The Red-Light District
September 3, 2008
When Kristin Keen was studying to be a dietitian, she never dreamed that she would one day be standing on a street corner in Kolkata, India, talking to a woman trapped in the sex trade, who also happened to be her friend. As a college student in Florida, a world away from any red-light districts, Keen met the God of love and grace who would eventually call her halfway around the globe. During the second year of her internship in campus ministry, she felt a stirring deep inside, and upon reading their newsletter, heard God calling her to a ministry called Word Made Flesh (www.wordmadeflesh.com). Particularly, the work they were doing in the red-light district of Sonagachi in Kolkata, India. Now a part of Word Made Flesh field staff, Keen sees herself as less of a missionary and more of a friend to the seven thousand women of Sonagachi ensnared in prostitution.
RELEVANT: What is it that you do?
KEEN: I work in the largest red-light district in Kolkata, India, called Sonagachi. India has a big problem with the trafficking of women and children. A majority of the women in Sonagachi have been tricked and lied to and have found themselves in the trade. The women are exploited in about every way possible. I believe the sex trade steals the souls of women. steals their dignity and pride and worth. I believe that God wants to restore these women.
R: How did you get into this work?
K: I started really following Christ the summer after my first year in college. I graduated with a degree in nutrition, got my dietitian license, and knew I didn’t want to be a dietitian. So, instead I did an internship at the UCF Wesley Foundation in Orlando, Florida, where I had a small ministry called Close to His Heart, all about God’s love for us crazy women! I first heard about Word Made Flesh through their newsletter. I ended up going on a four-month servant team with them; it was during that internship that I got to go visit the girls in Sonagachi. I actually didn’t even know when I signed my first contract for two years that I wanted to stay here in Kolkata. But I did ... and I can tell you that I have never had a passion for anything like I have for the women of Sonagachi.
R: How does God restore the women through your work?
K: About three to five days a week we go visit our friends in Sonagachi. We sit with them in their rooms and have tea or talk with them while they are standing outside. Our hope is to let them know they are loved and respected by us. We hope that through relationship we can bring transformation. We hope that by coming along beside them and loving them, they can be empowered and take steps to change.
Also, in the past couple of months we have started a business for the ladies, called Sari Bari. They will be making blankets from old, vintage saris. Saris are the mark of womanhood here in India. Bari is the Bengali word for “home.” We hope that Sari Bari will not just be a business but a home for women to have their womanhood restored to them. It will offer holistic freedom to the women who decide that they want freedom and want to leave the trade.
R: Will you illustrate what you encounter that compels you to continue?
K: We are helping our friend, Moni, out of the trade, and she is only twenty-one. She was sold by her husband after they got married. About eight months ago I mentioned that our friends were hiring and she could leave the trade. She said no. But when I saw her a couple of weeks ago, she got so excited and told me she wanted the work. After her third day of training we went to her room and brought her a birthday cake to celebrate the start of her new life. I wish I could have words to tell you about her smile. She told us that no one has ever celebrated her birthday. She has so much against her, but through community, God’s hands and feet, she could be set free. I pray that she could know the love of the same Father I know, that she could be free to have confidence in herself.
R: What is your vision for the future of your work in Sonagachi and beyond?
K: I dream of Indian nationals coming alongside of us to love these women into freedom. I have a vision of one day being able to leave Kolkata and be assured that the nationals will continue the work in the brothels and the businesses we start. We want to show the world the upside-down kingdom of God. A place where prostitutes, street children, beggars, widows, homeless people, child laborers are first in the kingdom. We say to the world, “God has not forgotten you. Your God will come.” I believe that the Church has the power to bring hope to a hopeless world ... for everyone.
R: How can others know if they are being called to work like yours?
K: I heard once that God’s will or call isn’t a tight rope—it is a river, and you just have to jump in and see where you go. I feel like I jumped in the river and followed after God, and He brought me here. I was literally loved into Kolkata by His body, and love is what keeps me here. He has given me dreams for the girls, and I am seeing the dreams come true. So if people are asking if they are called, I would ask them, What stirs your heart? Do you know God’s heart for the poor? What makes you feel alive? What dreams has God put in your heart for other people? Get off the tight rope, go hard after God, and jump in the river!
Originally published in RELEVANT Nation (RELEVANT Books).