Friday, 15 April 2016

Have you ever eaten a rat?  Ormilla* doesn’t look like a ‘rat eater’.  She’s a beautiful young lady with a shy smile and is dressed in a sunshine yellow shalwa kamise.  She stands out a mile from the children who mill around her.  Yet Ormilla and her community are known as ‘rat eaters’ and it's not meant as a compliment.

Ormilla is unfortunate enough to belong to the very lowest of India's 900 sub-castes of 'untouchable' people. As a 'mahadalit' (meaning 'most crushed') Ormilla's traditional place in life is to do the dirtiest jobs, to be banned from drinking water from wells used by higher castes and to be forced to eat separately at school. That's if she ever got to school(1).  Yet Ormilla is a remarkable lady and what has happened in her community challenges this story.

Ormilla used to have 'no food so I would drink water to fill my stomach, but I wanted to study.  I heard there was a church nearby and that if I went they would guide me'.  The church did help, using their own small resources to provide 900 Rupees ($12) for the entrance costs for school and supporting Ormilla for extra tuition. 'Now I am in Standard 11 studying science, the only person in the entire history of my village to get this far'.  

As Ormilla has been blessed so she longs to pass on that blessing to the children around her.  'I want every child to be able to study like me' so she is currently looking to begin a non-formal school in her community.

Later on I am playing a game with a lively group of kids in a nearby mahadalit community.  It's a fun game called Samson, Delilah and the lion and the kids are particularly enjoying roaring like lions at each other.  Each precious kid here is part of a non-formal school started by the church and community.  They demonstrate to me their perfect knowledge of the English alphabet and, rather shyly, their beautiful singing.  Life for them is beginning to look more hopeful.

There are many other signs of hope in this community.  I walk past new brick houses being built, in all 19 have sprung up in the last year.  Encouraged by the dynamic local pastor the community have lobbied the previously disinterested local government.  As a result 62 of the 75 families here have now gained access to the government benefits they are due.  We drove to the village over 500m of new government funded road.  The community have planted trees to help look after the land.  Realizing the problems resulting from their previous involvement in brewing strong alcohol, the community has completely stopped. 

This has all resulted from 'Parivartan' (church and community transformation), an approach which releases the potential of people to change their own situation with no funding from outside. 

I think it's time to stop calling Ormilla and her people 'rat eaters'.  I think it's time to remember how precious they are and so call them 'loved by God'.

* Name changed for privacy.
(1) Only 1 in 50 Mahadalit women can read and write (Telegraph Online News 20 May 2014).

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Is this the most radical church I’ve ever seen?  I talked with Aesha* yesterday after the end of her meeting with women involved in sex work.  We sat in a simple room which has two rush mats on the floor and little on the walls.  The hot air was being slowly moved around by a ceiling fan.  And I wondered is this group of women a church?

It’s a bit of a radical thought and might be shocking to some of you.  I feel nervous about sharing my half-formed thoughts but then I think that can be what blogs are for. 
The most obvious argument against this being a church is that most of the participants are still involved in sex work.  Surely they would need to have made a commitment to God and changed their lifestyles before they could be a church?

Or maybe not.  Perhaps the important thing is to welcome them as they are and encourage them on a journey towards God.  In Luke 15 we see that the father sees his wayward son in the distance and ‘filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him’.  

Jesus does not condemn the woman caught in adultery but says ‘go now and leave your life of sin’ John 8v11.  There seem to be twin themes here of compassion and a call to holiness.  This reminds me of the excellent book No Perfect People Allowed (Link) which talks about ‘come as you are but don’t stay that way’.

Aesha (2nd right) and her team
I prayed for Kavita* and the child she bears.  When I finished she had tears in her eyes.  Many of these women are hungry for God and the good news is truly good news to them.  Changing their way of surviving is not however easy. ‘Their confidence is completely broken’, they struggle to trust others as they have been so abused and they struggle to trust themselves. 

