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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.”
My family just returned from vacation on a beach in Thailand… just what the doctor ordered. I needed to be away… from pain… from ugliness… from grief… just for a time, so I could see my Maker… see His beauty… and know His own Love and Grace, that are so deeply hidden in the chaos of these streets of Kolkata.
I returned to day one of work, refreshed and ready for whatever the day would bring. Here’s how the day unfolded…
9am: My Indian co-worker begins to tell of his vacation time at his home. His mother and older brother have cheated him out of his birthright… his farm. He has no recourse and is hurt in the deepest recesses. We cry together and pray.
11am: We go to visit the ladies in Sonagachi. One woman tells us about the cyclone that is hitting her home back in her home state, as we speak. The house where her children live with her 100-year-old mother-in-law is under water. She is worried and fed up with another disaster to deal with. We pray, and ask God to calm the storm.
2pm: My house-helper, a resident of Sonagachi, comes to my home. I ask her how her vacation was. She says, there was lots of fighting in her home. Her 15-year-old sister has been arrested. Her mother poured kerosene over herself in an attempt to kill herself, because of the shame. “That was my vacation!” she says with alarming resignation.
Sometime in the middle of the night: I wake up from a nightmare (which I have frequently here). People are after us and we need a place to hide. It takes me a good five minutes after waking to realize I’m in my own bedroom, and that I can stop looking for an escape on the other side of my window.
Here we are, back in Kolkata! The harsh realities which our Bengali friends deal with every day are so hard to contend with. I do thank God for time away. The glimpses of the life and beauty He meant for us all to enjoy are still fresh in my heart and mind. Deep down I know He is Good.
I appreciated this blog written by Ann Voskamp, that I read while away. It helps give me perspective on Hope and Waiting. Please take a moment to read it and be encouraged, in whatever hardship you or a friend might be facing. Jesus IS making something beautiful… even in the ugliest and darkest of places.