Broken Things: By, Andrew Shaughnessy

1 Month Freedom Birthday

1 Month Freedom Birthday

When I was in Africa I loved to fix broken things, to build with my hands. The long equatorial days were filled with unanswerable questions: numbing poverty, spiritual vacuums, legacies of suffering, problems that demanded addressing but rejected easy answers or clear-cut solutions. And in the shadow of my inability to fix broken people and their broken land, I found solace in fixing broken bicycles and boreholes. It was easier, I found, to wield a welder’s torch and build something new and good and useful out of scraps of steel, than to wield economic theories and sound Biblical counsel to build something new out of broken people. And there was comfort in that sense of completion.

This City is worlds away from those African days of dust, but there are still broken people in a broken world that rejects quick fixes or easy answers, but demands an attempt at healing. Our small piece of the larger picture involves pouring our efforts and prayers and lives into the lives of seven women who the world has turned its back on. And I want for the healing to be instantaneous, the transformation to be complete and exponential. But people and cities and institutions and generational legacies of suffering and exploitation take more than a welding torch and a screwdriver to patch together.

The weeks have been long, but we’re beginning to settle into a rhythm.

Devotions. Songs. Prayer. Group Therapy. Math. Cha. English. Baking. Lunch.

We add short modules teaching practical life skills. G teaches a class on budgeting. I take a morning session for first aid instruction. Tomorrow I will teach a basic self-defense module.

The shipment of equipment from China is delayed. The café renovations are hitting obstacles. We adapt. We improvise. We make mistakes often, sleep little, and love much.

Lessons. Plans. Coffee to make it through the mornings, noons, and long nights.

Monday to Friday. The schedule and repetition lends a sense of normalcy and routine to a life that is far from normal and far from routine. And then something jars us out of it – the brief breakdowns and tears, the bruises, the steely resolve juxtaposed with frustrating apathy, the tiny chapters of unimaginable histories.

Widowed when still a child.

Gave birth to her first daughter at age 12.

Her junkie husband making trouble.

Her name tattooed on her wrist like a brand from Dachau. If she winds up dead in an alley someone can at least read her name.

And then we remember the high stakes. We remember that the Monday to Friday routine that six seconds ago seemed almost normal, is in fact a daily battle. Teaching in a foreign language, learning grace in the face of hopelessness, constantly adapting, exercising compassion, crying out to God for wisdom and strength.

They crack at the seams, these children of God, literally in some cases. Life in the brothels takes its toll physically, mentally, and spiritually. The women from the Lines age more quickly than others. Several of our women in their 30s look like they could be grandmothers. Several are.

We try to understand. We try to hold the pieces together. We try to empower them and tell them that they are strong. That they are worth something. We do our damndest and lean heavy on God’s helping hands.

And we hang on to the glimmers of progress and hope and redemption that we are granted day by day.

The light in her eyes when the empowerment of a new English phrase clicks.

The gears of their minds whirring to solidify the steps in a recipe.

The soaring laughter that transcends language barriers that fills the rooms.

In the streets flatbed trucks and carts carry 10 foot idols of plaster-and-paint gods with blood red eyes and six hands holding severed human heads, and the people dance and beat drums and cry before them hoping, just hoping, that if they make enough noise their gods of death will hear them and grant their requests. In these rooms tears fall as these children of God hear for the first time of a suffering savior, a God who cares for the poor and the downtrodden and hears their faintest whispers.

There’s a line from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables that I go back to time and time again:

“His humble soul loved; that was all…. That he raised his prayer to a superhuman aspiration, is probable; but one can no more pray too much than love to much… He inclined towards the distressed and the repentant. The universe appeared to him like a vast disease; he perceived suffering everywhere, and, without essaying to solve the enigma, he endeavored to staunch the wound.”

Beautiful and Bruised: By, Christianne Walsh

Kolkata Kites

Our 7 Precious Women

Beautiful and Bruised

Genuine, but Guarded

Strong, Resilient, Kind

Some Silent, Some Forthright

Broken Homes, Abandoned, Abused

Ever able to Smile

Thankful, but Asking

Crushed, but Hopeful

Faithful and Determined

Mothers, always a Mother

Giving, Sharing, Open

Addicted, Lost, Fearful

Stepping towards Recovery

Moving towards Jesus

Slow, Slow, Slowly

Our ladies are laying about my apartment, napping with bellies full from lunch, waiting to go back to the doctor to finish their well-woman’s check-ups. Gorgeous, each one wrapped in a vibrant sari. There is no greater joy than to have them here with us.

As I look over at them, I feel like a new mother all over again. Wanting to protect them, to care for their every need, to listen to their every word and cry.

