Hope Against Hope

Guest Post by Sarah  – Part 1 of our Advent Series

Bio photo for voices of hopeFor each Sunday of Advent we will be hearing from someone Becca and I have during our pilgrimage in Kolkata. They are people who have devoted their lives to serve people who live under the systems of violence and oppression. They will speak to us about hope, love, joy, and peace – all things for which they toil. This week we hear from Sarah, currently the Creative and Managing Director of Sari Bari.  Her job is to offer love, creativity, vision and direction to the Sari Bari movement and community along with being chief cheerleader, hand-holder and general clean up crew member.

Hope Interrupted

Today is graduation day at the Sari Bari Prevention Unit (which is located in a trafficking source area in West Bengal, India, to provide employment to women and girls who are vulnerable to trafficking).

A day like this is what I live for, really live for at Sari Bari.  Graduation Day: a celebration to honor the women who have completed training at Sari Bari, and there is no other day like it.  Food, certificates, gifts, laughter and hope mark these occasions. The women are shining; their eyes sparkling like their saris.  Today is for them, they are celebrated, they are worthy of celebration and they sense it. As each one receives her first blanket and a certificate, they know the warm welcome of the community around them in the smiles, laughter and hugs that embrace them.

I try to imagine them decked out in a sparkling sari in another place, a place where faces hold no joy, and eyes hold no life, only the hard edge of survival.  And I am thankful and celebrate that the red light area did not become their reality.  That instead it is this reality – of celebration and embodied Hope. Instead of standing in a line to sell their bodies, they have the opportunity to work in a dignifying position of employment, a safe place, and can provide a future for themselves and their children.  To be a witness to this kind of hope embodied is a gift!

I return from the prevention unit to Kolkata with my heart as full as my belly. I enter the red light area, my own hard edges creeping into my eyes as I walk, steeling myself for what I might see. As I enter, there is a woman struggling, trying to pull away from a man who is attempting to beat her and will not let go of her arm.  I pause to see if engaging in this fight will matter, the men from the local club look on, the woman at the tea stall and the old man drinking tea keep their eyes down. No one stops the violence.  I have tried to help women before, only to be re-buffed by the woman for coming to her aid.  So this time I also do not engage.

And my full heart goes cold, dark and empty.

As I leave Sari Bari and the red light area at 7pm,the energy of the area is picking up and men are pouring in by the hundreds to buy or simply stare lustfully down the line of bedazzled women.  Women who stand as empty vessels having set aside their personhood for this daily onslaught until tomorrow morning when they will again be mom, wife and a sister, a provider and person at least for a few hours before it begins again.  One of the men from the local club, a group of unofficial local gangsters, greets me and asks what’s wrong, and why I looked so disturbed when I walked in. I asked if he saw the woman being beaten and pulled by the man down the alley.  He said, “why are you upset, you know that’s what happens here.”

I do know and I stubbornly refuse to accept this reality as what must always be.

We live in the liminal space between two realities: a reality of hope embodied and a reality of hopelessness.  The tension of those realities felt tangible today, to taste the sweetness of freedom and joy and then to imbibe the wretched taste of violence before I even had a chance to fully digest the hope.

Clinging to Faith by a Thread

I often stand in the crags between the rocks of disbelief and belief, looking to one side to see the God who abandons the poor, who does not save them, who does not rescue, the God who does not care for the widow and the orphan; and then to the other side to the God who SEES, the God who is LOVE, the God who is a reason for HOPE itself and the God who – as devastating and frustrating as it might seem – uses artists, dreamers, excel spreadsheet masters, business people, social workers, fishermen, tax collectors, shepherds and wise men to be the hands and feet that hold, save, feed, clothe and shine lights under seemingly impossible doors to open, so just a little light gets in for those who can not escape.

The rugged ugly truth about my faith is that mostly I cling by a thread. My belief in a good God is strung along by almost 100 women who embody HOPE at Sari Bari, they are the impossible becoming possible. They reveal Emmanuel to me, Christ embodied, my hope against hope.

I believe in a reality of hope because I am a witness to it. It is a cheater’s faith.  Held before me is the stark contrast of one woman finding a way to freedom in the midst of thousands who still find no way out. It is just enough of a reality of hope becoming tangible that I am an unabashed believer because I have seen with my own eyes.  I often attribute my ability to cling to any faith at all to the women at Sari Bari. My hope is rarely dashed, but constantly getting scraped up against ugly realities that will take more than I can possibly imagine how to resolve.

Hope Against Hope

Everyday there are 100 times more opportunities to lose hope than to believe even the tiniest bit remains. Most of the time, here in Kolkata, in this city of Joy, we live in a hope against hope reality. It seems we share something in common with those who awaited rescue from a coming King. The people of Israel awaited rescue and God sent a helpless baby to an unwed teenage mother. We know the story so well, maybe we forget the uniqueness of it, hope against hope, the reality of a Savior who could change everything, coming in a cloak of powerlessness. Quietly subverting power with weakness, the god-man opened himself to pain, to loss, to love, to relationship, to rejection, to darkness, to the very abandonment of God the Father.  This beggar King, this Emmanuel, this powerless provider of salvation is our hope against hope.

Hope against Hope is the both/and of faith.  We do not live in an either/or reality.  There is both reason to hope and reason to lose hope.  A thousand impossible possibilities held out with a belief, a stubborn hope, that maybe the woman who today found herself being yanked down the street by her wrist will one day find herself in one of the safe places that have now – if I may use the word – infiltrated the red light area of Sonagacchi in the form of businesses, drop in centers, kids clubs and HIV support centers.

We are the people who hope against hope. We must be people, who like Mary, before we even experience the thing that God will do, remember to celebrate what God has done (Read Luke 1:46-55). We must wade into the darkness expecting that the light will come as it has come in times of darkness many times before.


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