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Give me a Love for this Place: by, Sarah Pouliot

“Give me a Love for this Place"

“God, give me a love for these people… Give me a love for this place.”

This has been my prayer since the moment I stepped off the plane into the chaos and whirl that is Kolkata. Shoving my way down the ramp, elbowing through customs and haggling for a cab…

“God give me a love for these people… Give me a love for this place.”

The choice to come here was hard for me. I was compelled by the horror of sex slavery, and my privileged access to resources, to do something… but my heart wasn’t always in it. Our site visit was a harsh slap into reality – the heat, the smells, the crowds, the poverty. It seemed as though life here would be impossible.

And yet, I still felt called to it. Drawn by some invisible force… into a life that, at times, seemed more like death.

There were many sleepless nights leading up to our departure date. I would lie awake in bed and run through all my fears and doubts and what-ifs. Although, through it all, I never questioned the call…

My only deep and true doubt was my ability to make it. I know that I am both a deeply selfish and emotional creature. I realized early on that God would have to give me a love greater than my fear, if I was ever going to survive… So I began to pray:

“God, give me a love for these people… Give me a love for this place.”

Our first few months here I was raw and disoriented. It felt like I had been sucked into a riptide and I couldn’t find which way was up… Everything I grasped for was wrong and my instincts were off. I found my life-line and held on for dear life:

Every uncomfortable encounter, every disheartening failure – “ God give me a love…”

Every stomach churning smell, every cultural blunder – “God give me a love…”

Every broken woman, every impoverished child – “God give me a love…”

Every unanswered question, every bile-rising injustice – “God give me a love…”

I held fast to those words. I could feel myself rising out of the current… After some time, my desperation morphed into a timid comfort. The pressure to find that unconditional, staying love passed and I began to rely on God’s provision as that anchor.

I can only describe my feelings as timid, since the assurance I have is resting on the fine balance of peace and affection for this place. These daily encounters still feel foreign to me. This place is no longer scary… but neither is it my home. As I walked today, I became acutely aware of the shallowness of my love. I turn to God in every uncomfortable moment and unanswerable question…

While I believe wholeheartedly in His strength and power to meet me in the gap, I also know that part of me is turning to Him so I can avoid looking straight into the reality before me.

I am afraid to look too closely. I am afraid that what I see… may be too hard to overcome. I am afraid that if I get too close, I may crumble under the weight of injustice.

I am afraid. And so I pray. But my prayers are selfish.

“God give me a love… so this place isn’t too much.”

“God give me a love… so I can manage.”

“God give me a love… so that I can survive.”

Today, my prayer has changed. God has lifted me above the waters… and now I must go back.

If I ever hope to share the weight of oppression, I must enter in…

I can’t enter in, until the struggle is my own.

Today, I don’t pray for God to give me love… today, I pray for Him to bind me up.

 

God bind these people to my heart.

Fuse them to my soul.

May their joy be my joy,

their pain my pain…

Until their freedom is my own.

Where one falls, so does the other.

Like a fetter,

bind them to my heart.

Conversations with a John: by, Andrew Shaughnessy

Vijay and Friends under the Howrah Bridge

Vijay and Friends under the Howrah Bridge

 

The community park was filled with plainclothes police recruits standing at attention. Shoes and sandals scuffed the ground, not quite in unison at the shouted practice parade orders: about face, at ease, forward march… I watched as I walked by.

“Hello! Come here please,” said a voice.

Just outside the parade ground fence sat two men, both Indians. The first looked young, shy and quiet. The second, a slight man with greasy hair and a sparse mustache, was waving me over and grinning.

I was on my way to the gym, running shoes and water slung in a bag over my shoulder, and not out to visit or make conversation. But, reminding myself that building intentional contacts and relationships is not based on convenience, I crossed through the gate anyway, and walked over to talk.

The conversation proceeded in a stumbling blend of broken English and Bangla. “What is your country? What is your work? Where do you stay?”

The mustached man introduced himself as Vijay. He was a dokan wallah, he said, selling medicines near Howrah.

“So what brings you to this part of the city?” I asked.

“This one is from my village,” said Vijay, slapping his friend on the back. “This is his first time in the city, so I am taking him to Sonagachi. You know that place? Maximum famous place.”

I nodded. “I know the place. It’s a bad place.”

They were customers. Two among the thousands of men who walk the lanes of Sonagachi in packs every day. The village friend, like many, looked shy and a bit scared. Vijay looked hungry, and I didn’t like the gleam in his eye.