I am expectant. How will these women grow, and learn, and change? How will Jesus transform them?

The waiting is the worst. They’ve come so far already. They have so far to go. They are with us 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, making their transitions to a newer life. But, still most days, after training they cross the street to Sonagachi and work there a few hours to make sure they can cover all of their family’s needs and costs. I hate that. I hate it with a passion.

When will full freedom come? When will the women be able to cut ties completely with their customers, their madams, their larger incomes? In hope, we train them and prepare them. We know that only through constant Love, constant counseling, and through Jesus’ transformative power will real Freedom come. We expect, we wait.

This morning I was reading the passage where Peter made his great profession of Jesus’s identity, “You are the Christ of God.” The Messiah, the Promise, Hope-Fulfilled. The long awaited One. And yet, even then Peter must have winced and thought, “Yes, Messiah is here, but I was expecting more.”

It’s Advent, a season of waiting, equally beautiful and painful. I sense an Advent in each of our women’s hearts. A new dawn. A new birth. We await. We keep hope alive. We choose to Hope again and again. Because, yes, our Hope has been fulfilled, it is being fulfilled in our midst, but Hope is Coming.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come Freedom. With pained and longing hearts, we await.

Ami Jani: Risk, Trust, and Courage – By, Sarah Pouliot

Every morning I have the privilege of sharing group time with our ladies. The point of this time is to lay a foundation and build trust as a new “family.” While Christianne leads, almost completely in Bangla, I sit and try desperately to understand the depth of what is taking place around me. I can barely follow along, but based on the heartfelt sighs or bubbly laughter, I can often manage to present the appropriate response. As embarrassing as it can be, this is by far my favorite time.

It doesn’t escape me how special it is, to be invited into the hearts of these women…

Their bright smiles.

Their sarcastic banter.

Their warm hearts.

Their painful stories.

Today we are talking about trust. The exercises are simple. In any other setting they might be corny, but here they are profound and their meaning is not lost on me. As we stand around and practice our “trust fall” skills, each woman is laughing and screaming simultaneously. My heart is filled with warmth…

We take our seats once again, facing each other in our circle, and discuss the meaning of the game.

 What are you thinking as you fall backward?

How does it feel to trust blindly?

What feeling do you have when the arms catch you?

Most of the answers are the same:

I am terrified.

It feels wrong.

I am relieved.

The giggling finally settles and Christianne’s face get serious. She starts to say something I can’t quite understand. I watch the ladies, intent on her words, and struggle to piece together the puzzle of what must be happening. I start to feel the meaning of her words…

Risk. Courage. Strength. Trust.

The obstacles these women face every day… The risk it is for them to leave… The courage it takes to step out… The strength to keep walking… The trust they place in our hands…

Her words become soft… “Ami jani,” she says. “I know.

My eyes meet hers, across the circle. I can feel the sting of tears threatening to pour over… I blink them back and nod slowly.

Amra jani,” she repeats. “We know.

The heaviness of the moment hangs in the air.

These women have done the hard part…

Now all we can do is open our arms and pray to God he gives us the strength to catch.

We Will Overcome: by, Andrew Shaughnessy

“Haam honge kamiyab eika din.” “We will overcome one day.” On Tuesday morning we had six ladies singing in Hindi about victory and discussing how together we will overcome the challenges of training.

“Have you had any frustrations with training so far?” asks Joe.

“We have get up at 4:00 in the morning so we can cook and clean and come in time for work,” says Joni, ever the outspoken one in the group.

Several of our trainees are “fliers,” meaning women who don’t live in the district, but essentially commute to and from the Gach every day from their villages. That doesn’t make the conditions of the work any nicer or less oppressive – they have still been forced into and trapped in the trade by horrible circumstances. Many of their families have no idea what they did for a living. The shame and cultural stigma forces the women to keep that horrible secret to themselves.

Circumstances are such that many of the women will do just about anything for an opportunity to escape the trade. Singh and Shira, for example, live in a village a mere 2 kilometers from the border of Bangladesh. Granted, Kolkata is comparatively close to Bangladesh, but it is still a 2-hour daily train commute for them to come every day.

These women have some serious grit and determination. They’ve got some serious baggage and deep wounds too, and those are things that are going to have to be worked through on a day by day and month by month, but when I hear these women singing about freedom and overcoming it gives me hope that they can finish the course.

Plaster of Paris

P.S. – In other news, the Café itself is coming along nicely. Plaster-of-Paris brick façade walls are under construction this week, and we’re hoping kitchen equipment will be installed by the end of the month. Stay tuned!