August 4, 2016
At 1:00am this morning I finally landed in Mumbai. And so the journey begins.
That was a good 8 months ago. I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t write a blog post giving a detailed account of my trip to India soon after I returned.
Perhaps some information is too heavy, some sights too indescribable — and not in a Grand Canyon kind of “indescribable” where you are overcome with awe and wonder. More so the loss of words to define things that are preciously and grippingly sober.
There are many blog posts telling of the plight of the poor and marginalized. Much social work can have a similar story, and often told from the perspective of the powerful ones. It may be “good power,” but it’s still weighty. Maybe sounding something like this:
There are people in the world who are mistreated (by my standards) and live in unfortunate states (by my standards) and we must change their story (to look more like mine) and I get to tell their story (from my perspective).
When interacting with those who survive under the crushing arm of injustice from evil power forces, it’s easy to saunter into that situation, and proclaim, “A new sheriff has arrived in town!” Thus kicking out the evil power who’s been forcing the poor to do what they want and enforcing a “just” process that requires new rules to be followed.
Often the only thing in common in these 2 scenarios is the fact that the poor always have choices made for them. They are simply the words and not actually the writers in their own story.
So thus my hesitation in relaying experiences and being the storyteller. These are real humans and they have incredible dignity.
Yes, injustices must have light shown on it. As partners in humanity we have the privilege of using our privileges to stand in the gap and be the bridge. Yet always keeping in mind the will and autonomy of the people we meet, allowing them to be apart of the process and representing them truthfully, humanly.
And there you have my light-hearted introduction!
Most of what I’m writing below I’m pulling from my journal during the trip, so you can be sure it will read like that. Any local names have been changed to protect identities.
Often I feel anxious and troubled, that the bad people are getting away with things, that if I love I will be mistreated. But God uses the panic in our lives to lead us up to the breakthrough. He makes the way.
“I love the Lord because he hears my voice and my prayer for mercy. He bends down to listen.” Psalm 116
I thought about this passage when I was praying for the women we would be meeting. He bends down to listen— he really does. He hears the cries and the woes of the women we meet. He knows their pain, even the pain they won’t acknowledge. He wants to set them free. This is my God. If I can pray his mercy and care over them, I must accept it as well over myself.
Entrance into India
The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel at 3:00am was interesting. I was the last of the team to arrive and had to find my way to the hotel on my own. My Hindi-speaking taxi driver didn’t know where the hotel was, so he asked a group of taxi drivers on the side of the street. Then he asked another group. And then the guys at the gate. At this point I thought I would never make it there. I finally pulled it up on Google maps and found that it wasn’t too far away— just a mile. So we puttered away in the tiny car that my legs didn’t really fit in, and was thankful for the cool post-rain breeze that gave relief to the humidity.
The next morning after breakfast, we sat in the lobby and waiting for Sela to come. She’s faithfully led the brothel outreach for over 20 years in a city several hours from Mumbai. I was pining to meet her. When she showed up, I wasn’t expecting someone so small! But you could feel her care and love right away. So welcoming and inviting. I knew she could be friends with anyone in a moment.
Mumbai was quite the interesting place, but at first I was so distracted by the crazy driving, close calls, bikes, motorcycles, people … it was chaos! But our driver evaded them all. That combined with driving on the opposite side of the street was some cause for stress at times.
Then I started looking at the city around me. So much dingy housing, shacks, trash, dirt, and just overall poverty. And it wasn’t just a section. It kept going and going. At first it was a shocking sight, but then I tried hard to imagine the life of these people and that this is their life and they have plenty of dignity. They work and have families and try to provide for them. Their housing is different from mine, but it doesn’t mean they need fixing.
I think it’s important to accept the difference up front so that you can enter any home and feel welcome, because it’s humans that make you feel welcome, not just a space.
We finally arrived at our hotel after about 3 hours of driving through the mountains. Many things to take in during the ride. Children peeing on the streets, trash and junk everywhere, a woman sitting on top of tiny food cart, the red third eye many people had, the colorful clothing the women wore, groups of people sitting together for lunch outside under shade, children coming home from school in their uniforms that looked very British-like, the mass amounts of people. So much to take in and observe.
My first brothel walk
Yesterday was riveting. Yet comforting as well. I have to keep reminding myself that we walked into brothels and that is not normal. Yet it seemed so normal. I always found myself at peace. Maybe that’s kingdom stuff. Maybe this is part of the progression for me. It began with drug camps 5 years ago, then drug aftercare homes, then homeless camps, then domestic violence victims, then strip clubs, then street prostitution, then massage parlors. I guess going into a brothel wasn’t such a huge jump. And what I saw there was similar in many ways to what I’ve seen everywhere else: women that desperately need to be loved. People trapped in the grip of sin and exploitation. This is another place where the love of the Father gets to ride in and take over.
