On the day of our birth we are given a name. It is our “good name”, as our friends in India call it. The name is given by our parents who probably spent 9 months thoughtfully, even prayerfully, considering what name would ours for the duration our lifetime. Our names have weight and meaning in defining us, our spoken and written identity to friends, family and even our governments. Our names have deeper meanings. My name, Sarah, which means Princess or daughter of the King. My middle name is a family name, Lucinda, and it means, bringer of light. If you read my blog, you know that the web address is, a name that I have identified with in part and hope to live into every day.

We live in a world that loves to name and not all those names are good. Working with women in the sex trade I see the burden and weight of many who bear false names given to them by culture and society. They are whores, hookers, prostitutes, and husband stealers. Many, when you meet them, will not give you their “good name” but instead give another name that they have chosen to hide their true identity and protect them from the false names chosen for them by society. When they leave the red light area to visit family, they leave their false name behind and again take on their “good name”, leaving behind the other names that plague them and dehumanize them.

Naming has profound importance at Sari Bari. Each woman chooses her name and that name is the name that you will find marking each blanket. When the time comes to choose their name, they will most often choose their “good name”, the name given by their parents to identify them. They want to be identified with their good name, as good women, leaving the false names, the red light name behind.

There is a re-naming that happens at Sari Bari as the women take steps down the road of Exodus into freedom. The renaming happens as the women begin to understand that the false names and the awful names that society has given them do not need to hold power in their lives or in their identity as human beings. We process with them the false names and give them new names. We use names that bring dignity. Instead of prostitute, they are Sari Bari business women, seamstress’, and artists. Instead of a whore, they are friends. Instead of hooker, they are sisters. Their new names come in relationship, in a safe place of welcome and respite from society, and in the warm embrace of community. The re-naming is a process. First comes the giving a new names and them comes the part where each woman must choose to live into her new names. Living into the new names is the hardest part. Living into being one who is now called accepted, loved, cherished, daughter, friend, sister, mother, beloved, cleansed, healed and beautiful is no easy path. Especially when the burden of false names like rejected, despised, dirty, worthless and powerless has been ascribed and those are the names that you have been living into for more years that you can count.

The “good names” must be embraced. We embrace the women, each one, and call them by name. We are compelled by our friends and their lives to continue the pursuit of women who do not yet know their names. It is the names that move us, compel us toward reconciliation, restoration and healing for the red light areas where these beautiful women live. Bringing freedom to the red light areas is not about a cause. It is about a human being with a name. Ending human trafficking, sexual slavery and the exploitation of persons are truly noble and important causes. But it is the one woman living into her “good name”, into the new names given, which compels our action, our advocacy, and our hearts. The causes must have the names of persons and be framed by the human persons who compel the causes. I do not know any prostitutes or whores or hookers. I only know women, friends, sisters and daughters . And they have beautiful names: Minu, Shopna, Putul, Shakina, Arotun, Josna, Bharoti, Chaya, Rohima and Champa.

Reposted from previous blog July 2009

Death is only fertilizer

Two of the funniest women we know! Celebrating Life and showing us how!

In Kolkata, it seems that there are an endless series of deaths.  Death to self, being one of the most regular and painful aspects of life here.  And then there are the departures of long terms friends and short-term friends and to the sense of loss that these comings and goings create.  There are the physical deaths, losing dear friends to murder, HIV and addiction.  The fragility of life crushed so easily in the grubby palms of a broken place among broken people.   The death overwhelms at times.  The losses feel like they might be too much to bear. One on top of the other, everyday there is some story of loss.  A child has run away, a friend is left by her husband, another friend is being beaten, another is pulled from our embrace by addiction, my own personal failures and brokenness exhibited harming another, life in community sometimes causing us all pain, these daily losses complied feel a little like being buried alive, struggling for air.  They are a tomb of sorts.   A burial site that we live in feeling as if we have no choice but to sit in the darkness and let the pain roll over us.

And as we sit and mourn and rail against God with angry tears there comes a crack, a single steam of light, another type of story that disperses the darkness of the grave we live in.   A story of freedom, of 18 year girls meeting a Sari Bari woman on the train and instead of being trafficked she get a real job, a path that she did not expect.   A divine moment of grace, a hug, sometimes simply walking through the door into the embraces of friends, a kindness, an easy visit to a government office, the truth instead of a lie, silence instead of violence.  The light comes in and everything changes.  We see the losses amidst in the gifts, existing together and see how they make a strange kind of nonsense.  Maybe just enough light so that long dormant seeds begin to sprout. The tomb becomes the womb.

The pain of losses 10 years in is a little different than it was in the first two years.  Walking the train platforms, bringing in God’s beloved who were left to die in the streets and train platforms was devastating.  There was not much hope in it. Just obedient acts of service, hands and feet, doing what hands and feet were meant to do.  The losses were losses to be sure.  Seeing what humans are capable of doing to one another is profoundly breaking.  We brought in many many people who died in the Taxi on the way to the MC home.  I brought in a young woman who had been raped, her bruises bringing tears to both our eyes as I washed away the blood and dirt.   Her face still seared on my brain. We saw thousands and thousands of people walk by as someone died on a train platform.  This was beginning of understanding the tomb.  But we did not know many names or stories in this season, we were hands and feet and that was enough.

Ten years later, I know names and stories and the deaths are equally disturbing and far more painful.  When Rina died, I lost my friend.  I lost a part of myself, a part that was just for her.  I know her story, I know what she left behind, I know that now she is a peace and hopefully cracking jokes and getting someone to make her some pasta and bring her some limes!  Rina’s loss still hurts; maybe it will never stop hurting.  And still even in the grief of herfuneral, her loss created something new in our community, another affirmation that we are a family, that we are not alone.  For the 11% of our women with HIV, it affirmed that they are not alone and we will walk with them to death all the while celebrating their life. And when the time comes 80, 100 women and friends will gather around them, upholding their family and children after they are gone.  The tomb becomes the womb.

There seems to be 20 stories of loss for every story of hope and new life.  It would be easy to stop looking for the light and let the darkness overwhelm.  Most of us here Kolkata have lived in this darkness for months and sometime years at a time.  And the longer we are here, the more we can see the cracks (we have learned where to look), the places where the light is seeping in and even bursting in as the stone is rolled away, it’s impossible weight pushed back as if it were nothing.   The tomb becomes the womb.  It is not always Friday here.  At least once a week Sunday comes and the tomb becomes a womb where new life is born, restoration, resurrection, and death is only fertilizer.

(Inspired by Mars Hill Easter Service-Tomb becomes the womb)