As I sit typing this I can look out of the window over the city of Pune in the state of Maharashtra in India, about 100 miles south-east of Mumbai. The view comprises high-rise tower blocks, green lawns and trees, concrete and glass. It could be anywhere in the developed world (though the 30 °C temperature and sun virtually overhead in a cloudless sky at noon confirm that it is not England!). But I know that just across the road, and out of sight from here, are the shacks, corrugated steel sheds, and tents that everywhere are intermingled with the lives and buildings of richer Indians and their western business partners. Pune today is a rapidly-growing city, the eighth largest in India, with half a dozen universities and growing hi-tech industrial, IT and commercial sectors.
It was in a very much smaller Pune, then spelt Poona, that in 1927 the Christa Seva Sangha made its first real home. Founded in 1922 by five Indians and an Englishman this ashram or religious community — whose name means the Community of the Servants of Christ — intended to form a life of common service and equal fellowship for Indians and Europeans. The Englishman was Jack Winslow and the community soon attracted some attention in both India and England, which enabled it to move to Poona after a few years. Winslow’s account of the Society can be read online. Originally dedicated to St Barnabas, the Society soon added St Francis as joint patron, a dedication that became more important as it adopted a formal rule and vows.
In 1927 the community was joined by a number of new recruits, one of whom was a young priest called Algy Robertson, and by 1930 there were around 30 members. Robertson was convinced that the Sangha should be a Franciscan community, but after a few years his health broke and he returned to England. Still a member of the Sangha, he became vicar of St Ives, a dozen miles north-west of Cambridge, and the vicarage at St Ives became home to several Brothers of the community as well as a refuge for visitors from Poona. There are still those in St Ives (where I have lived and worshipped for twenty years or so) who can recall the Brothers living in the vicarage and cycling around the town and to nearby villlages. In 1936, however, Robertson’s group joined with another Franciscan community in England to form the Society of St Francis, with a rule largely written by Robertson and based on the principles of the Sangha in Poona. In 1937 Robertson resigned from St Ives to move to the new community at Hilfield, near Cerne Abbas in Dorset, where he was based for the rest of his life.
The Franciscan ideal of embracing poverty and the service of the poor is one that comes swiftly to mind in the streets of modern Pune, just as it must have done in the very different Poona of the 1920s and 30s, to Francis in the thirteenth century, and just as it must have done to an itinerant preacher from Nazareth two thousand years ago. The poor are still with us, and the priority of working for the alleviation of hunger, homelessness, disease and injustice is as necessary now as it was then.