Joy in the Dark Places

joy in the dark places 2Guest Post from Melissa – Part 3 of our Advent Series

For each Sunday of Advent we will hear from someone Becca and I have met 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 Melissa, the Aftercare Coordinator at Sari Bari. She oversees the training and social welfare aspects of Sari Bari. She loves Freedom Birthdays, and graduation parties at Sari Bari, but more than that treasures the “little moments” like lunch, tea time, and spontaneous dance parties with the Sari Bari Community.

When Joy is Lost

Walking into a brothel in Kolkata assaults the senses; the stairs, with grooves worn in the middle from the countless sets of feet that have walked up and down, the handrail that has been worn by the number of hands that have gripped it since it was installed, the tightly turning staircase sometimes so dark that I cannot see where I am stepping, spices thrown into hot oil in preparation for lunch sting my nose.

In the midst of all this darkness, every once in awhile, beauty catches my eye. There are strangely beautiful layers of peeling paint; windows to the past exposed in the layers of colors. Sunlight streams through an open window, cutting the darkness. There is the clatter of the metal buckets being filled and carried to the various floors on the brothel and the slap of clothes against the stone slab floor as a woman washes them for another day. There are glimpses of what the building looked like years ago — the high arches, the ornate columns, the iron work — snapshots of beauty in its current state of abuse and disrepair.  This is how I understand joy. It is found, surprisingly, in the darkest of places.

Over the years that I’ve spent living in Kolkata, I have had to work to find joy. I have learned to engage joy as a discipline, but I haven’t always been very good at it. There have been seasons when I lost joy. I lost sight of it in the dark winding staircases of brothels; in the doubt, loss, injustice, heartache and disillusionment. Where is joy when you watch your friend suffer and slowly die? Where is joy when your pleas for mercy seem to echo into the black void? Where is joy when the miracle comes unraveled, or when you can’t protect the child, no matter how hard you try? Who could name joy when watching someone you care about come into work with a black-eye, again? Joy?! Is there joy when vows are broken and the betrayal slices clean through to the soul? Is there joy when helplessly sitting by as addiction revenges someone you love? My soul, in an apparent moment of defeat whispered (cause there wasn’t any shout left) “How can there be any joy here?!”

Finding a Deeper Joy

Joy, like her sisters beauty and hope, often turns up in unexpected places. I found her in the run-down brothels, at the crematorium, at the side of a hospital bed, with a cup of tea shared on the road-side. The tricky thing is, unless you are looking for her, there’s a strong chance you won’t recognize her. I have learned she doesn’t look like I thought she did. Joy is not the laughter and light-heartedness I knew as a child. She is not a feather, or a bubble, or a wispy cloud. She is heavy. She is a weight. This is the joy I have come to know in the midst of suffering, pain and loss. It is simultaneously grounding and invigorating. It keeps my feet firmly planted here. It allows me to wake up and put one foot in front of the other, continuing forward movement when all seems like despair. When it all comes undone, when the darkness threatens to overwhelm, this joy keeps me here. It empowers me. It fuels me. It holds me.

While there are moments when I may doubt it, I know that Joy exists here because I see her. I have chosen to look for her and I have chosen to pursue her. As I have pursued her, I have learned to spot her. She comes in split second encounters that I would miss if not looking.

This joy, this hard-fought for, pursued, chosen joy comes with an air of authenticity. In the midst of unanswerable questions, loss, and doubt, I am keenly aware that I have, indeed, found something of immeasurable value. Henri Nouwen refers to this type of joy as a precious stone hidden in the wall of a dark cave.  This is the joy I have found in Kolkata.

Is there Joy in this sometimes very dark corner of the world, in the red light area of Kolkata? In the midst of circumstances that should never be?


There is joy. Oh, there is joy.

There is joy at tea time at Sari Bari.
There is joy at the hospital bedside, listening to stories.
There is joy in being pulled over for a quick conversation with a new or old friend as I walk through the red light area.
There is joy in grieving together with people I love.
There is joy in playing Around-the-World with my friend’s son.

This is the treasure I have found, the precious stone I have found hidden in the wall of a very dark cave. And having found it, how can I ever let it go?

A Benediction for Joy

May you have eyes to see this joy in your corner of the world (whatever it may hold).
May you choose joy.
May you find that precious stone hidden in the wall of the darkest of caves.
May you know the simultaneous grounding weight and buoyant flutter of joy.
May you walk into dark places, of sorrow, loss and grief, and find the surprising flicker of joy that lights your way.
May you know the sort of joy that breaks and heals.
May you know the One who came into our darkness, and breathes Joy.


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