If…then 

My belly is full of love. Love made up of rice and chicken and abundant genorosity. We sat around in a circle, everyone sharing what they have brought…I am invited into this circle of hospitality…today and many days past. It is a perfect communion, bread broken and given, shared around everyone pressing the others to take more.  

A light breeze is blowing ticking the heavy handstitched curtains and bringing a little refreshment for those sleeping off the rice coma after lunch. This is sacred space. This is our Sari Bari, we work and then we rest side by side until we must rise to work again.

These women taught me everything there is to know about generosity and grace. They embody it without even maybe knowing how profoundly their lives and the way they love with them have changed my own.

Many years ago, I read Isaiah 58 and clung for life to the “if…then” promises it holds. If you pour yourselves out for the hungry, satisfy the needs of the oppressed…then…then you will be like a well watered garden…the your light will rise and the night will become like noonday. If…then.

If you set the prisoner we free, if you feed the hungry…then…

“If…then” is very common in the Bengali language. Bengali is fraught with relative-correlatives. A thing of frustration for a straight talking girl like me. And yet the poetry and song of the language is because of the “if…then.” I don’t know it’s origins. I wonder if there is some foundation in karma. “If…then.”

Still it’s not unfamiliar to find these “if…then” statements in scripture. If you give water..then you will never be thirsty. If you give all you have to the poor…then. If you welcome the stranger….then. If you pour yourself out…then…you will receive 100 fold.

All these “if’s” are an invitation to the grace that comes with the “then.” The receiving of the most abundant grace. It’s easy to count the cost of the “if’s” and impossible to count the gifts that come with the “then.”

I made few tiny steps towards the “if’s” many years ago, hoping and believing in the “then….” Undoubtedly, a stumbling forward toward those impossible “then’s.”

And today here I sit amongst these women, these generous givers of good food and abundant grace. If your pour your self out for the oppressed,  then….you will be like a well watered garden. Belly and heart full today, I feel like a well watered garden. Just a little taste of “then” from seeking to pursue that impossible “if” such a long long time ago.

To the glorious then…

Shiny Fragile Messy 

In this shiny fragile messy place…
I am most at home. I got off the plane in Kolkata and felt the most at home I have felt in 5 months. I got to sleep in my own bed and receive the generous and hospitality of my sisters and community in Kolkata. There is just no place like it the entire world. It is as many have commented, a place of peace in one of the of the most chaotic and difficult places is the world. The Sari Bari community is not perfect, it is fact very messy. As my friend and colleague Sera said it is very messy and very beautiful at once. The transition for the Sari Bari community has been difficult and boundlessly fruitful, for those who continue the work in Kolkata and for me as I step into something new on the USA side.
I returned to Kolkata mostly emotionally unprepared.  
I had a to do list but had not really sorted any feelings. 
What I felt when emerged from the plane was peace and an emotional capacity for both withholding when needed and giving abundantly when needed. This place was and is my home but I’m also trying to make home in am new place. The new place is not home yet and my brain, my body and my souls remember better life in Kolkata than it does life in the USA. I am very messy right now, at home in too many places, and not home yet.
Before I arrived in Kolkata, I had simply set the intention of deferring to the leadership team and creating listening spaces without actually solving any problems. This proved very challenging at times. There were problems I wanted to solve and peace I wanted to bring and it is no longer my role, I had to leave to those whose role it had become. I have a new role and different responsibilities that hopefully will continue to bring about growth and transformation in a different way. My role is to empower and support those on the ground as they make the hard messy decisions of daily life. And to tell the stories and sell the products so the work can continue to grow. So that freedom may continue to abound.
I got my to-do list done, the spring styles were completed and some higher level company management issues were sorted out along with a strategic plan, where we began to dream again for the impossible to become possible, to dream again for a reality that we may never see. Something that feels more true to me now since I have departed Kolkata. I may never see it, I may not be the one to implement it. I am stilll just a sewer of seeds as I always was…the ongoing harvest lies in the hands of others, others who can take Sari Bari to a place I could maybe never take it. And I feel peace about that too. I am just a jar of clay after all, only a vessel that holds the goodness of God.
I have been thinking a lot of Jars of clay in the last couple months. Not the band, but the actual pots, the little clay cups that hold tea and then are tossed to the ground to once again become the dust they were formed out of…its a bit humbling to be likened to that clay cup and profound to consider that this is where God puts the treasure. The freeing gift of being a jar of clay is that it was and is never about me in my fragile disposable state, it is that God considers it a worthy place to work and pour in life, our posture is to receive the gift and then pour it out again in never ending cycles.
I am currently in Omaha, NE getting ready a very full week with Creighton University as they host the Opus Prize event. As you may know I am one of three finalists for the award. I am honored and was a little embarrassed until I got my mind and heart around the fact that I’m just a jar of clay– it was never about me, was always about what God does inspite and in me and my fragile fierce occasionally submitted self. I am nominated with two amazing people, an Aussie nun who has given 30 years of her life to vulnerable people and a Priest who has dedicated his life to providing education and opportunity to refugees. What God has worked in and through these two has changed the world and it changes me and inspires me just to hear about them. Jars of clay all.
Still shiny fragile and messy all at once in my jar of clay. Thankful to have had time Kolkata and thankful to be here now. And thankful for for all the shiny fragile messy people who I have had the gift journey with along the way.  

