It’s funny the impact little things can have. In the middle of a sight-seeing binge two years ago I decided to pop into a certain museum in Stockholm and stumbled into a temporary display on ethics in the shopping realm. That little display started me on a journey that led me to orphanages in Cambodia and the Red-light districts in Thailand, into books and onto one website after another, always asking the same question–how can I follow God’s commands to love justice and care for the oppressed in the middle of a system that in many places thrives on taking advantage of the weak? More simply, How can I live here?? How can I honor God in this area of my life? As I learned about one issue after another, it was easy to become discouraged. But I remember the start of my journey. If such a small thing as a random display in a museum could change the course of my life in one hour, maybe the small changes I can make on a daily basis can change the lives of others as well. Seeking out those small changes is what this blog is all about. It promises to be a complicated journey. But you are welcome to join in.
I hear the sirens again. It is common background noise in this “rough” bit of city associated with LA. I wonder what’s happening this time. I have seen the police responding several times on my street. One time they were searching a neighbor, interrogating. Another time responding to a break-in, something gang-related. There were hopes that a gang bust might be on the horizon. And then there was the police response to the young man who died overnight in the apartment across the street. I prayed for the twenty-something brother left behind.
I don’t live in the “bad” part of the city. I feel safe. A large majority of people around me are white-collar. But there is much that happens in a neighborhood with 1864 households packed into less than one fifth of a square mile. At the park 3 blocks away I meet a Sri Lankan family playing cricket, hear moms speaking to their children in Khmai (Cambodian) and Spanish, witness African-Americans greet each other as “brother” and have opportunity to meet people who slept on the benches overnight. Online I find a reference to my neighborhood as part of the “hood.” I am 1 1/2 blocks up from the dividing line of reputation, 1/2 a block south of the street known to be a magic wardrobe into the really dicey stuff. Some people would feel it too close for comfort. I have a vision to see that dividing line taken away.
The sirens remind me that there’s a world of need outside my door. They beckon me to get out of my peaceful place behind locks and latches, and walk further up and further in. They call me to a place of intercession, to pray for protection and redemption. The sirens are a call to Kingdom. I want to be there…in the midst…when the Kingdom comes.
“Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles in the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.” Luke 5:18-19
I’m a rule follower. When I enter a new culture, I ask a lot of questions about what to do and not do. I observe the ways of others, and I copy their every move. I don’t want to do something offensive, or cause a misunderstanding, or draw attention to myself as someone with questionable morals or lack of sensitivity. I want to fit in (as much as light skin and hair and terrible language ability allow). I don’t want to break the rules. It’s good missiology to enter as a learner and adopt cultural ways as much as possible. It’s a respect thing.
But I encounter a dilemma in this story. You see, I say I care about justice. I say I care about people. Years ago I came to the conclusion that the heart of justice is whatever it takes to bring a person to Jesus. So I find in this story a beautiful example of a group of people fighting for justice—pulling out all the stops to get someone to Jesus. But I also discover that in order to do it they had to break the rules.
If I picture myself in this story, as one of the friends carrying this paralytic, I am stoked to see a transformation happen for my friend. That is, I am stoked until I see the crowd, the impassable masses of people blocking the way to get to Jesus. At this point, I hang my head dejected and tell my friends that maybe we can try again a different day. “They could not find a way…because of the crowds.” But then one of my more audacious friends has an audacious idea. We’ll find a way around, we’ll force our way in front of Jesus, we’ll actually break and enter someone else’s property to get this guy where he has to go. And I’m like, “That’s not OK. You can’t do that. You’ll be breaking village laws, damaging someone’s home. What’s more, it will cause a scene. What will people say?” And I follow the others kicking and screaming onto the roof. Or, even more likely, I let them go ahead and I hang back, too concerned about the ethical dilemma to do what needs to be done.
I see myself in the mirror of truth. And it shows me that there are things I care more about than justice, that I care more about than people. Things like following the rules. Things like playing it safe. Things like the “right thing to do” being obvious.
It’s not that I don’t care. I cared enough to quit my job last year and risk traveling to a fairly intense country. I took the first step. I took my burden for the poor and carried it to the place where Jesus was…right among the broken lives and dirty streets. I had a hope that I could be part of something transformative. But I hit resistance. I was asking the question “Is there a place for me here? Can I make a difference?” And I didn’t find an answer; I didn’t find a place. I could not find a way. So I came back. Two and a half months later I realize the question that really needs to be asked is not, “Is there a way,” but, “Do I care enough to find it?”
As I stand on the verge of applying to be a barista for the second time in my coffee career, Not for Sale’s FREE2WORK campaign sent out a report evaluating various brands in their policies and efforts to address child and forced labor in coffee supply chains. What a timely connection of my current “career path” to my continuing concern to live in a way that contributes to increased blessing and opportunity for the least of these—the invisible workers who contribute so much to my way of life. (If you’re new to this, let me simply state that coffee production is one of the areas where the most child labor and slavery occurs in our world today. So if you want to know where to start with living for a “free” world, it’s not a bad place to start.)
See the full report here: http://www.free2work.org/trends/coffee/
She is one of the singers. She taught me my first Bangla song.
