“That could have been me,” is the voice Brother Norman Wray heard when he would pass men on footpaths, cooking smack or injecting heroin. But the truth is, this man of the cloth could not be further from becoming a drug user.
And while others steered clear of these human huddles on Karachi’s pedestrian bridges and footpaths, the Chicago-born Brother Norman chose to help them clean up their act.
On August 15, Brother Norman completed 70 years of humanitarian service and a special thanksgiving Mass was held in St Lawrence’s Church, presided over by His Grace Archbishop Joseph Coutts. Dr Ruth Pfau of the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Center was also present.
Today the 89-year-old lives with Derek and Berna Dean in their Garden East home. In the room, black and white images are pinned up on a board to help him remember important elements of his life as Alzheimer’s clouds over memory. Berna is always at hand to help.
Brother Norman was born in 1923 in Chicago. “Since his father was a butcher, there was always enough to eat in the Norman house,” said Dean. But it was when the young Norman saw children scouring the garbage for food, that he was inspired to help the poor.
When he was 19, he took the sacred vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. “Where I be, but for the grace of God,” he said, answering why he had joined the De La Salle Brothers, a worldwide organisation within the Catholic Church. In 1967 he was sent to Karachi, little knowing that the country would become his permanent home. “He was an auto instructor at the St Patrick’s Technical School and later became its principal. But too much power did not please him. He wanted to do something different,” said Dean.
It was at the technical school that he started to reach out to those in the grip of addictions. “There were two alcoholics,” he recalled. “I wanted to help them. One was George.” The Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step programme was initiated in the school’s pumping house.
However, it was in 1983 that Brother Norman’s role was formalised. Sister Ruth Pfau approached him to help leprosy patients and assist them in becoming farmers in Sanghar.
While the patients couldn’t adjust to the village life, Brother Norman decided to use that piece of land for his ‘boys’. This led to the idea for a rehabilitation centre called the House of Hope, Umeed Goth. Today it has around 250 drug users at the centre, while hundreds have been rehabilitated. Berna Dean showed off pictures of Brother Norman with those admitted in the house. She says he never tired. “It was difficult, but I managed,” he said. He would eat from the same plate as those seeking treatment at the centre, and eat the same food as them.
Assisted by Dean, Brother Norman recalled the many men he has encountered, and the trying episodes such as the death of a Chinese dentist from an overdose. But the most depressing time for him was when he saw three of his ‘boys’ being shot at during a military operation in the early 1990s. Brother Norman’s work has served as an inspiration for some. A Muslim scholar from South Africa, Fareed Esack, dedicated his translation of the Holy Quran to him. Brother Norman has also received an award for religious service from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.
Despite these accolades, he has never sought to earn a living or make a house for himself, the usually trappings of life that preoccupy people as they see retirement loom. As he lies on his bed, Brother Norman is content. “I did what I wanted to do,” he said with a smile.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2012.