Is there any other church for them?  Would they have the confidence to go if there was?  Would they be welcomed if they turned up? Or judged?  Which of us ‘is without sin’ John 8v7 and yet we still go to church.

So I think, on balance, this small gathering is church for them. Aesha and her team are leading this very unusual church.  Their part is to encourage, love and sometimes challenge these precious women, who are made in the image of God.

*All names changed for privacy.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

What am I doing in a red light district with a biscuit on my forehead?  The short answer is that I am trying to move that biscuit over my eyes, down my right cheek and into my mouth, all without using my hands.  It’s a good challenge and great fun.  And, despite having played the game before recently, the biscuit slips and falls to the floor.  This is much to the amusement of the women and children in the room.

Later on I am asking myself a different question.  I am listening to Kavita*, a lady wrapped in a colourful sari but who speaks little and rarely looks me in the face.  How did a girl from Bangladesh wind up here in Mumbai, making a living from sex work?  It wasn’t her intention, this wasn’t how her life was meant to work out.  But the aunts she trusted sold her and people she didn’t know trafficked her.  So now she’s here in a seedy slum with just one way to survive.

Or is there another way? Aesha thinks so.  Aesha has a one year old daughter but when her pastor told her about a role helping bring freedom to sex workers she took a deep breath, prayed and applied.  She’s gifted.  I watch as she skilfully leads this group of ten sex workers and their children in the biscuit game to relax them, then in singing, a health message and prayers.   She believes in these women, that they can have a different life, that they can have a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29v11).   The initiative also provides help to support children through schooling and Aesha and her colleagues work hard to build the women’s confidence and skills so that they can find alternative work.

It’s not an easy journey for Aesha.  Some people in her church misunderstand her and the work can, at times, be deeply disappointing.  One colleague came into work recently in tears having heard that one sex worker, who had been making great progress, had slipped back again.  ‘Sometimes we slowly build relationship and gently begin to challenge these women about change but get rejected’.  But Aesha has a vision that keeps her going.  It’s the inspiring vision of her organisation, Sahaara, a vision of ‘gifting dreams’ to those who’ve forgotten how to dream.     

*All names changed for privacy.
I saw a man smeared on the top of a giant water pipe.  His dark skin and ragged clothes were the same black as the pipe so he blended in, like a camouflaged moth.  I think he was sleeping.  What does he look like?   I don't know.  What is his name?  I don't know.  What are his hopes and fears? The same answer.

I don't know the answers because I was driving past in a taxi.  I was heading into Mumbai city in India.  But I guess this is the story of this man's life.  He lives a life largely unseen and unknown.  Do you have people who live at the edge of your community and the edge of your vision?  I do.    

But what happens when we do see, when we do stop?  One day Viju passed such a homeless man in the street.  When he got to his destination he found out that three of his friends had passed the same man, all without stopping.  That might have been the end of the story but that day was different.  That day God challenged Viju that it was time for him and fellow Christians to do something to help.  So Viju got stuck in to working with the poor and started a journey which resulted, in 1973, with setting up the Association for Christian Thoughtfulness (ACT).

Yesterday I joined this journey.  I spent the day in some of the slums of Mumbai hearing story after story of how God's people are bringing hope to 'invisible' people.  As I sipped coke from a flimsy plastic cup Pastor Rahul* and his wife Aruna shared how their small church has come alongside Vasu. 

Vasu is a boy of 12 who is very mentally and physically challenged and his mother had been struggling to cope with all the emotional and financial pressure.  Noone had been caring about them until the church started to.  Church people are now using the little they have to help with food, medicene and the costs of hospital visits and, most importantly, are standing alongside as friends.  

Many people in India (as elsewhere) are dazzled by a materialistic dream. They dream of being the handsome people with sharp clothing and perfect lives on the giant billboards.  People with mental health conditions don't fit this image and are often rejected.    Yet to Jesus they are precious.  They will only know this if God's people practically live out Jesus' love for them.

So this leaves me wondering.  Who are the invisible people in my life that I need to really see?  And who are they for you?  

*All names changed for privacy.