The first time I traveled to India I was 22 years old and hadn’t ventured very far outside of my small town.
The first time I traveled to India I was 22 years old and hadn’t ventured very far outside of my small town. After hearing about a friend’s transformational experiences while in Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying in Kolkata, I was inspired to go and volunteer, too. Each day as I walked back to the guesthouse after my shift at the home, I’d pass by a row of women demurely dressed in saris. Bright lipstick and their positioning in a long line on the street were the only hints that these women were involved in prostitution.
At the time, I didn’t realize what I was seeing. In subsequent visits to India, I learned about the business of the sex trade and had the privilege of meeting women like “Maya,” who was still in sexual slavery, and “Eli,” who had escaped. These women put faces, laughter, tears, sewing hands and dancing feet to what were previously just splotches of brightly colored fabric and lip stain in a long line of women. Their stories of injustice, slavery, loss and sometimes redemption became intertwined with my own story. They have changed my life forever. Stories like Maya’s and Eli’s have become very familiar to me in the nine years that I have been involved in advocacy with the organization Word Made Flesh. WMF’s mission is to serve Jesus among the poorest of the poor. We establish communities in poor, urban areas of the majority world where we build relationships with the most vulnerable there: women and children.
The response to these relationships looks different in each city and country where WMF is located, the common thread being a shared spirituality and holding people in poverty as central to community. Our programs look like community centers in Roma (gypsy) neighborhoods, business initiatives for women who are finding freedom from the sex trade (www.saribari.com), discipleship of former child soldiers and countless pickup soccer games with the youth of the streets. Landscapes of poverty and injustice are the backdrop to our celebration. We are very familiar with the suffering of the world, and also with our own brokenness. Kahlil Gibran’s poetry rings true for our community:
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you…
… But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh,
but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears. (The Prophet)
The dream of laughing all of my laughter and weeping all of my tears drew me into service on behalf of the poor. I wanted—I needed—to live fully. But an effort to live fully means that you cannot be stopped by a word like suffering. My co-workers around the world daily steady themselves against suffering and choose to stay as a prophetic sign of hope and love in the midst of despair. In fact, suffering is one of our core values, what we call our Lifestyle Celebrations.
Despite this ability to acknowledge and enter into suffering, I recently did a double-take when I read the word suffer in a blog. While the word suffering rarely fazes me, this was different. This time, the subject wasn’t malnourished babies, women in prostitution or victims of war. The suffering reference was in regard to a disease, but not breast cancer or AIDS. This time it hit closer to home: “1.4 million Americans suffer from chronic hoarding and clutter” (http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/03/spring_cleaning.php).
The article went on to cite that Americans don’t use 80 percent of what they own. These numbers seem to be corroborated by the state of my own home and the garages and basements of people I know. Over-consumption is a deadly disease in that it makes it impossible for the over-consumer to live fully. Satiated living kills the senses and stunts one’s ability to laugh all of their laughter and weep all of their tears. Despite my face-to-face encounter with grinding poverty, I must admit that one of my major worries is deciding what to do with all my stuff. My new husband and I have discovered since marrying and consolidating homes a couple months ago that we don’t have enough room to store our current possessions. Ironically, another thing we still think about—a lot—is how we’re going to get our next new thing: a new bike for me, a dresser for our bedroom (where we could keep more stuff), better clothes (although the less hip ones already spill out of our closets). When you pair these concerns with the reality that 32,000 children will die today and tomorrow and the next day and the next day—every day—because of a lack of basics necessities like food or clean water, it makes the banana-mango-açaí breakfast smoothie with protein powder and a double shot of wheatgrass rise up in your throat a bit. The problem is obvious. The connections seem clear. The “solutions” are complex and feel out of reach; they require more than a person is able (or would want) to give. Am I the only one who has stuck out a hip and waved a pointer finger at the sky? The accompanying exclamation is something like, “Oh no you didn’t just ask me to do that!” But change can only come at great cost to somebody, and maybe that somebody is me.
I believe we are in a time when there really is potential for real change to happen in the world. Some of the worst news, while still bad news, is taking a turn for the better. For one, “in 2006, for the first time in the modern era, the number of children dying before their 5th birthday fell below 10 million, to 9.7 million” (UNICEF).
Another spot of good news encouraged me this weekend. I attended an exhibit at an art museum, of all places—The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minn.—that was dedicated to “Design for the Other 90 Percent.” The exhibit displayed examples of products designed to help alleviate the suffering of those lacking the most basic necessities. Good design is often only accessible to those with “disposable income, capable of indulging in and seeking fulfillment of desires rather than genuine needs” (Barbara Bloemiink, Design for the Other 90 Percent; Smithsonian Institution, 2007). But these designers, social entrepreneurs, architects, engineers, students and professors are redefining design by making simple and functional objects and systems that have the potential to highly impact the user’s quality of life. We are growing more and more toward kindness, I believe. It gives me a way-deep-down flutter of hopefulness.
However, I worry that we are becoming over-saturated with all the facts, news, crises and even good opportunities to be involved that are coming at us. There is a certain fatigue that sets in when you read yet another article about how to “green” this or that. How many kids died today of diarrhea or malaria. How AIDS has ravaged entire countries—continents, even! War everywhere. All those nuclear weapons! Poor healthcare systems. Sometime it’s too much to take in and really let settle. As we become aware of poverty, suffering and injustice and consider our response, we must start with prayer and silence. We cannot jump from awareness into action unless we are first refined by worshipful thought and contemplation. Full life awaits but it starts out very small and very, very quietly. Note: Maya’s and Eli’s names have been changed to protect their identity. In WMF we call “the other 90 percent” the “majority world,” because the majority of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty.