Not allowing the limiting of our freedoms to become a prison, but rather a gift of grace.
Earlier this summer, my wife, Phileena, and I were visiting the Word Made Flesh community in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. The community fights for the freedom of women working in the commercial sex industry.
During our stay, members of the WMF community took us into one of the red-light districts where they go to visit their friends. After we stopped several times to introduce ourselves to dozens of young women, one of the ladies invited us to her home for a cup of tea. Following her, we walked down a tiny side alley and into one of the brothels. At the top of a dark and uneven staircase were a number of little rooms where the women of this neighborhood “work.” We entered one of the small rooms, barely more than seven or eight square feet, and met the young woman’s daughter.
The little girl is 8 years old. She has big, light-brown eyes and the prettiest smile I’ve seen in a long, long time. She is also disabled, unable to move her arms, legs and neck, and can’t speak. But she understands everything she hears and sees.
We were told that once when a man was having sex on her mother, the child was actually in that same little room; without speaking, she was somehow able to communicate the trauma of witnessing the abuse. Now, her young mother hides her little girl in the corner behind a curtain while “servicing” as many as 12 to 15 men a day. We probably only stayed for 30 minutes, but nearly the entire time, we were all captivated by the eyes of that little girl. They spoke of love and affection and radiated what seemed to be real joy.
A couple days later we went back to that same red-light district to meet up with more friends. Again, after stopping to talk with countless girls on the line, including an alley full of Nepali girls forcibly trafficked to Kolkata, we ended up in another brothel and in another tiny room. In this room were two beds set against each other in an L-shape. I sat at the foot of the bed closest to the door and noticed that underneath the adjoining bed, which was pretty high off the ground, maybe four feet or so, was a mattress lying on the floor. The WMF staff told me that our host used to prostitute but had met a man who helped her leave the sex trade. However, in the discovery of her freedom, she enslaved another—she actually became the “owner” of a 14-year-old girl. This 14-year-old child would bring clients into this little hovel of a room, climb under the elevated bed with the man, and then pull a sheet down to conceal them while having sex—sometimes even during visits our staff were making. I could hardly take my eyes off that dark little prison that once served as a place of torment and enslavement. Not only had that 14-year-old girl, a sex-slave, lost her freedom, but her identity and sexuality were commodified, her childhood plundered and, in an already horrific reality, she experienced continued humiliation by having to engage in sex in a room sometimes full of people.
During those two visits I felt like I’d seen more prisons than I could imagine. The prison of a body that can’t move and a mouth that can’t communicate. The prison of a life enslaved to sexual servitude underneath someone else’s bed. Since then, I’ve been wondering what the cost of this exposure must be.
It’s 2008, and in an entitled and globalized world, it’s as easy as it’s ever been to visit many of these places. It’s our luxury to cash in some frequent flier miles, hit up some friends and family for “missionary support” so we can travel, or simply charge a plane ticket to our credit card. As North Americans, we can do whatever we want, go wherever we want and see whatever we want to see. So many times, I’ve taken friends along with me during my travels. Introducing them to some of the most vulnerable of the world’s poorest people. Taking them to some of the most repressive places on earth. Exposing them to some of the most inhumane and graphic human suffering on earth.
But at what cost? At whose expense? I’m afraid that our freedoms and the luxury of our opportunities are often at the expense and enslavement of those who suffer the most. What I can’t understand is how an over-educated, under-motivated university graduate can form meaningful relationships with victims of human trafficking and, in the abundance of opportunity offered to us as North Americans, then chose to work part time at Starbucks while trying to figure out what they want to “do” with their lives.
Sure, we all know lots of people who sometimes need a “landing” place, and Starbucks is as good as any for recovery or even a staging ground for what is next in their lives. And, of course, there are plenty of people in every domain of social practice or channel of culture whose lives affirm the dignity of humanity and struggle for justice. But the emergence of a society marked by perpetual adolescence and a refusal to give their lives to anything vocationally (and, of course, there’s no cookie cutter for that) is not simply a problem, but becoming a crisis of identity and adulthood. And a big part of that is our over-individualized experiences as educated, globalized people with tremendous access to opportunity and resources—often more than we know what to do with, let alone know how to be responsible with.
We must figure out that the wealth of our freedoms that are ascribed to us simply by being North American can no longer be “ours,” but must be submitted to God and humanity. If not, these freedoms move from blessings to curses. And given the intensity of exposure that many of us willingly give ourselves to, we need the courage and the honesty to consider what the costs are and submit those to the community. If we really commit to a lifestyle of submission to the community that gifts us the exposure we’ve had access to (or sometimes, the exposure that we have “taken” from them), then it no longer carries the luxury of remaining an “individual” issue, but has to become one graced in the envelope and gift of community. Otherwise, we plunder that exposure from the vulnerable and add it to the overwhelming prison of our excess of freedoms that, in many cases, ultimately further paralyzes us from the possibility of discovering and making vocational commitments.
I know this isn’t easy to hear, and the truth is, it isn’t easy to say, either—15 years of missional service later, it’s something I’ve been grappling with myself now more than ever—but I think it’s a conversation that someone needs to introduce. Too many of us want extreme exposure and extreme experiences without having to face the extreme responsibilities of those opportunities and the hard questions of accountability that need to accompany these endeavors. And not just for our sake, but for the sake of the 14-year-old girl whom we fail to recognize that is forced to have sex under a bed. If her prison can be an invitation for us to consider the responsibilities of our freedoms, then I cannot shy away from amplifying the cry of her reality and the subsequent demands it makes on ours.
It is not “cheap” to open ourselves to the intensity of this kind of exposure. There is a cost involved. A cost that we often don’t want to talk about and don’t want to consider. Do we not understand that there is a tremendous cost to our exposure? Can we not wrap our minds around the truth that to see the suffering we’ve seen, that in submitting ourselves to community and in forming friendships with the oppressed, our lives are forever changed? Our freedoms are forever limited? That there are things we must never allow ourselves to do and people we can never allow ourselves to become? Can we find the courage to be honest with ourselves, that to whom much is given much is required? The challenge is to not allow the limiting of our freedoms to become a prison, but rather a gift of grace.
Chris Heuertz is International Director of Word Made Flesh, a community called and committed to serving Jesus among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. He has served with the community for nearly 14 years. Heuertz is the author of Simple Spirituality: Learning to See God in a Broken World (IVP Books, 2008). He and his wife, Phileena, live in Omaha, Neb.