Sela led us through the large brothel district, armed with candy, hair accessories and beanie babies. The first group of ladies were on the side of the alley, three younger women that Nora later described as having such searing pain in their eyes that it haunted her. We gave them hair clips and asked their names and told them how beautiful they were. When we came by later a man was talking to them, another customer.
We moved on to 2 women sitting against a wall. We said hello and they smiled. The one had such a pretty smile and was so tiny. We kept moving to a group of 4-5 women under the covering of the building. Across the street was a old brothel that had recently collapsed. Rubble was everywhere. These ladies were a bit older and after giving them chocolates we sat down and talked.
First asking names, then just listening, lots of picture taking. They loved to see themselves in the pictures. Then Sela talked with them and we sang Jesus Loves Me. That is when tears came to my eyes. Jesus loves them, no matter what. And the same is for me. We then laid hands on them and prayed, a together moment. So sweet. Afterwards the picture taking continued — they were so happy and one lady even started singing and dancing. We knew the fruit of Sela’s efforts over many years brought us to this point.
We walked around the corner into another brothel, this time going inside and sitting in the front room. The women gestured to us to sit on the seats and they sat on the floor on cardboard. They were so hospitable and even offered us tea. We gave the little boy there one of the beanie babies. Then we talked and Sela interpreted. They asked our names, what we do for a living, remarking on our features. One women sat on the other side and was a bit younger and looked very sad. There were about 6-7 women all together. Then eventually we sang again and went around and we all prayed. Then Sela prayed and also sang. She has such a beautiful voice. I was reminded again that I am here in another culture sitting accepted with prostitutes. Dirt never stopped Calvary blood. Later Sela told us that there were younger girls inside that we not allowed to come out. Many never leave their rooms and haven’t seen the light of day in years.
After lunch she took me and Katie to go into another large brothel house. We first stopped and talked with 2 women at the bottom. One was young and pregnant and she smiled so deeply at us. There was something in her eyes. Like a light and a hope and a plea for love and acceptance. She for some reason was so excited to see us but of course couldn’t relay that to us in English. We talked and communicated with hands. We found out she had 1 child and so we gave her a beanie baby. Then we prayed for both of them and saw tears in their eyes.
We moved on up the stairs. We walked up a total of 4 flights of stairs and saw room after room full of women. On the first floor was much younger women who had a beautiful little girl. They weren’t open to prayer but they were still welcoming.
Then we moved up and I kept looking around at the little living rooms and bedrooms that had women after women. A true brothel house. We stopped into one room where a woman had been lying on the bed. Sela talked with her while we interacted with the little 6 year old boy who was taking our pictures. We prayed over her and then walked down the hall where there were 4 women in a kitchen watching TV. After talking briefly, Sela had us pray over them for healing. So I bent down and touched their knees and prayed as well. I want to see God’s miracles in body and soul. That he would heal their body and that they would thank him and it would lead them to Jesus who is the ultimate healer. Several of the women eyes were full of tears and we told them all God bless you and left.
While walking downstairs, it was obvious Sela knew many of the people. She would say ‘hi’ and the women would wave at us. We passed at least 4 men on our way down the stairs. It was hard to comprehend the realities they live under, that they can serve anywhere from 20-40 men a day.
The brothel children
One of my most poignant memories was the day we visited the brothel children daycare. Sela told us that when she first tried to connect with this Hindu-led daycare center, she was roughly pushed away. They hated her and the religion she represented.
But then, after months and years of persistence, she slowly gained their respect. They came to trust and love her. And invited her into the daycare to minister to the children. Soon, they started sending children to Sela’s salon in the brothel district to provide the children with clothing, toys, and prayer. It was an unlikely relationship, but a real one at that.
We walked up a staircase inside of what seemed a large empty building. At the top we were ushered into an area that had several rooms. We could hear children singing around the corner.
Sela brought us into an office where we met with one of the women in leadership. She brought in another women, a powerful Hindu lawyer, who apparently used to hate Sela, but eventually grew to respect her and now supports her work. She gave us a few guidelines and then brought us into the lesson room.
We sat down on benches in front of what had to be 30 children — all were less than 5 years old, some as young as even 1. They were so beautiful. This one girl in front of me to the right drew me in. Big brown eyes, the cutest dress, and full of baby-girl sweetness. She was probably 3 years old.
