Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Lesson on Language

A few days back, I was sitting with the ladies at work, practicing my Bengali; something I try to do as often as I feel adventurous enough to leave my text books for the real thing. Although, this time was different. Many of the women seemed too busy to help and I started to feel like a burden. About ready to retreat to my books, one lady sensed my discouragement and began to patiently teach me the names of body parts. Pointing to her nose or her ear, she would say the word in Bengali and I would repeat and hope to retain it, but often inverting syllables and beckoning the laughter of the ladies around us. Yet I was astounded at how quickly I was learning!

Fifteen body parts and an hour later, I realized who this patient woman was; she was one of the twenty original ladies that began with our business 10 years ago. She is a beautiful old woman, the type of beauty where you can tell she has always been beautiful. And she was elegant, even in her second-hand sari sitting on the floor of our workroom teaching me Bengali, she was clothed in dignity. Then I remembered, this is the lady who goes out into our community and finds women who have the courage to leave the trade and work with us. A real freedom fighter! Suddenly, I felt honored that she had given me so much attention.

After an hour of patient teaching, we left to find some water. Passing by Kerry, she said (in Bengali) "We are going out to the red-light district". I was surprised by the arrangement, but I quickly agreed, as I gulped down the rest of my water.

With my limited Bengali, and the growing trust I had for my newfound teacher, we ventured out. I felt so vulnerable, realizing this was just my second time walking the red-light district and my first time relying on a person to lead me who did not speak my language. But a rush of peace replaced my fear, as she took hold of my hand, leading me through narrow lanes and busy streets with the tenderness of a mother's love. I felt the warmth of her heart in the warmth of my hand.

We walked past the hundreds of women standing "in line" and stopped to talk with only a few. From what I could understand, she would tell them about our work being a place to work with dignity and more importantly freedom from "the line". I would answer questions about myself, as each curiously asked about me. Each time, the women were delighted when I answered back in their own language, feeble as it was.

The last woman we visited invited us into her room and bought us chai and cookies.

Sitting on her bed, drinking the chai, I couldn't help but imagine what had took place there, right where I sat. What had she endured? What was the cost of my little cup of tea? And how gracious was her hospitality? My heart ached, but I smiled and sipped, not wanting to waste a drop of the costly tea she had given of herself to buy.

The woman listened as we shared about our work I thought for a long time, carefully forming my words, "Apni amrader shonge kaj korte cai" (I want you to work with us). She smiled, but with a tinge of despair. I wish I could understand and say so much more. I wanted to listen to that despair, to reach beyond my elementary vocabulary and limited understanding of the conversation. It was there that language learning took on a whole new level of importance.

In the midst of my seemingly endless struggle to grasp this new language, it's days like this where learning vocab and grammar take on new meaning and new hope. Teachers like this are rarely found in a classroom. And these lessons on language cannot be found in a book.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Revealization

So I have been wrestling with a question; “Do I love Chr!st’s mission more than I love Chr!st?”, a question that unsettles me in a place I have not wanted to confront.

To be honest, prayer has been an afterthought since I arrived in Kolkata. I have been caught up in the excitement of a new life, as I see G*d move in and through this community. Which is beautiful. But could I say my eyes are on Chr!st? Sadly, no.

Yesterday, I listened to a recording of my first sermon on “obedience vs. effectiveness”. Not something I do often, obviously, as it was a prophetic verbal-slap in the face, waking me up to reality (which is funny since it’s my voice doing the sanctifying assault). I think I had started to believe in being effective again. I have noticed that effectiveness is an easy struggle at my work, being a business for freedom (a good cause)…making it easy to believe in effectiveness over simple obedience regardless of result. It’s easy to get sucked into a vortex of working long hours for the pressing temporal needs that surround us and loose sight of the eternal. Nonetheless, I know better, that it is not WHAT we can do, but WHO we do it for that matters (And the HOW-action flowing out of that alone).