“You are here alone?” said Vijay. “You are not bringing any girlfriend?”

“Yeah, it’s just me. I live with a family though.”

“No. You can’t be alone. Everyone from your countries comes in two. They travel all around India and stay together. Sleep in the same rooms. Have the sexes.”

“Well,” I said. “Not me. I’m here in India alone.”

“So you are going there then, eh?” said Vijay, smiling wickedly and gesturing suggestively with his eyebrows across the street, to the main lane of Sonagachi.

“Not to buy girls. I’m here to help the women in Sonagachi.”

“There are so many girls there. Whatever you want. You just pick one and pay some rupees and they are taking off the clothes and just laying there and you can do whatever you want with them.”

“No. Because I follow Jesus, I don’t go there and buy girls. I don’t think it’s right.”

“What is the way for ‘flocking’ in America?” (“Flocking” isn’t quite the word he was going for, but I didn’t correct him). Vijay’s eyes were widening and his eyebrows getting higher with excitement. “I saw in American movie they were doing like….”

A full body pantomime commenced, complete with sound effects and crude hand gestures. The conversation only went downhill from there: My repeated insistence that I was here to help the girls in Sonagachi, not to be a customer. Vijay brushing off the words and insisting that I really could get “whatever I wanted.” My attempts to communicate that following Jesus made me want to change the Gach, not use it. His attempts to elicit a verbal ‘how-to’ of the American style for “flocking.”

The conversation was going nowhere. And I was getting angry. This guy oozed sleazy – from his greasy drooped mustache to the predatorial grin and waggling eyebrows. It would have been almost comical, cartoonish, if I didn’t know the very real meaning of his actions – if I hadn’t met the women from the lines, talked to them and walked their lanes, played with their children. And yet here he was, an unashamed customer of Sonagachi. An oppressor. An exploiter of the very women I was here for. Taking his friend for a night in the red light, unaware or not caring of the deep scars and hurt he was bringing to the women enslaved on the line.

I wanted to speak truth into his life.

I also wanted to kick his ass. Probably more than the whole speaking truth thing.

About the time I found myself weighing the pros and cons of punching him in the throat, I made myself turn and walk away – Vijay calling after me “But please, just tell me the way for flocking in America!”

Conversations with customers are hard. Every time. And there seems to be no real handbook on how to handle them well.

These are men who come in and out of Sonagachi from all around the city, not neighbors who you’re building sustained relationships with. And when they come to the Gach, the only thing on their mind is the sex they’re about to buy, and that’s all they want to talk about. There’s a theme I’ve heard occasionally of: “The men need to be changed too!” And it’s true. But what does that look like? How do you stand FOR the oppressed and standing AGAINST the oppressor, but simultaneously be trying to build relationships with the oppressor? How do I dedicate myself to bringing freedom to a woman who is forced to sell her body 10 times a day, and then go have a casual conversation with one of her rapists?

I don’t think there are easy answers to those questions. And for me, wired the way I am, its difficult for me to wrap my head around trying to change evil relationally, rather than simply fight it. I don’t like it.

A week later, some friends and I were taking a morning photo adventure in Kolkata –the Hooghly River, the Train Station, and finally the flower market beneath the Howrah Bridge. The flower market is beautiful and chaotic – wagonloads of color stretched out in the open air on tarps and in stalls. Bright orange and yellow and red flowers strung together or arranged in tiny bouquets to be purchased and offered to the gods at a temple. Nearby stalls sell spices in brightly colored wicker baskets: masalas and chilis and peppers and turmeric, and the air bears that distinct Indian scent of spice and floral sweetness mingled with the rot of the river and piles of trash and sewage from the nearby railroad slum.

It was there, taking photos under the Howrah bridge, that I saw Vijay again.

“Hello!” Again a voice from the corner of my periphery, standing up and spreading his arms wide. The same mustache. The same grin.

“Hello,” I answered, taking a second to recognize the face in the dim half light, and then taking a few more seconds to think about the improbable odds of seeing this man again. One man in a city of 15 million, and I had run into him twice in a week.

“You are remembering me! Come have tea!”

“I’ve already had tea today,” I said, scrambling for how best to approach the situation.

“Ah,” said Vijay with a smile. “But not my tea. Sit.”

