staff member worried they would run out of food. 

Women preparing for a Maher program

Presenters took the stage.  The women clapped, cheered, and rose to their feet.  When the food ran out, we began to hand out bananas.  No one seemed to care.  They were happy to be together and that Sr. Lucy and Maher’s work was being recognized. One of the marks of a true leader is what happens when you are away.  The celebration was a glorious success. 

This jubilant event would be only the first of several such gatherings I would attend in the next few days.  All of them full of women who met a definition Meg Wheatley once shared, “a leader is anyone who is willing to help and ready to take action.”  Through self-help groups Maher and the villagers cultivated, these women were taking action to improve their lives, their families, and their communities while supporting one another.  It was a joy to behold.

Young women raising their voices at Maher’s 27th Anniversary Celebration

Yet, IWD is just one day.  Maher’s model works because the organization weaves women’s well-being and development into its work 365 days a year.  Girls attend school and are educated to their potential just like boys.  Rallies and street plays emphasize the value of the “girl child.”  Girls compete with the boys in the annual sports day, cheered on by Sr. Lucy with as much verve as she encourages the boys.  Young women take the mic at Maher programs, perform street plays and dances, learn and demonstrate Taekwondo with their male counterparts at celebrations, read interfaith scripture passages at ground-breakings and inaugurations, and the list goes on.  Girls and boys are expected to complete household chores. 

After they are settled and have regained their strength, women seeking shelter at Maher are encouraged to build self-sufficiency through career development, education, micro-lending, and employment opportunities. Many eventually return to life outside of Maher.     

Women of all ages performing the Durga Dance at Maher

There are many women role models to look up to at Maher in addition to Sr. Lucy and Hira.  Women play an integral role in managing Maher’s day-to-day operations, often serving as center managers, social workers, teachers, and housemothers. 

Maher celebrates the opening of another new kindergarten

Maher addresses barriers for women through example.  At a recent anniversary celebration, for example, a woman priest appeared on stage with Sr. Lucy and the male religious leaders for the first time.  The honor and dignity of women of all ages is uplifted, as evidenced by the fact that a highlight of the 27th anniversary program was a dance performed by the “Maher grannies,” women residents age 65 and above.

Women religious leaders on the stage with Sr. Lucy and male religious leaders at a recent celebration

Men serve on the Maher Trust Board and on the staff as social workers, program managers, and in other important roles.  As an organization founded to shelter battered and destitute women and children, Maher knows how important it is to have healthy, supportive male role models working to advance the organization’s mission.  When Maher social workers began encountering a growing number of homeless men on the streets, the organization opened homes for men. 

Sr. Lucy Kurien greeting Former Indian President Pratibha Patel on Maher’s 20th Anniversary

What started as a single shelter home for women and children has become a movement of love and smiles with 68 homes in seven Indian states and 25 outreach projects in more than 90 villages.  Maher was a fledgling organization when Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared, “the future of this planet depends on women.”  Today, Maher, which means “Mother’s Home,” is a beacon of hope for all who believe women are key to a building a better, brighter future for all. 

Sr. Lucy will be in the states this IWD. She will be featured in the next few weeks at events in Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Washington, D.C., and Vermont. For details, contact USGIVINGTOMAHER.ORG.             

May Love Prevail

These inspiring photos were taken on Feb. 1 at the 7th Anniversary of the Interfaith Association for Service to Humanity and Nature (IASHN).  That is a long name for an association founded to foster the development of daily spiritual practice, interfaith respect and harmony, seva or service, wise stewardship of resources, and care for the planet.

I was blessed to be present with 11 women from the U.S. and 160 other people from India and around the world at IASHN’s first gathering.  Sr. Lucy, founder and director of Maher, presided over its creation just steps away from Maher’s first home.  IASHN’s founding took place on an auspicious day.  Twenty years before, Maher Ashram, an interfaith, caste-free organization in India had welcomed the first women and children seeking safe shelter. 

As we processed into the hall at Maher’s National Center, Sr. Lucy and Hirabegum Mulla, chair of the Maher Trust, handed each of us rose petals.  I remember the colorful interfaith mandala, scriptures, passages, songs, and chants, lots of joy, and the smell of spices from the kitchen behind us wafting through the hall.

Unlike most Maher gatherings, the IASHN inauguration was just for adults.  Each of us had made a commitment. We agreed to respect and honor all faith traditions, observe a daily spiritual practice, alleviate human suffering and environmental destruction through seva, or service, and to use natural and monetary resources as carefully as possible so that we might serve as many people in need as possible.  

I was the only person in our group to have qualms about making such a commitment.  Having spent 8 months at Maher, I knew the organization’s integrity.  Could I live up to the pledge?  In the end, perhaps because there was no pressure, I signed the double-spaced document, which fills less than a page.

I often fall short.  However, not a day goes by that I don’t think about the higher standards IASHN calls me to and step toward them.  This experience reminds me of a concept Jillian Pransky shares in her book Deep Listening:  A Healing Practice to Calm Your Body, Clear Your Mind, and Open Your Heart. She writes “a little” + “often” = “a lot.” 

Too often, leaders and citizens choose violence, aggression, and righteousness over compassion, collaboration, and compromise.  I find comfort knowing that those of us who have taken the IASHN pledge are walking together in India, Austria, Brazil, Germany, the UK, the U.S., and other countries toward kindness and care.  IASHN offers proof that the answers to human and societal challenges don’t have to be as complicated as we are often led to believe.  IASHN was founded on the principle that “Love is our Religion.”  I remember Meg Wheatley saying once that, “Love is stronger than law.” 

I am sorry I was not there to celebrate IASHN’s anniversary.  That I didn’t have the opportunity to see women religious leaders join Sr. Lucy and the male religious leaders on stage for the first time.  To hear their voices as they offered prayers and teaching.  That I didn’t get to see the young women perform their beautiful interfaith dance.  That I wasn’t there to carry a candle in the peace rally or sit in meditation with the hundreds who were present. 

In a time when so many feel alone and isolated, I am heartened that I can be connected half a world away through simple daily acts of respect, service, love, and care.  That a small, growing movement that costs nothing to join is helping to make our communities and the planet a safer, healthier, happier place for our children, our grandchildren, their children and all the generations to come.  

To learn more about IASHN and how you can bring its message of interfaith harmony and stewardship to your community, reach out to

Photos published with permission from IASHN.

Spring’s Lovely Betweenness

Welcome, spring, with your

Wide-open windows.

Fresh air and raindrops.

Gentle breezes and rousing wind.

Dandelions.  Nettle tea.

Fresh linens.

Tucked away turtlenecks.

Shaken out mats.

Garden gloves.

Bicycles and yoga.

Ruffled pages.

Walks with Speedy.

Composted clutter.

Open mind. Open body. Open breath.

Space for now.