MISSION TO INDIA
By Dick Mason
Observer Staff Writer
t's a statistic that invokes feelings of possibilities, frustration and sadness.
India has one-third of the world's curable blind people. The number, which might exceed 100,000, is appalling. This is a problem that John and Betty Sprenger of La Grande know first-hand.
They were among eight couples from the United States who worked diligently to help the people of India in a recent 19-month mission supported by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The time was eventful, but the days did not always pass quickly.
"Missions are worth it, but not easy,'' John Sprenger said during a presentation he and his wife gave earlier this month.
It is hard to be away from family for an extended time, and a person is more likely to pick up diseases in a foreign land, Sprenger said.
Among the Sprengers' many satisfying experiences were efforts to obtain microsurgery equipment for eye clinics. Doctors use the equipment to remove cataracts, a leading cause of blindness in India. Many people helped with the microsurgery equipment are impoverished and had never been to a doctor.
The equipment was obtained with support of Latter-day Saint Charities, the humanitarian arm of the LDS Church. LDS Charities serves 140 countries and spends $80 million a year in them.
In India, however, the predominant health problem is not eye problems; it's sickness caused by bad water. About 50 percent of India's unnatural deaths are caused by contaminated water, John Sprenger said.
Any newcomer can quickly see the roots of India's water problem: its rivers are like liquid landfills, often choked with garbage.
The Sprengers helped address the problem. They worked with others to get wells drilled that provide uncontaminated water. About a dozen wells were drilled in India under the Sprengers' supervision.
The Sprengers oversaw the work of seven American couples in India, flying throughout the country helping the volunteers with projects. The Sprengers were responsible for monitoring the money spent on LDS Charities projects in India.
India's water problems extend to its hospitals, which often lack running water. At one hospital, the Sprengers helped carry in 30 gallons of water a day to a cancer ward.
Human life not embraced
Perhaps the most disturbing thing the Sprengers saw was something they could not address. It concerned the way women are treated. Each year thousands of women are murdered in India by the families they married into.
The problem can be traced to India's dowry system, illegal yet alive and well.
"Tradition is much stronger than law,'' John Sprenger said.
It is a custom for the wife's parents to provide substantial financial support in the form of a dowry for life. If the wife's parents do not come through with this lifetime support the husband's family may feel compelled to kill the wife.
Sprenger said that each year thousands of women are killed in India because their families didn't provide their dowry. The deaths are often reported as suicides but are murders, he said. The police refuse to investigate, Sprenger said.
Tradition prevails even when it obviously is at the expense of people, Sprenger said, causing about 600 million of India's 1.1 billion people to live in poverty.
"The caste system still works. The poor stay poor and the rich stay rich,'' Betty Sprenger said.
The caste system, which is illegal, divides Hindu society into separate classes. Each caste is separated from others by restrictions placed upon occupation and marriage.
India's population is 81 percent Hindu and 16 percent Muslim.
A government plagued with corruption also prevents the poor from getting the tools they need to pull themselves up from poverty. John Sprenger said that people are expected to provide money under the table to get government services and favors.
The Sprengers encountered this problem when they called to have a phone installed. India's phone company is owned by the government.
The company wanted the equivalent of a $1,000 bribe for the phone to be put in quickly. The Sprengers refused to pay it and had to wait five weeks.
The Sprengers asked why corruption was tolerated and were told it was ingrained in the culture.
"One man told me, I have grown up with it. It is a way of life here,' " John said.
With government corruption, much money meant to help the poor gets siphoned off and never reaches the people who need it.
Corruption is not the only reason progress is slow. Another is the fact that people shy away from using machines to do much farm and construction work. The reason is often financial but it also can be traced to Mahatma Gandhi, India's famed civil rights leader. Gandhi did not believe machines should be used to do work when there are people available to do it, John said.
About 600 million of India's 1.1 billion people live in poverty.
"People are living in squalor. It is a horrible struggle for them. My heart goes out to these people,'' John said.
As representatives of LDS Charities, the Sprengers could not discuss their faith with India's people. Instead they focused exclusively on helping the people help themselves.
"Our bottom line is to help people organize so that they can become self-reliant,'' John said.
In following this philosophy, the Sprengers did a lot of work in schools. Both retired educators, John taught business at La Grande High School for 25 years and Betty served as a substitute teacher in Union County for many years.
Betty said it is discouraging to see how poorly equipped India's public schools are. The couple spent considerable time obtaining furniture for schools and arranging for hot lunches to be served.
The Sprengers worked extensively at orphanages, including the Morning Star Orphanage in Bangalore.
A new generator and other items were donated to the orphanage through Later-day Saints Charities with help from the Sprengers. One of their favorite activities took place on Friday nights. The Sprengers would bring tapes and DVDs of Disney movies for children at the orphanage. The Sprengers have never encountered children who were more excited.
"Many of these children had never seen movies before,'' John said.
The Sprengers always honked their horn to a musical beat as they arrived. The children always came running.
"They would kiss us each night on both cheeks,'' the former La Grande High School teacher said.
Memories of the Morning Star Orphanage are among many that put smiles on the faces of the Sprengers. Still, they consider themselves fortunate to be back home after viewing India's endless poverty. They sometimes wonder why they were fortunate enough to be from the United States.
"I don't think that a day went by (while in India) when I didn't wonder why I was born in American,'' John said. "People in America who haven't seen something like this do not have a clue about how awesome the United States is.''