Vijay pulled out a cracked plastic box for me to sit on. He introduced me to his friends and scampered off to bring back cups of hot, sweet cha. And we sat under the shadow of the Howrah Bridge, in the dust and between the flowers, and we shared tea and talked.

At one point he pulled up a banged up small set of plastic drawers, no more than 3 feet high and 1 foot wide, and opened them to show me their contents: lotions and soaps, condoms, a few hygiene items. This was his “medicine shop.” These plastic drawers were his livelihood.

We talked about his home in the nearby slum, his dokan, his friends. They loved the fact that I was trying to learn Bangla, and that I liked their tea. He was kind and friendly. Genuinely hospitable. It was strange.

Then Vijay asked: “So, are there places like Sonagachi in America? Places for ‘flocking?’”

Aaaaand we’re back…

“Yes,” I said slowly, “But I don’t….”

“I know, I know,” he said. “You don’t go there for the girls.”

Well, if nothing else, at least he remembered that. That’s something, isn’t it? Maybe something, even something small, does last from those conversations.

The thing that got me with this experience was the humanity that emerged in Vijay the second time I met him. After our first conversation, I was left with just a residue of evil and a desire to destroy it warring with everything I’ve been told about loving my enemies. But the second time, under the Howrah Bridge, I saw the human being behind the evil – a very broken, sleazy human being, but human and made in the image of God nonetheless.

It’s easy to put the customers of Sonagachi into a box that only contains raw wickedness, to dehumanize them into a faceless, conscienceless enemy – but even the oppressors are broken people in need of freedom and redemption. That doesn’t mean they aren’t guilty of horrendous crimes, or that we shouldn’t try to stop those crimes and the system that perpetuates them.  We should. We must. But it does mean that we need to recognize the brokenness and need on that side of the coin as well.

As long as culture and society and sin permit the exploitation of women, places like Sonagachi will continue to exist. We can build businesses to give women jobs, dignity, and freedom from the shackles of the trade, but as long as the customers remain unchanged, the trade will continue as supply meets demand. True, lasting change demands the redemption and freedom of both the oppressed and the oppressor.

How long must we wait?: by, Joe Pouliot

How Long Must We Wait?

“We are

born like this

into this

into these carefully mad wars

into the sight of broken factory windows of emptiness

into bars where people no longer speak to each other

into fist fights that end at shootings and knifings

born into this

into hospitals that are so expensive that its cheaper to die

into lawyers that charge so much its cheaper to plead guilty

into a country where the jails are full and the madhouses closed

into a place where the masses elevate fools into rich heroes”

- Charles Bukowski (found in the local newspaper, The Telegraph)


 

How long must we wait for you, God?

How many more wars? How many more people have to die? How long will evil reign? How long will death and suffering haunt our existence?

Tonight was a rough night. I am struggling with the realities of life. Injustice reigns throughout the world, in our governments, in our systems. But it’s not just “them,” it is in our very own hearts. The brokenness of this world is wrecking me and I can’t seem to wrap my mind around it. How can I? How can we? And I’ve been to Bible School. I know all the answers I’m supposed to have. But they all seem to fall short tonight and I look to my God and ask Him, “How long must we wait?”

My mind wanders… I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like for Jesus to walk this earth. To see the world He created and walk among the fruits of the path that we, humanity, had chosen for ourselves – the hurt, the struggle, the pain that has existed throughout history since the beginning of time and continues to this very day. The atrocities that have been committed, the lives that have been lost, the desolation of a beautiful creation…

And as I’m dwelling on all of this, the story of Jesus walking up on a large funeral procession comes to my mind (Luke 7:11-16). He sees the only son of a local widow being carried out of the city gate. He hears the weeping and wailing; he looks on at the broken hearts. He sees the mother who just lost her only son and grasps the anguish that has shattered her as she walks alongside him. Jesus cannot just let this pass. He is moved in the depths of his being to action:

 And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, arise.” And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized them all, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and “God has visited his people!” (ESV)

After I read that, more and more of the stories of Jesus’ life flooded my mind- all the times He was moved with “compassion” or “pity” and even how He “wept.” It was like with every word He was speaking, every miracle He was doing, He was showing us the very heart of God poured out on the earth. He sees what I see now, and He was, and still is, moved with compassion. He hates evil and all it’s faces, and He gave His life to defeat it.

His hope met my despair and I am grateful.

