The Hum of Hope

The melody of hope has been humming in my ears over the last month. Often honestly, it not very sonorous.  It usually begins it’s loudest buzzing in the midst of greatest crisis.  An this month, has been full of crisis, broken and healing relationships, loss and restoration. The hum of hope keeps me going, making me turn my head to see why it is annoying me with it’s persistent buzzing, pressing me to hold on.

One of the most hopeful discoveries of the month was hearing over and over in so many spaces and so many way’s…God see’s.  And the reality is that I live and love my friends in a place that I don’t often want to see, the reality that I love and serve a God who see’s is changing my days.  I have always been a fan of Emmanuel, God with us.  But often in the last few years that has not felt so real to me anymore.  Because, God being with me/us, means, at least to me, that I am supposed to see God at work now, in the moment, feel something beyond myself, present, real, present. But mostly, I have felt absence and can only make sense of where God might have been looking back months and years later.  But to think of Hagar and her prayer/conversation with God, her desperate feeling of abandonment, in the midst of being lost and outcast, she prays “you are the God who see’s.”

And that “seeing” has been enough this month when I have no answers and my problem solving skills are meaningless.  The “seeing” is what helps me hear the hum of hope teasing my weary soul with it’s blasted off tune notes.

The beauty of the five senses, sometimes they don’t all work at the same time, sometimes they work together and sometimes, just one is enough.  Knowing that all this is “seen”by God.   The good, the great, the deeply painful and the extremely ugly parts, all seen, nothing hidden, seen, somehow holds me up.

At the end of a month like this, I don’t feel anything.  I am too tired, too compassion fatigued to breath, let alone have a feeling that makes any sense at all.  But the “Seeing” the “being seen” has sustained, helped me hold to hope, hold to belief, that the God who “see’s” will move, will act, with “be” with in the “seeing.” 

My hope is in the God who see’s.  Who reveals his back to us, who wrestles and leaves us with a limp, who can not always be felt.

What God saw this month, much of it might break God’s heart, it breaks mine and yet some it probably had tears of joy flowing down a glorious face, as 12 women celebrated three years of freedom at Sari Bari and the 2nd Sari Bari unit celebrated three years since opening and making space for more than 40 women within it’s doors, I think these things made God laugh and dance an unruly gig!

The God who see’s, see’s it all.

Thankful to be seen.

Why I am a feminist and other thoughts on faith

I would not have given myself a label, particularly the one of “feminist” not so many years ago. I am not a fan of labels in general so it is not surprising that it has taken me some time to embrace this particular label as one that I have chosen to identify with in the recent past.

I did not need a label really. I grew up in a home where my feminine identity was affirmed and celebrated. I was given the freedom to be myself, strong and compassionate and imperfect and deeply loved.  My identity as a woman was not something I really thought needed defending or clarifying. I was and still am celebrated because of my participation in the human race as a person of the female gender, a person of strength, directness and a low tolerance for injustice by my family and friends.

Considering my current occupation, I rarely would consider the cause I care about a feminist issue.  In my mind, it is a human brokenness issue. People both male and female exploit and steal the dignity of others.  Initially, there did not seem to be the need to particularly champion the rights of a particular gender.

Generally, I think participated in a general cultural misunderstanding of what feminism is and the purpose it serves in society.  To champion the fair and equal rights of women under the label of feminist does not impinge upon the rights of persons of the male gender, nor does it intend to oppress or destroy appreciation for men and their parallel value to women.   The existence of feminism as a label would not even be required if there was fair, dignifying and honoring treatment of women, who represent more than half of the human race.  Feminism for me comes out seeing injustice perpetrated on women on a daily basis. Seeing that not many or even most girls come out of family situations that honored their femininity, their intelligence, their strength and their ability to change the world if they so chose.

I do not need to define myself over and against another human being. And I do not want to see anyone for reasons of gender, race, class, culture, caste or whatever defining themselves or their value over and against someone else’s who is different from them. And some who call themselves feminists may define themselves over and against men and some who call themselves Men may also choose to play the who is better game.   And that is not okay coming from either gender.  WHAT I do desire IS  justice and the reconciliation of the male and female genders to one another as partners, equal participants in the human race, even with all its frailties and imperfections.

God loves people, male and female, considers THEM with the SAME LOVE (check out Galatians 3:28).  And you had me AT Hello. God loves people and there are the beautiful words in Luke 4 which speak about setting the captives free, giving sight to the blind and proclaim the year of the Lord’s Favor.  Seems all these words need to work together somehow.  Feminism is about seeing captives free, women enslaved by the sex industry, women enslaved in cultural paradigms that do no allow them to live into their potential, and women prevented by law or culture from participating equally at the table.  Feminism is also about giving sight to the blind, revealing the broken parts of cultures and institutions that are blind to the treasures they have in the women in their midst.  Feminism creates a way forward, a voice, and an opportunity to re-evaluate that, which is within our culture that does not honor creativity of God in creating both male and female.