Finding Home

I find myself within warm and welcoming walls of my parents house this Christmas season, looking forward to the family of my blood gathering around the table to remember, laugh and celebrate. I guess I’ll be home for Christmas in more than my dreams this year. Home is what we all long for isn’t it? Someone or somewhere to be home, to welcome us home, to embrace us as home, as much as we embrace them as home.

You are home. These are the words that we all long to hear. YOU ARE HOME. We long to call out, I AM HOME. We may find our home in a place and among a people who are not actually our blood. They may be chosen family, they may be kind strangers and people of peace who remind us of home. It seems that so many are simply seeking a place to call “home” for today, for a night so they can rest before they continue the journey.

Having lived in all sorts of places and among all sorts of people, I have learned that “home” truly is less about a place and more about a people.   My family is all over the world, certainly in Kolkata, India, in small little North Webster, Indiana and you will also find them in London, Kathmandu and Bangkok, and in the USA in Pasadena, Portland, Omaha, Kokomo, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Jacksonville, Florida. In these places there are people who welcome me in, people who inspire “peace”, people who make space for me when it seems there is no other place to go, people who tenderly embraces my scary parts and celebrate my awesome parts. What a privilege to be home among so many people, who teach me and point me to the truth that “home” that can also be found beyond people or place.

The thing that always moves me deeply about the nature of God is that God sought to make a home among us. Emmanuel, God with us. God came and dwelt among us so we would know what to look for when we are seeking a “home”. Home is where you find welcome, LOVE, patience, kindness, forgiveness; home is where you find HOPE. Who better to show us than a homeless and refugee family, who better to teach us about home and how it moves with us….home is where your people are, “home” is where you find Emmanuel.

My prayer is that we would all find ourselves at “home” this Christmas. Though I know many in the world will find themselves knocking on doors that will not open and asking for rest where they will not find it. I pray that we will be a people who open doors and welcome the stranger. I hold on to the HOPE of Emmanuel and a God who made home amongst us and dwells amongst us still. As we approach Christmas let us pray for peace, remembering the proclamation of the angels calling for “peace on earth”, a blessing for this larger home we co-habit-ate.

 

A Moment

I am always in awe of the moments that criss cross my days.

Waiting for a taxi in front of the red light area, I smiled a woman standing nearby who was waiting for a customer to come along.  She smiled back and we chatted a bit. I asked her where she lived and she told me she lives on the same lane as Sari Bari.  I asked if she knew about the business and if she would every be interested in working with us. She said she had thought about it. (yes!) She asked if we only hire women from the line (sex trade), the bad women, or if we hired good women (women from outside the area) too. I responded that we hire women from the area who want freedom from the trade or who live in the area who might be vulnerable.  A few moments later two more women came over (who also live on the same lane as Sari Bari).  They began to grill me about a job and what the salary was and what training was like etc.  They kept repeating over and over that Sari Bari only hires “bad women”…they saw this as a good thing, a place just for women like them.  So eventually I interrupted them to say that we don’t consider any women “bad” or “ruined”, we hire women from the area who are seeking something different for themselves. I said in fact, at Sari Bari, we think all woman are “valuable” and created by God. They got that, smiled and agreed with me. (Win!)  Maybe they will show up for an interview, maybe not.  But I am thankful that a smile always opens the door and that I had the privilege to say to these beautiful women in a very subtle way that they are “beloved”. I hope it sunk in and that they remember that their lives are valuable regardless of the circumstances in which they find themselves.  Fingers crossed they find their way to our door and not only experience a glimpse of their identity as women but a full blown reality of being the Beloved!