I’ve come to realize that to be a Christian in this world is not to just go to your local church on Sunday mornings. Father, have mercy on us! It can’t be only that. It is a call to change, a call to action- to be moved with compassion and to stand against Evil itself, not only in the world, but in ourselves. To choose to live in direct contrast to it everyday, by the power of the One who overcame the world! And the desire of our hearts as His followers must be to seek the redemption of His creation, the restoration of all things, whatever the cost, till He returns…

Life is hard. If you watch the news enough, it’s hard not to get depressed. We may not be able to fix all the world’s problems. We may not be able to raise the dead. But my prayer is that the followers of Jesus, all over the world, would lay down their lives for their neighbor, and show the world that God has not abandoned us…

Till He returns,

Joe

A Long Way to Go: by, Grant Walsh

I thought I was seeing things. My eyes must be playing tricks on me. There is no possible way. Not a chance. Standing on my street peering across Central Avenue in Kolkata, I wiped my sweaty eyes with my shirtsleeve and squinted harder. With buses screaming by, taxis honking and slowing down to beg me to give them business, I was hoping my senses were just on overload and that what I was seeing was an apparition. They say your eyes can play tricks on you. I hoped this was one of those times. But it wasn’t. What I saw was real - a beautiful, elegant red sari adorned with fancy gold trimming. Simply put, a one-of-a-kind, catch-your-eye dress…

This week, behind the leadership of the Secretary of State, John Kerry, the United States government just released its annual TIP (Trafficking in Persons) Report. It is a long (432 pages!) and comprehensive report – giving ratings and updates on every country in the world in regards to how they are handling this global injustice. Indeed, one look at a report like this shows just how big of an issue human trafficking has become in our world today. I have said it before, and I will say it again – it is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, civil rights issue of the 21st century. Long after we are gone from this earth, our generation will be judged on how we handled this issue. Here is some info from the report.

BIG PICTURE

Many individuals, institutions, and countries have gotten serious in the fight against human trafficking – and its making a difference. Since last year, prosecutions and convictions of offenders has risen roughly 30% and 20% respectively; and new and amended legislation has tripled. Similarly, over 44,000 victims of trafficking were identified last year. This is significant progress.

However, on the flip side, most experts say actual total trafficking numbers have not decreased – even with the better efforts that have been put in place. Most official numbers still say there are around 27 million slaves in the world. In short, for the big picture, not too much has actually changed.

INDIA

  • It is estimated that India plays a part in roughly 50% of all trafficking in the world.
  • Ninety percent of India’s trafficking problem is internal, and those from the most disadvantaged social strata—lowest caste Dalits, members of tribal communities, religious minorities, and women from excluded groups are most vulnerable.
  • West Bengal (where Kolkata is located) continues to be a major source for trafficking victims, with girls more frequently subjected to sex trafficking in small hotels, vehicles, huts, and private residences.
  • There is also a lack of political will to combat trafficking and protect victims in West Bengal. Unlike most other states in India, West Bengal has no trafficking-specific law enforcement units that work with other agencies and can refer victims to shelters. West Bengal also has no government rehabilitation services for victims, and no cases investigated or prosecuted in 2013 under India’s new trafficking laws, despite the area being a major source for trafficking.

Though human trafficking has caught the world’s attention – we still have a long way to go. And India, in particular, needs to lead the charge. Which brings me back to the woman in the red sari…

There was significance behind the woman in the red sari that caught my eye as I looked across Central Avenue from my little street in Shoavabazar. She indeed was a prostitute – likely being forced by slavery or poverty or sexism or some other outside-her-control reason to have to stand there and solicit her body for money. And, she was a part of Sonagachi – the largest red light district in India. Besides my heart breaking for yet another person made in the image of God being oppressed, another aspect of this story that was particularly troubling to me was that her presence on that part of the street marked the extending of the red light district of Sonagachi even farther and broader than ever before. Never before had a seen a woman out this far from the nucleus of the district. But now, only a few weeks from seeing this single woman on the street, I now routinely observe multiple women there. Here is the point: Sonagachi and human trafficking and the sex trade and injustice do not seem to be slowing down all that much in my neighborhood. In fact, it’s getting bigger. And it breaks my heart – but, more importantly, it breaks God’s heart.

Perhaps this is only evidence of the most powerful and damning line in Mr. Kerry’s report:

“The (Indian) government did not report any efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts or forced labor.”

Yes, we have a long way to go. God, help us…

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” –Genesis 1:27

 

Works Cited:

U.S. State Department. “Trafficking in Persons Report: June 2014.” http://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2014/index.htm