So yes, I am a feminist. And I am one and even willing to use the label because I see institutionalized injustice being perpetrated against women. I see brokenness in the relationships between men and women (both men and women participating). I see the image of God being subverted in humanity as one half of that reflection is subjugated, sexualized, prevaricated and demonized.

I choose to honor the image of God in the ones created, both male and female.  Call me crazy and please do call me a feminist.  For the love of all humanity let us stand in solidarity with women and also those whose voices are not heard and to whose voices we do not listen until we see a whole reflection God’s image in humanity brought into balanced focus.

We reject…

We reject the lie that turning tricks is sexual pleasure or agency for women. We reject the lie that women can and do become wealthy in systems of prostitution. We reject the lie that women control and are empowered in systems of prostitution. We reject the false divisions imposed by society which differentiate between pornography, peep shows, live sex shows, and prostitution as it is commonly defined. Each is a type of commercial sexial exploitation and abuse which reduces women to commodities for the pleasure and profit of men. Each is premised on inequality due to a condition of birth: gender. Because the only prerequisite necessary to be targeted for this abuse is to be born female, the commercial trafficking in women is by definition a form of sex descrimination. -Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt via Alicia Bunch (fellow freedom advocate and sister in El Alto, Bolivia Suti Sana)

Sec. Clinton remembers Sari Bari

Sec. Clinton remembers meeting some of the folks at Sari Bari in the TIP report:

When I met with the people who were working with victims in Kolkata, I met several young women from the United States who had been inspired by reading about and watching and going online and learning about what was happening in the efforts to rescue and protect victims. And they were there in Kolkata, working with organizations, NGOs, and the faith community, to do their part. So this is a moment for people to ask themselves not just what government can do to end modern slavery, but what can I do, what can we do together.

What makes Sari Bari successful?

What makes Sari Bari successful?

I am often asked this question.  Rarely can I come up with a sussinct answer because there are so many things, so much thought, thousands and thousands of people hours, and the right chemistry of people and philosophy that make up the answer.

At least for this week the answer seemed clear .  Simple answer:  Safety, Celebration and Quality Control.  These are three things that shape the culture of who we are significantly and translate into the layers of why we are still around almost 7 years later.

From the very beginning Sari Bari was supposed to be a safe place.  A place where women could find something that is extremely rare, if not impossible, a safe place.   A place to fall apart, a place to rebuild a life, a place with no condemnation or shame, a  place that was for women to be surrounded with love, a space to heal, learn to stand and walk forward into a new life.  Sari Bari is a safe place where we all have found friendship, family, healing and a space were both our light and darkness is welcomed.

Celebration is just the natural fruit of what you do when someone starts a new life.  We love to celebrate and honor each other. Freedom Birthday’s are our favorite, a way to celebrate new women who start training and to remember and reflect every year afterward on the journey that has been walked and fought for on a daily basis.   Celebration is a nessasary element of community life, a way to mark time passing, to honor those we love, to shake free the darkness as we eat and eat and dance with abandoned joy.  Celebration is not “work” , it is life together, shared time at a table or on floor as we do.  We celebrate every little thing, sometimes formally, sometimes informally and always with joy.  Families celebrate together and at Sari Bari we are nothing if not a family.

Quality control might be the less emotionally inviting part of this story but it is an element of the story that has been essential to Sari Bari’s ability to continue to employ more and more women.  From the beginning we have been committed to making something of both beauty and quality.  Something the women can be proud of and the consumer will come back to buy again and again.  We are not interested in sympathy buys or raising money by selling crappy products.  We want you to love your stuff from Sari Bari and celebrate that your purchase did make a difference.  So we focus on quality control, lots and lots of hands and eyes going over every product to make sure that it is something we ourselves would buy.  Attention to detail, color, beauty, construction, consumer feedback and even the emotional temperature at Sari Bari on certain days contribute to pulling off making something beautiful that we are proud of selling.  Quality control is a silent partner in how we tell the story of Sari Bari but she does not mess around!

Simple little things that make a big difference in why we are still around and employing upwards of 90 women who have freedom and a way forward into a new life!

Names

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 http://www.princesslightbringer.blospot.com, 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 http://www.princesslightbringer.blogspot.com 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)

Return…

“For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life—pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures—and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair.

Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?” God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.”

Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son

Put a label on it

The label is our constant security blanket.  We constantly label people, places and things. Pronouncing a hundred or a thousand judgments a day with our words.   When we say, “she looks like a prostitute.”  We are saying something about ourselves.  We are saying she is outcast, other, and not valuable. We are sawing we are better. We sadly make assumptions about the personhood and value of the woman based on the clothes she is wearing.  

