What child is this?

For every over-scheduled heart looking for a little peace on Earth this time of year, meet Masum and remember what the holiday season is really all about.

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By John Marshall
Dec 25, 2023

This is a Christmas story to be sure, and like the original one, it starts with the birth of a child.

A girl, actually; one girl out of billions. Perhaps one of the least-remarkable, most-invisible girls on the planet. Her name is Masum which means “Innocent” in Bengali, and she was born on a day that was certainly a huge disappointment for her parents. Wherever they are now, they left Masum under a train seat, then disappeared into the anonymous overcrowded vastness of Kolkata.

Being a girl alone in India is hard enough, but when you have the most advanced and most debilitating form of Cerebral Palsy, no one expects you or even wants you to live for long. There is no shining star overhead. There are no wisemen on the way. What hope is there for an abandoned girl like this?

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Which is when, in this Christmas story, the angel appears.

Her name is Michelle Harrison and she does not have to care for Masum. She’s a medical doctor, a mother, an author of many books, a fellow at Harvard Medical School and a teacher at the Kennedy School of Government. Her life was the envy of everyone who dreams of climbing society’s ladder. She was well off, accomplished, in need of nothing.

But still…something was missing. Her bank account was full but her heart was empty. She had everything she could ever want, but her soul was crying out for more, for meaning. Souls are funny that way.

And so Michelle moved to India in 2006 to help needy kids—but not just any needy kids. “I wanted the children that no one wanted,” she told me. “The hardest cases. The lost causes. Those are the ones for me.”

The organization she founded and mostly self-funded is called Shishur Sevay which means “In the service of children.” It specializes in the care of girls with extreme disabilities. Masum is one of the youngest members of this unique family.

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Now nearly eight years old, life for Masum isn’t easy. Her lungs are weak and pneumonia is a constant threat…as is choking…as are seizures. Things most bodies take for granted are hard for her, like holding her head up and swallowing and just about everything else you and I do on a daily basis. Masum can’t walk or talk. She can’t feed or wash herself or use the bathroom. She’ll be in diapers her whole life.

To make matters worse, her low-rent wheelchair provides minimal support and not much comfort for her fragile and twisted frame.

Still, Michelle fights for her.

Once while Masum was hospitalized for one ailment or another, Michelle asked the attending doctor for an MRI to take a closer look at the little girl’s brain. The doctor just asked, “Why?” summing up in a single spoken word what many people secretly think about these children.

Why all the effort and concern?

Why look for something that isn’t there?

Why fight for something that is already lost?

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Masum is slumped and strapped to the last wheelchair on the right.

But Michelle knows why. “Masum may be limited in all motor functions,” she told me, “but that is how she is, not who she is. She radiates joy. She laughs and engages. She responds differently to different people and has her favourites.” In short, Michelle sees past the physical limitations to the soul within…which is what all of us really want, isn’t it?

Call it my letter to Santa, call it my holiday prayer to God, but this Christmas, I wanted to find a new wheel chair for Masum. The thing is: a good one costs more than $6000 USD! So I wrote a single email to a friend, explaining this story. Perhaps she and her church would like to get involved. You never know until you ask…

Which is when more angels appeared.

I won’t give their names; they asked for anonymity, but I’m happy to report Masum’s Christmas gift is on its way! Not only is she getting a world-class wheelchair, custom fitted to her unique body, but the orphanage she lives in is getting a new roof, all part of a generous end-of-year donation from a family in the USA with a big heart.

“I am smiling,” Michelle wrote to me when she heard the news. “Masum is smiling too.”

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Dr. Michelle Harrison and Masum at the Shishur Sevay Orphanage in Kolkata, India.

It reminds me of what Jesus said in Mark 25:40. “Truly I tell you,” the passage begins, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sister of mine, you did for me.”

Well, Masum is the least. Compared to the world’s powerful and connected, the rich and successful, even compared to you and me…she is nothing. Why is she even here? What’s the point?

I don’t know for sure but maybe, like the original Christmas baby, she is here to teach compassion. Maybe she is a living example of how blessed we all are; of how grateful we all should be. Maybe she is a reminder that we honor God this time of year not just by singing carols about Him on high but by serving Him here on Earth. Maybe she’s just a girl who needs love, like we all do.

And so, with respect and hope, I encourage you to find your own Masum this holiday season. Someone small. Someone invisible. Go find them. They are everywhere. And when you do, give them your voice, your time, your money, your love.

Because every Christmas story needs an angel, and maybe this year, that angel is you.

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Just to wrap this story up…It’s been a while since Masum got her chair and I'm told she’s loving it. No more slumping! Michelle reports Masum and her girls are rolling onward, finding their way together with the help of many angels along the way.


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