The Keys of Death and Hades

co-written by Becca & Andrew

There are nights we lie awake in our small bedroom, on our bed next to the wall, painted blue with trees and vines and words to remember written in white chalk. Some nights we leave the window open, an outside light and the noises of motorcycles honking and people talking, sometimes drummers drumming in one of dozens of worship festivals in the fall, flow in. We’re on an off street, though, a narrow lane that mutes much of the night sound. Beyond the lights and the noises and down a couple streets, the foot traffic increases, where women lean against walls and sit on steps, waiting for men to filter into their neighborhood. Each night – and each day – men come with rupees to purchase a service; and with that service, a body – for an hour or for a night.

So, yes, some nights we lie awake and consider the women and girls who lie awake in their beds just down the street, with strangers next to them demanding the service for which they’ve paid. We lie awake – next to one of many red light areas of Kolkata, and we wonder if God really exists. Some nights we lie awake and we doubt it.


keysWe have been listening to sermon podcasts from The Mills Church, which is making its way through Revelation this year. A recent sermon highlighted the “One like the Son of Man” in John’s vision. This One has blazing eyes and a voice like rushing waters and out of his mouth comes a sharp double-edged sword and his presence is so fierce that John falls down before him as though dead. But the One like the Son of Man reaches his right hand to John and says, “Do not be afraid…I hold the keys of death and hades.” (Rev. 1)

This One like the Son of Man is seen walking among seven lamp stands – which symbolize seven churches. He is found not separate and aloof, but walking among.

So it was that one night as we lay awake after listening to this sermon, we could see in our minds’ eye One like the Son of Man walking among the streets of Kolkata’s red light areas. His radiance lighting the dingy alleys, his right hand resting kindly on each woman and child, the rushing waters of his voice washing over them, “Do not be afraid.”

But then a john looking to purchase some pleasure, or a group of rowdies looking to stir up trouble comes around the corner and stumble upon the One, falling at his feet as though dead. To our surprise his double-edge sword does not slay them. His right hand touches them as well and they as well are bidden: “Do not be afraid.” His hand holds the keys of even the death and hades they live and breed.

So we imagined the Son of Man in the streets of Kolkata, speaking peace and healing and forgiveness and Shalom. Oh that it would be true! Oh that One like the Son of Man would walk here among us!


We walked into the main lane, past women dressed to attract, some in beautiful saris, hair done up, some in western style clothes – tank tops and tight jeans. A crowd had begun to gather as the women from Sari Bari waited for their friend to come home one last time. Mukti* used to sit upstairs at Sari Bari, with ten or twelve other women stitching blankets and bags and scarves. For four years she stitched saris together, making beautiful products sold to men and women in the West. On Wednesday she came to work as she had done for four years. On Thursday evening her friends waited outside her home for her body after she died unexpectedly. They would walk with her body to the river, where she would be cremated and released back into the world; water to water, dust to dust.

By seven thirty that night it was dark. The women of Sari Bari leaned against pillars and walls, sat on steps, waiting as they used to, as their sisters still wait. But there, that night, they did not wait for a customer, they were not waiting for the abuse and destruction for which they used to wait. They waited in power, they waited in freedom, sobered by their grief but strong.

Nandita who always wears a sari, usually black and green; Mita who makes fun of our terrible Bengali; Shila in red sari with glasses that make her seem even more wise, more steadfast; Bijoya who always wears jeans and a button up shirt, challenging boundaries of what women should wear; they stood among their sisters and waited.*

Men do stupid things everywhere. They catcall and whistle, and speak and act violence against women from Minnetonka to Kolkata. The women waited for their friend and a man approached, saying something stupid. Maybe he was propositioning the North American women who work at Sari Bari, maybe he was propositioning during a funeral, maybe he was just propositioning, but he had crossed some line. This was the red light area, but he had approached the wrong women.

From among the crowd, one stepped out toward this man. It was Asha.* Sweet, sassy Asha in a light blue sari with purple polka-dots, a red velvet tika on her forehead and earrings dangling golden from her ears; Asha who laughs hard and prays harder; Asha who can’t be more than five feet tall.

In that moment with the Sari Bari women behind her she emerged fierce and powerful  as she stepped toward this man. Her eyes blazed and from her mouth issued words like a torrent, sharp like a sword as she rebuked his violence. Twice she intercepted offending advances, spinning with her fierceness a net of safety around all in her presence. As if to say, “Do not be afraid…not on my watch will you be harmed.”

She stood with her sisters behind and oppression before and claimed freedom. These women have already been bought, and they are not for sale.

We watched, wondering – is it true? Does this One like the Son of Man walk already in the red light area as he walks among the lampstands; did this One visit tonight in the anger and defiance of a five-foot Bengali woman; does this One stand with the women as they wait for the body of their sister, does he whisper in their ears, “Do not be afraid, I hold the keys of death and hades”?

*Not their real names.

photo credit: just.Luc via photopin cc


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