The pathways of Justice

I had to go to court today.  I was summoned as a witness for the prosecution of a man who sexually assaulted my friend.  Two years later the court was finally convened to prosecute the offender and maybe bring justice to the victimized.  The friend victimized is no longer even here.  But better late than never right?

The Kolkata court buildings are a mess.  I could not help but metaphorize my walk along the broken path, littered with trash, filled with seemingly aimless people standing in groups.    After asking no less than 5 people how to find the actual courtroom, weaving through filth, a trash filled stairwell and an even more trash and refuse filled area I found the courtroom.  This was the path to justice, treacherous and messy and unlikely to result in much of any actual justice.

The courtroom was quiet at first,  I had arrived at 10am as required but of course the judge, the lawyers and the police had not, so I thought maybe I’ll write a blog about that broken path into the halls of Kolkata’s center of justice, the iconic and rigorously bureaucratic system of law left by the British. An almost laughable, if not so heartbreaking, reminder of colonization and of the educated wealthy India, in many ways, taking on the mantle of oppressors from their former British ones.  The court paper work is in English, not Hindi or Bengali, somehow the language of the oppressor remains.  The system of law was inherited from the oppressor.  A system of law that lacks innovation and actual justice instead settling for a painfully slow something that is  even less than the the lowest status quo.  There are no computers, files are stacked to the ceilings, messy, apparently disorganized, though much cleaner than the hallways to be sure.  Undoubtedly the courts suffer from a lack of financial resources and a state government that is complicit in Injustice and even a perpetrator of it.  I am sitting here thinking how is justice even logistically possible here?   Two years later I am being called as witness and being advised by the prosecutor to lie.  I did not.

Then returns me to my own despair of the last few weeks as I see Kolkata again without the dark glasses of compassion fatigue after a break in May.  And I look for justice in my own heart and I find it just as messy, ineffective and paralyzed.

“Do justice love mercy and walk humbly with God” has been tattooed on my ankle for almost 20 years and yet doing justice is still so difficult to live, to embody.  My job is about justice, my whole life dedicated to seeing justice embodied in mercy for women, and yet I still struggle to reconcile my daily encounters with injustice.  I am talking about day laborers working for barely enough money feed their families, I am talking about children begging, I am talking about the people sleeping outside my home on the street, the drug users who run up and grab my trash so they can see if there is anything worth recycling for money in it, and the fresh faces arriving daily in the lanes of Sonagacchi.  I am talking about economic injustice, racial injustice, gender injustice, the injustice that people both passively and actively participate in toward one another.     I am talking about the wretchedness of my own heart.  I am complicit.   There is no us and them, there is only we.  There is only in what way am I complicit: with my silence, my messy paralyzed ineptitude at responding, at reaching out, speaking out to make difference.

Like I said I have a job seeking  Justice, and I tell myself the lie that it is enough.  I am like one of those lawyers I met today participating in system that seeks Justice but so rarely finds it within and rarely seeks it outside those walls. The injustice in my own heart broke me today, reminded once again as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “that I cannot be free until all men and women are free.”  So I begin again with God to seek out the injustice within my own heart as I press into seeking freedom and Justice around me as I walk this broken path, through this mess of broken heaving beautiful humanity .

Until we are all free.  May Justice reign down from the heavens as strong as a Kolkata monsoon thunderstorm.

These are the days…

I am often asked what a typical is like at Sari Bari. Truthfully, there are no typical days. There is always some surprise, a few hundred interruptions to a normal day. Maybe crazy mixed up, a little happy, a little sad, a little hard, a little crappy, a little brokenness and frustration, a little dancing, a little baby holding and a little laugher IS a typical day.