The teachers gave them some instructions, and then they started to sing with much gusto. Some of the songs we recognized the tunes — like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star — and others Indian children songs. It was a private performance for us!
Then we had a chance to sing for them. We stuck with a song we had sang several times before, a classic, Jesus Loves Me.
This I know. For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong.
They are weak,
But he is strong.
My voice cut off at “Little ones” because of the weight of those words.
Of the most vulnerable little ones in the world, these are the ones.
And God sees them. They belong to him. They are loved.
But I can’t make it work in my mind. They live in brothels, often hiding under their mother’s bed during service to a customer. This life they are growing up in will probably be what they are enslaved in as well?
God, where is the Jesus Loves Them at this point? Do you? Where are you? Can you?
So many emotions. Proud of their performance. Inspired by their resilience. Gripped by their vulnerability. Grieved by the abuses they may suffer outside of this safe place.
Wanting to look away, but not able to.
This is why it’s hard to write about these stories. There’s not a happy ending. There’s not an easy solution. There’s no conclusion besides this:
“And then we left.”
Modern Day Hero
I met a modern day hero and champion while in India. Sela, an incredible woman of pure gold.
I wanted to sit and listen for hours on end about her perspectives and stories and rescues and struggle and battle. Stories of daring rescues and police hunts on their home door step; girls being locked in rooms for years on end, even up to 10 years in a case she knew about; a women being healed of her illness due to Sela’s prayer; a brothel madame violently resisting Sela, and then after 5 years of prayer she amazingly opened up to a relationship and let Sela in to meet the other women; a young joyful 12 year old girl who was one day sold by her mother to a foreigner for sex one night; the young girl who pleaded to Sela that she was ready to try to escape the brothel, but since the board at that time was dysfunctional, they wouldn’t release funds for aid and Sela found out the next week the girl had hung herself; when one women was pregnant and tried to abort her baby, and the only way should wouldn’t do it is if Sela would adopt the baby. Sela ended up adopted what ended up being twin baby boys.
The more I got to know Sela, the more I realized that as we walked through the red light district, we were literally walking in the shadow of her miracle, the fruit of her harvest. It was one of my greatest honors so far in my life.
Where is the hope?
I’ve been processing for a long time. Or perhaps avoiding the process.
It’s hard to not have answers. It’s hard to deal with your own humanity. It’s hard to take a good, long look at darkness.
Because sometimes you’re afraid that what you find is that things are a lot more complex, a lot more worse, and a lot more hopeless that you thought.
I’ve been thinking…
I think that’s about where we need to arrive. To let ourselves be overcome because it’s that point where we find the limits of our own selves.
The natural runs out.
The supernatural can rush in.
I think that’s why it’s good for me to be in this space. The “impossible” space. Where I can’t be the savior or the hope of the world. Because if it were possible, I’m pretty sure I’d believe that I could solve all the world’s problems in a day. Really, I’m that self-sustainable.
But that’s not life. And it’s not reality.
Reality is there’s so much space of uncertainty, of questions that have no answers, of searching for what you may never really find.
And that’s ok.
Being fully aware of my limited scope reminds of the unlimited power of the One who can save the world, who has saved the world, and who is on the move to make all things new.
It’s hard to be the one that steps into darkness and then leaves, “getting” to be the person who talks about it and not stick around to create the frontline solution.
It’s hard to be the reader, to only hear and listen to devastation of lives that are so far removed from our own reality, being a “sharer” instead of practical hand.
But, we really do need all of us. All the gifts. All the perspectives.
Being present with uncomfortable problems is a mature thing to do. It says, “I’m sticking with this until we find breakthrough. I’m not going to quit. I’m not going anywhere.”
So you and I don’t have to be in India to be present. That’s the beauty of prayer. That’s the beauty of the Church. We’re in it together. We can talk, and share, and present, and think, and pray. And it really is all valuable.
Especially that prayer piece.
Prayer means we get to be present in sorrow — we can lament and hurt with those who labor under the grief of injustice as if we were right next to them in person.
Prayer means we get to be present in solutions — we can create and hope in prayer for something or someone to be that answer, even if we never get to do it ourselves.
Social justice need never be selfish. Just because we can’t travel or live in front of issues doesn’t mean we don’t get to be involved. Because since when was it all about us?
It’s hard to post an Instagram photo about the years of prayer for the brothel children to be set on a path of freedom and hope. But those 350 followers will sure see that white face with the brown ones in a visible sign of “good-doing.”
Yeah, on a scale of 1-to-who-cares, it’s off the charts.
So my takeaway from the India trip?
Let’s love from afar, and pray like someone’s life depends on it.
Because it really does.