From across the room she sees that I have no rice. “Ektu?” she says. I hand her my lunch box and she divides her own rice between us.
Later as she washes dishes I stand by. She gestures, speaks. I do not understand. Finally giving up on words she grabs my right hand…the hand that still bears the remains of her shared rice…and washes it under the faucet. “Ami bachar! (I am a baby!)” I joke. We both smile.
As I walk towards the metro station at day’s end, there she is in front of me. She is asking me where I am going. She is walking there too. So we go together. She leads me in an unfamiliar way in the dark, practically holding my hand, fending for me like a mother hen crossing the street, ready to take on the whole realm of taxis in my defense.
We enter the metro station, walk down steps to the platform. She will travel the opposite direction. But for now we stand together. She grasps my hand in hers and starts to sing.
I don’t remember all the words, so she feeds me a phrase at a time. She is so patient. She wants us to sing together. Her face is animated and her hands are warm. She looks into my eyes and praises Jesus openly without shame. And the world watches.
My train arrives and the singing must stop. But I continue to hum. My heart is full.
Many people move to this city to minister to others. They come to the red-light district to serve the broken and despised. But then roles get reversed. The minister is ministered to. Those with less give more. The “wise” are made foolish. The weak show themselves strong. The lover finds undeserved affection. Songs of joy are sung in unexpected places. The Kingdom comes.
I walk into the brothel district.
I didn’t exactly know what I was doing.
Until someone told me, “You are right in it.”
This is where I spend my days.
This is where I sit and sing with the women.
This is where my friends are.
It’s a 10-minute journey.
I walk past outdoor urinals, past men bathing at a public water spout.
I hold my breath past the mini garbage dump, where people sort through the mess and load it onto a truck.
Always on that corner there’s the woman who braids her daughter’s hair for school.
And the children who call out in English, “Hello Auntie!”
Bicycles ringing their warning, “Look out behind you!” and bales of paper being loaded onto carts and trucks.
I don’t notice until my final mornings—that building labeled Night Lovers, those made-up women standing in doorways down that other lane.
You can easily miss seeing where you are.
And in the last days I notice something else.
An inner sense of not walking alone.
A towering invisible presence at either side.
It is this presence that has give me courage to see.
To notice. To look.
To cover ground not only with my feet but with my heart.
Yes, I walk into the red-light district.
And I join my friends singing words I am just beginning to understand, of freedom in Jesus.
This is our journey together.
Finding freedom from fear.
Learning we are not alone.
Living on the front-lines of battles we do not see.
And learning to see our situations with new eyes.
Forgive me if my guard is up.
Every day before leaving my room I drape I dupata (scarf) over my chest.
It is my shield. My defense.
It is a symbol of the way life is here.
It’s not just me. Other women have mentioned it.
When you go outside you must be ready.
Offense or defense, you may take either position.
But you must not take the position of the vulnerable.
Amidst jostling crowds and chaotic car noise, my eyes are often on the ground.
It would not do to look them in the eye, those who would get the wrong message. Those who would take advantage of me. Of my seemingly weaker position, that of a woman.
I clothe my chest with my dupata. And then I shield my heart with a hardened outer layer.
I do not look. I do not respond.
That woman sleeping on the ground.
I step past them and around them as I do the feces on the street.
I am not alone. Others have mentioned this.
You cannot fix it. It is overwhelming.
I walk by, and my dupata touches them with its shadow.
This is what you do in Kolkata.
You wear your dupata.
You keep your heart hidden underneath.
You don’t look, you don’t engage.
It is safer this way.
Forgive me if my guard is up.
This is how I was taught to live.
I was taught to wear a dupata.
God, grant me the grace to clothe myself in Your culture, to walk among the broken vulnerable as one who is the same. Remove the wall of separation my self-preservation has constructed, and give me an open heart to love those I am among, even though it’s dangerous, even though it will hurt.
Yesterday one of the women working near me had a hurting finger. I’m not sure what the problem was, but she covered it in cream and then needed to wrap it in cloth in order to continue working. I witnessed her appeal to a coworker, I assume for help in binding the finger. The answer appeared to be in the negative, and the coworker walked away. (In the coworker’s defense, the cream-covered finger did look rather messy and unappealing.) I watched this woman work to wrap her own finger. She got to a certain point in the process and really couldn’t complete the task on her own. That is when she noticed me sitting there. Luckily it doesn’t take language ability to tie strings around a bandage, just a decent grasp of body-language and verbal signals for how tight is tight enough. Once the cloth was secured, she waved her finger triumphantly towards the other women, showing off her ingenious problem-solving abilities. And my badge of honor for the day was being in the right place at the right time to tie string around a finger.
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3). Living the presence of Jesus among people can be so simple. It can be so small that you overlook it. After all, it’s just basic kindness to help someone when they need it. But there is something significant in the willingness to help with the little thing that no one else wants to do. It contains a seed of the Kingdom. It is a glimpse of what the world will be when God’s way rules. Yesterday, I heard whispers of the presence of Jesus. Maybe when I look back at my time in this place and wonder what it was all about, I will say, “I did no great things. I had no great roles or responsibilities. But I did get to bind up a finger.”
“The Kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).