Beauty for Ashes
Our three week whirlwind trip to India was coming to an end. I thought about the things that we had seen and experienced as we waited for my friend, Tom, to pick us up on Sunday, our last day in India. We had ended our trip in Mumbai and like the rest of India, it was a place of vivid contrasts. Modern high rises form the backdrop to slums as we drove on the highway. Children come to our car doors begging while we drive to Fashion Street and ultra modern malls. I remember one girl in particular. She looked to be about 6 years old, around the age of my oldest son. She kept repeating, “Madam, please” and lifted her arm to show me a lesion that she had. But that was not what struck me the most. It was her eyes. They did not display mischievousness or curiosity, like my sons’. They also were not angry or even sad. They looked just empty. This is what struck me over and over again as we rode on trains and cars and saw the people who live in both rural and urban poverty. So many of them, even the children, have empty eyes. Their eyes seem to reveal that they have seen and experienced too much and what they reflect are beyond the range of emotions that I know.
When Tom arrived, Jake, my husband, Beena, my sister-in-law, the kids and I piled into the car and started our two hour pothole filled trip to visit the BTC campus. We peppered Tom with questions about BTC, Kamathipura and the women and children they work with. What he told us seemed surreal and I had difficulty understanding such depths of evilness. Young girls being tricked and told that they can work as housekeepers and ending up captives in brothels. Brothers and husbands selling sisters and wives. Girls kept in cages, beaten and raped until they reach a level of brokenness that you and I can never begin to understand, a level of brokenness that allows these girls and women to service up to 15 men a day and still go on living. Babies born as a result. Children being raised in brothels, watching, learning and knowing their future. HIV. AIDS. Girls being groomed to be the next generation of slave prostitutes. Boys left to wander the streets. Emptiness and hopelessness.
Hearing this, my husband shook his head and made a comment that even most animals take care of their young. I knew what he meant. Two weeks ago, we had been on a safari outside of Bangalore. As our vehicle approached a herd of elephants, my 6 year old son yelled out, “Look! The elephants think we are a predator! They are surrounding the baby!” He had learned on a TV show that this is what elephants do to protect the young in their herd when they see danger. Sure enough, the group of elephants had changed their positions such that the baby elephant was completely surrounded by them, as they faced us.
When we reached the campus, Tom explained that the first building that we were coming to housed teenage girls. Most of these girls were removed from brothels by BTC at a young age and brought here to live. Some of their mothers were still in the brothels, some of their mothers were HIV positive and some of the mothers were no longer alive, having succumbed to the effects of AIDS. As we walked towards the building, thoughts of where these girls had come from and memories of all the empty eyes I had seen were swirling through my mind. I started to wonder what on earth we would say to them? We heard singing coming from the building and Tom explained that the girls were in the middle of a Sunday worship time and asked if we would like to join them. We walked in and stood in the front of the room. I looked around. There was approximately 30 teenage girls in the room, being led in worship songs by Asha, their house mother. One of the girls was playing the keyboard and lyrics were displayed on a screen. The lyrics were familiar to me and being in a worship service is very familiar to me. What was not familiar to me and was completely unexpected was how these young ladies sang and looked. They looked like typical teenage girls in India, some wearing salwars and some in jeans or skirts. But their eyes were not typical to what I had seen or expected for those coming from circumstances such as theirs. They were joyous. I don’t know what exactly I was expecting but it was not this. Some of them smiled shyly at us, some giggled, and some reached out to pinch the cheeks of my young sons, to their great chagrin. But all of them were singing, and in a heartfelt way that made us really take notice of the lyrics celebrating love, rescue, and hearts that are grateful. I could not get over their earnestness and could not stop the tears that sprung from my eyes. I turned to my right and looked back at Beena and saw that she was similarly affected. I turned to look at Jake and he at that moment walked out of the room, overcome by emotion. These girls who had and have no little of what we take for granted were so rich in joy.
After singing, Asha asked one of the girls to pray for us visitors, in Hindi. While I do not understand the language, I do understand that she spoke words enthusiastically and earnestly. The irony of the situation was not lost on me. We came to visit these “poor” girls, who by Western standards have nothing. Many of them are orphans, with little money or the comforts that we have. Some of them have seen things as young girls that no child should witness. We wanted to see what we could do for them. But yet, we were the ones being prayed for, the ones who left richer for having met them; for having witnessed how joyous, content and giving they are. For having met them and caught a glimpse of the beauty that is in them, and not the evil that they were born into. It all brings to mind this passage from Isaiah 61:3 that seems to sum up this mission:
…to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.