In a slum on the banks of the Ganges River, our AYM leaders experienced life in a community where human rights and hygiene are non-existent, but hope and hospitality abound. Their trip to India took place just before Christmas, and for the safety of those they visited, we can’t tell you who went or where they went. However we can tell you that they have returned and will never be the same again.
The group’s leader told us in December: “We didn’t go to help the poor, we wanted to step out of our comfort zones, meet Jesus Christ on a deeper level, then help and love out of that.” Part of the group’s experience was to learn a little bit of conversational Bangla – the mother tongue of the area. With that, they were able to connect to their hosts in a more meaningful way. “The hospitality really stood out to me,” the group’s leader said. “We were in the home of someone in the community – they gave us a cup of tea and some crackers, there was a dead fish in a bucket in the corner, and there were cats wandering around everywhere. But they gave with such generosity. [Another leader] leaned over and whispered to me ‘this is just like the Eucharist!'”
Watching life’s norms fall at their feet was a common experience for the group. “I went with a fear of getting a serious illness,” the leader told us. “They wash their food in the Ganges – but they also go to the toilet straight into the Ganges. Despite my fear, I ate lunch and it was beautiful – I tasted their generosity, and felt their love. I stared fear in the face and only found joy.”
In the slum, girls who are not married or employed by the age of 15 are usually sold, or find themselves working in the sex trade. The group’s leader found herself trying to reconcile the freedoms that she and her daughter enjoy in New Zealand with the seeming lack of the value of life in this Indian community. Whilst there, a woman gave her baby to her and asked her to take the baby – for she was unable to give her the necessities of life. The leader, broken-hearted, held the baby for a while to comfort her, but had no choice but to give her back and walk away. “I’m so lucky, and they are not;” she told us. “Why was I born in New Zealand? Why were they born there?” The unfairness of their situation was overwhelming for the group.
Yet there is hope. Some of the micro-enterprises established in the heart of the red light district are providing training and employment for girls and women which is offering them a way out of the sex trade. One woman told of how her mother and grandmother are still employed in the sex industry, and she lives in the red light district. Yet she now has a job with a textile manufacturer and her young daughter now has a hope of a different life. “Life is not all cleaned up,” the group leader told us, “it’s still complicated, but the woman said to us ‘I look at my little girl, and have genuine, legitimate hope that she could be a doctor.'”
And despite not overtly evangelising, the micro-enterprise owners, who are all Christian, are having a positive impact on the lives of the locals they employ. A spiritually-aware people, the people of the community often experience the love of Christ in the deeds of their employers, and some come to faith in that way.
Over the road from the slum, there is a shopping mall. “It’s just like a Westfield – or perhaps a David Jones,” the group’s leader tells us. She relayed how it felt so comforting to walk straight into a world she knew, yet it was so difficult to enjoy such conspicuous consumption in the face of such deep need. “We took the young people into the mall, and then we went straight back to the slum. They told us that life is a lot like the choice between the mall and the slum – the mall offers much but doesn’t deliver, yet in the slum, we experience deep joy – smiles, laughter, children running up to us and hugging us. You would look at the people in the slum and not even think they are poor,” we’re told, “because they wear the finest of saris and they present themselves with such pride.”
To further highlight the injustice, the group’s leader told us that the mall was built on land taken from the slum community, was built with the labour of the slum community, and now that it is complete, the residents of the slum community are banned from entering.
Such contrast brought cause for deep reflection amongst the group. The leader asked herself “where is your [slum]? What’s the area or situation where you are nervous, that you are scared to uncover? We give up our life to find new life – it’s not ours anyway.” Each of the group returned to their privileged lives in New Zealand, but it is fair to say that their lives will take on a new trajectory.
A Brook Fraser lyric comes to the group leader’s mind: “‘now that I have seen, I am responsible… faith without deeds is dead.’ Even if you haven’t seen, you are responsible!” she exclaimed. “The lives we live here have an impact, an effect, on how people live there. Our greed, our choices make a difference. Our young leaders have come back and are no longer thinking about what they want or deserve, they’re asking ‘how can I live so that others can live?’ There is only one choice available to us and that is to follow Jesus Christ.”
Our discussion prompted the question – how can we each respond? The group’s leader listed many options such as sponsorship, mission trips, or even fostering a relationship with another cultural group here in our own community. But perhaps the easiest and most powerful way to help is to tell their stories. The group’s leader reminds us of a beautiful quote about poverty from Sarah Bessey: “The problem isn’t their voicelessness, it’s that we’re not listening.” This group at least, has listened, and will act upon what they’ve heard.