Most of the women spend the day sewing, ironing, chatting and making the wheels of Sari Bari turn. The listen to each other, pray for each other, give each other a little sh?t and share a meal and tea together.

My day is a roller coaster of problem solving, financial concerns, heart issues, conflict mediation, sweating for no reason imparticular, advising, cleaning up, maybe a little creative energy toward storytelling, cheerleading and designing stuff. I love most days and most days are hard all out push through to the end.

Today was a bundle of all those things. I dropped off sprite, meds and crackers for the design intern who was sick as I made my way for a weekly checkin meeting with Upendra. Of course, it was interrupted and so I got down the business of cranking out some drawings of new products for a big customer who has something very specific in mind. We prayed and zoom the day began with new trainees checking on when the new building will open so they can start their freedom journey. A conversation on how to best care for one of the women’s husband who was discharged for the hospital with less than two weeks to live and the complications that I won’t name that come with this particular situation. Then then was an hour for cutting the pattern and working with one of the women to sew a sample. And then tea…a few minutes for friendly banter and the off to a meeting to further discuss our response and resources towarding helping the woman’s husband who needs end of life care and a place to receive that care. Then back to the office, a minor production crises and a major discussion over issues with the final parts of the new building construction. That was fun. And off to the Kalighat office, picking up food, a snack really that ended up being my lunch. Landing at kalighat, whoa, hello production crisises with a sprinkling of conflict and hurt feelings. Okay time, to make sure everyone feels loved and valued and remind everyone that we are on the same team. Followed by a teaching and hopefully empowering moment with an assistant manager who caught a problem with something being done at another unit….she made the call to the other unit. Problem solved. And there was the hour long mediation with two mangers who are having a hard time seeing the best about one another. It ended well and took a lot of time to get there. And then came the happy dance, the moment where I act foolish to bring up moral, got the ladies to throw their arms in the air and chant happy while I tried engage them in silly cheerleading moves, think Pharrell Williams. Everybody laughed, moral went up, we went back to work. Talked to some of the ladies about their new gold earrings, Modi got elected, the price of gold went down, they invested ;). Then emails and a little more problem solving and then the end. The walk home, the diet coke and the quiet of the tiny veranda space to let day drain away. A mini prayer of examine and a moment consider all the ways God worked in the day, before and behind. Just a typical day I guess.

Prevention: We all need to get in this fight

Truly the issue of human trafficking is a complex one. It’s probably largely an issue of economics. Desperate people who are willing to go anywhere to gain food and an income for their families. Desperate parents willing to send their daughters to work in someone’s home when they are but 10 or 11 figuring at least their daughter will get some food in the home of a weathy family. Or willing to marry them off to a strange boy who doesn’t ask a dowry with the grim hope that he is actually decent fella (though they rarely are even close to decent). Desperation clouds judgement, hunger trumps morality, the risk is worth the possible gain. Sadly the risk often does not pay off and fathers end up in forced labor situations and mothers picking apart stones for pennies, and boys of 7 or 8 working in leather factories chained to tables or young girls end up on the doorsteps and then the confines of brothels losing both their youth, their innocence and what little value their gender afforded them in the first place.

So again I posit that economics are a large part of human trafficking. Supply and demand at work, demand for work and demand for cheap labor, a supply of laborers is a needed to make the world run, a middle man with a heart full of greed sees an opportunity to dupe vulnerable people and sources the demand for cheap material goods in western countries with a supply of men, women and children to be both physically, sexually and financially exploited. Where are the jobs with fair wages? For men in India at least there is a greater chance for some education, the learning of some trade that will support a family. Still wages may not even equal a dollar a day for all the family members that these wages must support. (Think about this, the $100 we spend on an outfit at a major retailer is the equivalent that the worker got for 45 hours a week as a months wages–seems out of balance right?) But when it comes to women and girls, their gender makes them even more vulnerable less likely to be able to get job besides washing floors and cooking in someone home for a pittance.

So the next issue is gender. Being a girl just might be the hardest thing the world at least as a starting point in life in certain places, if not all places. Please forgive me, as I am about to give self righteousness a beating. In America we have Barbie’s and Miley’s showing the world that women have no dignity and value outside of our physical appearance and sexuality. We both men and women of the west submit to the objectification culture and are lured with pornagrpahy, both male and female objectification in advertising and fashion mags(the porn of the teenage girl and the adult woman). The female gender is commodified and sold in neat packages like American Apparel. We have purity rings and father daughter dances too which just feed the idea that men must protect women/ daughters as property rather than rather empowered self sufficient powerhouses of strength, dignity, intelligence and beauty. Hey to be clear I’m not knocking father daughter relationships or even possible valuable and unique events that they can share in together. I’ve got a great dad who both called me a princess and who told me I was smart and capable and I could do anything I wanted.  And I have parents who taught me sexuality is a gift, not a power tool and certainly not the only thing that defines me as a person. This is an issue to of being whole people, not just body parts, not just beauty and flat bellies but also brains and emotions and creative energy.

On the other side of the planet we find it easy to target the bad guys, those men who visit and traffick the girls in India, Thailand, Nepal, Cambodia and Vietnam. Those cultures that are backward and don’t value women and girls, they are the bad ones. But really it’s just the same as western cultures, the systematic objectification and devaluing of the female gender just looks a little less candy coated. In Asia it’s called slavery and trafficking, the exploitation of girls and women, in America is called advertising and self expression. Same same but different.

And IT IS different in praxis. The actually enslavement of another for sexual exploitation is indeed a far worse offense in the physicality of it. Far worse because choice is taken away, dreams stolen, lives ruined. It is serialized rape and the destruction of the personhood and dignity of human being, a boy, a son, a girl, a women, a sister, a self. It is a heinous crime.

And I might also say that we are willing slaves to the de-personification of the female gender in the west. Hello,ladies, yes we love to hate ourselves, our bodies, our bellies and our breasts, our wrinkles and our grays , we willing have submitted to our own objectification on some level. We have been trained to do it and it’s an ugly habit that needs a butt kicking. I know I’m guilty, it has been a lifelong process to dig myself out of this hole, and I’m still digging. And gentle reminder to the gentlemen out there #realmendontbuysex and #realmendontseewomenasobjects and I’m so sorry that advertisers sell a women’s body’s to you when they are selling a car and sell your manhood to you via pretty girl offering you a Budweiser. Really I am sorry. The question must be asked are we all not conspirators and collaborators in the crisises of the objectification and subjugation of women on one level or another? Aren’t both women and men contributing to the historical and ongoing crisis of gender inequality and in both action and word, subconsciously and consciously. Until we confront the objectification and valuing issues in our own hearts, how will things change, how can we demand change of others in this area and not expect to do the same within ourselves. It’s that log splinter issue.

So back on topic, prevention of human trafficking as both and economic and gender issue (by the way, I am only naming two of innumerable root issues in relation to social and systemic evils that contribute to human trafficking) can be addressed by creating economic and educational opportunities for women and girls in vulnerable places. We at Sari Bari were tired of seeing new girls coming into the red light area every week. Tired of of fresh faces becoming hard, and empty. Enough was enough, restoration for women exiting the sex trade was and is important but the flip side is stopping the exploitation and mass trade in women for sexual purposes in the first place. So thankfully we 4 years ago this week we opened a manufacturing unit 100% devoted to the cause of prevention of trafficking. And now 4 years later we are marking the anniversary our first Sari Bari prevention unit ( we hope there will be more) focused on women 17-25 who are vulnerable to trafficking and mothers 25-35 with daughters who are vulnerable and whom the mothers agree to keep in school with our education assistance program. More than 50 have come through the doors, 32 working still and none of them have ended up in the trade. Some have come and saved up money and gotten married, some have moved to other jobs, some have left and come back when finances strained. A safe place has been established, vulnerability has been lessened, just a scratch on the surface of the problem, or a just a sandbag in the stemming of the tide but maybe the whole world to the 32 women who can save for their marriages, feed their kids and their parents right here in Their own village.

My hope is that we can continue to grow the area of preventing further exploitation of all human persons and in particular the female gender through employment and I also hope that both the women and the men who read this will consider in their own hearts how to both prevent and heal the wounds of the exploitation and objectification of women and girls within our home cultures.

#freedomforall

#icannotbefreeuntilallwomenarefree