Today it occurred to me, the verse, “For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me” (Matt 26) is not only a radical statement about the how being a follower necessitates our communion with the marginalized, but it also means that what Mary did (washing Je$u$’s feet with costly perfume) is an act that challenges disciples, then and now, to keep our eyes on Chr!st before we look to see Chr!st in the poor. (This might seem obvious, but I am relearning it). How can I expect to serve Chr!st in the distressing disguise of the poor if I bypass prayer with Him out of urgency to meet the “pressing” needs around me? I justify exchanging my time to focus on Je$u$ each day for more time with the poor (or for myself), and yet it is Je$u$ I wish to see IN the poor. Plainly stated, how can I recognize Chr!st in the poor if I don't spend time with Him?

Mary modeled this; She was “a sinner” (which takes on new meaning now that I work in the red-light district), whom Chr!st had loved and accepted. And she lavished her love on Chr!st, not sparing a dime.

During our life, this is our only opportunity to give- as the Manifest Body (since the Eternal Kingdom will have no needs to tend to). This not only means that we should take advantage of our opportunities to give now, but it also means if we are not intimate with the One we give to, we miss out on the Eternal by never having made time for God during the temporal. My heart ached as I imagined walking past Chr!st my whole life to go "serve" the poor, only to die and realize I had not developed any real love for Chr!st, but only for the poor, (or my romanticized version of them). And I saw an image of myself, upon death, realizing I had only served myself in being married to a mission that was exciting and gave me self-worth, but was distant to the Master who gave me the mission, and had left myself very foreign to a love for G*d; that is to love at all. And then it struck me, this is idolatry. All things can be made idols, even the the Sacred Kingdom. And I seem to have fallen more in love with the Kingdom of God then I have with the King.

All this leads me to this; as I transition into the red-light neighborhood, with a fresh start, I believe I need to re-cultivate a life of prayer and mental simplicity, especially at the onset of each day, so that I might not miss out on loving Chr!st in my efforts to love the poor. And then maybe, out of the overflow of my love for Chr!st, I might also learn to love my neighbor, which include the poor.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Moving into the Neighborhood

One of the greatest treasures I have found in Kolkata is my host family. I live with an elderly couple, whom I fondly call "Auntie" and "Uncle", and my host brother, Sudip, who is a local pastor. I have quickly felt at home here as Indian hospitality has a way of doing that.

A common sign in Chr!st!an homes in India

One problem: I have an hour commute to and from work each day for my part time job, which has limited my ability to spend time with the community I work in. So a few weeks ago, I began to pray for a family in Sonagacchi (the red-light district) to live with and the phrase "with a widow and an orphan" kept coming to mind.

Later that week, I told my boss (Kerry) that I was looking to move into the neighborhood. At this point, you may wonder, "Why are you moving into a red-light district?" Good question.

My Global Studies professors have taught me the importance of living amongst the people I seek to serve. This is based on Chr!st's example, who took on the form of human, that is He became one of us to show us love. And following Chr!st, I want to live like the people I seek to love.

Annie and Kerry- founders of where I work--->

When I told Kerry this, he immediately said, "I have someone I want you to meet." So we walked down the street to meet Shikha, a 26 year old widow who is a single mother of 11 year old Papiya whose father died last year of liver failure. She showed us the 10'x7' (too short to stand up in ) room she recently moved into. Upon meeting her, I immediately felt that Shikha was a joyful and warm hearted woman. She served us chai and (with my permission, as I was feeling particularly bold) Kerry told her about how I was living an hour away and looking to move into the neighborhood. Before he could say another word, she asked him, "Would she live with me?!"

She answered the question before we could ask!

Of course, I said, "Yes!" Immediately she started praising G*d and calling me her new sister. A beautiful answer to both of our prayers.

A street in Sonagacchi

Now, I will take the next month to prepare for the big transition, mainly working on my ability to speak the language. Shikha doesn't speak English, and Papya needs to learn English to stay in school (and out of the sex-trade). In that way, it will be a beautiful exchange of language learning for us all. Of course, it will come with many changes, and probably challenges, but I believe many blessings as well. Perhaps I will learn more about this right -side-up Kingdom of God that says it is actually the poor that are blessed.