When we call women prostitutes, we are creating an, them, and us scenario.  We are stealing dignity from a woman, maybe a mother, and someone’s daughter who may at this point in her journey find herself in a situation where she is either prostituting herself or being prostituted by another.  She is woman, a person, a created being who is prostituted. She is the noun—personal pronoun, and the verb or action is to be prostituted.  She is not the entire sum of her actions.  Her actions are apart of what she does but not who she is in entirety. 

Even in the world of Advocacy against Sex trafficking and prostitution we do not know how to use language well. We talk draw the differentiation between the prostitutes (women 18 and older) and girls who are trafficked (sold, underage, did not make this choice).  We easily draw a line between those we perceive as vulnerable and those we perceive as choosing something for themselves.

A woman involved in prostitution may be there for many reasons.  The women in majority world may find themselves vulnerable to trafficking or forced to make a hard choice because of poverty.  The women in the western contexts may prostitute themselves because of addiction, poverty or mental illness or supposed choice.  What is true about all women who are prostituted or who prostitute is that they are vulnerable people.  Their circumstances have created a lack of options that make them targets and easily exploitable.

Many advocacy organizations, advocate poorly, rather than educating and reframing the language, labels are used to differentiate. The historical, multicultural and international conversation is narrowed to two words: victim and prostitute. We want to help the victim and assume the prostitute chose this dark path. Who really chooses this path? Who dreams of being raped bloody she is 19 years old? Or being murdered by a customer when she 30?  We have forgotten the women who may not have been rescued, who moved beyond the age of rescue 10 years ago when no one cared about trafficking. Now having moved beyond being “underage” it has somehow become their choice, an identity marker that no longer deserves our advocacy or compassion.  From victim (one who is victimized) to one whom we call prostitute (one who is prostituted) is not a very long journey.

When we call things by their right names and use language that honors the dignity of personhood, humanness, we reveal a spotlight on something that has been in darkness.  We recognize the value of human life no matter what it’s condition and honor the divine imprint on humanity.

We are broken.  We will not fix this by choosing a side and labeling them. God helps us if we are labeled as the sum of our worst actions and behaviors.  Liar, thief, narcissist, porn addict, manipulator, adulterer, slut…

Can we choose to heal, reconcile, redeem and restore?  Can we do that using dignifying language? Can we do it through partnership and incarnation?  Can we do it without choosing to use a label?

The way I walk…

I walk the same way to work everyday. Out my door, take a left and then a right winding my way past my friend who makes Chai tea.  This woman who graces me with her smiles coming and going and has offered to kick a little butt when I am being followed.  Down the alley a bit, to the sweet old man who always say’s”good morning” and “goodnight” but never at the right time of day.  Past the man who sells fish and sometimes curiously and shyly inquires why I am coming or going.  Into the red light area, where sometimes on some days, I pass some hero’s on their way to Freeset (a freedom Business), who greet me with smiles and an occasional accusation as to why I am not yet married.  I go farther along, past some jewelry and sundries shops, past an idol, past groups of men sitting in chairs idylling the morning or evening away. As I enter the main lane, busy with men, always busy with men, I meet the eyes of every girl I know, chat a little, and try to meet the eyes of those I do not know with a smile.  Sometimes I get a smile back and it feels like it might be a good day.  Sometimes the girls who are working farther down the line call after me and scold me for not stopping if I happen to be in a hurry and there is no hurrying past.  Some of them know my name and some of them just call me by the name of whatever friend they can remember, Puja or Moussumi.  If I do not come by or have been out of town, they all notice and ask where I have been and even if it has only been a few days, they ask if I went to my country.  I turn left walking past the some of the youngest, freshest faces working the line, toward Sari Bari.  Still a ways to go, passing another idol, maybe a caudron of something cooking in a vat for some puja I do not know about. Men line the lane.  Shopkeepers nod.  Children zig and zag in slow motion across my path competing with the street dogs for dominance.  To the left a circle of women gather water, filling their jugs for the day, chatting, gossips, observing everything and a little ways over men bathing on the road nearby. This lane is so dirty, always muddy.  Walking past some madams nodding, smiling, past the open cesspool of urine and trash on the corner winding my way, holding my breath. Deeper in now, I chat with more women I know, begging some of the scary madam to smile back at me, willing it.  Looking for an invitation to speak.  Sometimes, women from Sari Bari who live in this lane, pull me in to their rooms for tea and breakfast.  Sometimes, it’s a race to see who will get to the door of the office first or out the door first depending on the time of day.  Walking past another trash dump, greeting more women already waiting for customers in the morning at 10am and going home in the evening more women out than before, weariness from the day already drawing down their faces.  And then up the stairs into Sari Bari, past the potted plants, where the guys are cutting bags, and the air rings with greetings.  The floor is full of stuff, beautiful stuff, blankets in the making and the scraps of every type of sari and color imaginable.  This is the tale of my daily comings and goings. It is the way that I walk from home to home and back again.  And I say that someday this walk through these lanes into the beautiful space of Sari Bari will bear much fruit.  At least that is what I dream.