Freedom. It’s not what you think from where I’m writing something.
On a bustling street in Kolkata stands a five storey high, orange coloured tower. It wraps itself around the whole corner, almost like it knows its place from the day it was built 53 years ago. The exterior is tattered but not unlike any of the neighbouring buildings. From street level, there is no visible entrance but as you look up, you notice the rusted decorative bars that line each window. I’m aware of the open rooftop and its beautiful but weathered velvet couch because I’ve stood up there once before.
The location has been described as a gateway to hell. If hell was a place on earth, it might look something like Sonogachi, the biggest red light district in Kolkata. 20,000 women trafficked, inherited into, trapped, in a life of slavery. The term used in the industry is ‘the line’ and women from all parts of Northern India, Bangladesh and Nepal live and work the line here.
My friend tells me about a motorbike ride her and husband took last November. They had gone to visit a friend who had been trafficked into their community years back, gained freedom through employment, married and went back to Nepal. Kerry and Annie rode their motorbikes from their home in West Bengal to see how she was getting on. As they crossed the border into Nepal, their own passports were stamped. However, they saw handfuls of people walking freely across the border into India. Rarely are these folk walking into any form of freedom, though. In fact, after the recent earthquake, Annie tells me that the number of Nepali girls in Sonogachi had spiked. Girls who are promised a new life or a new job. Girls who are simply taken and put on the back of trucks to be sold. Village girls, semi-educated girls, young girls, sold by friends, strangers, sometimes even family. There seemed to be no immunity for the seemingly split second event that changes the course of so many lives.
“Don’t let their smiles confuse you” I was once told. “They’re empty on the inside”. As I walked the streets of Hell, one look into their eyes and you realise the sad truth in that statement. Bright red lipstick and dark eye’s lined and shadowed, they smiled to greet me but I felt the hollow pain.
I only spent a few hours here this time but it was enough for me to hear my friend say: “I find the most beauty when I see the women who have changed. They are finally beautiful from the inside, the way they were created to be”.
Freeset is called a Freedom Business on purpose. This kind of model has been offering employment to women in this community for 15 years. What they produce is more than an ethical commodity. They produce life. It’s visible on the women’s faces, as they file in at 9.20am for morning devotions. They kick off their sandals and sit cross-legged on the concrete floor of the factory. They pass their toddlers from one to the other, making it hard to know who the mother is, and then they give thanks, singing in Hindi and Bengali.
Freeset was birthed by a Kiwi couple who chose to take enough risks until it looked like love in action. Beginning with a few sewing machines in a small room in Kolkata, they now offer employment to over 250 women who have chosen freedom or who are at risk of being sold into slavery. They have a weaving factory in Murshidabad, a farming community north of the city. It’s from here that a large percentage of the girls come. In Kolkata, they have a t-shirt department and a separate building for bags and apparel and now they have the Gateway.
The Gateway was the reason for my visit. Almost a year ago, I stepped into the building for the first time. It’s sale was still being negotiated. Now, it is bustling with women dusting and cleaning the entrance. The sign that is centred on the internal courtyard wall reads:
“Act JUSTLY, love mercy, walk HUMBLY. I AM”
At first sight, I realise that it’s the most perfect thing I’ve seen in a long time. A continued declaration of God’s love and our purpose.
The sign is the first thing you see when you enter the Gateway building. What you hear, are sounds of freedom. Already, there are women who are being loved on and given employment here. On the fourth floor, in two beautiful, airy sky blue-coloured rooms, ten women are measuring, cutting and sewing punjammies (PJ pants) for their first order. The new freedom business is only a few weeks old.
Before we leave, my friend requests that we go to the rooftop that overlooks their community and pray a blessing over the building. As I walked up the last flight of stairs, I contemplated what kept these people here in dusty Kolkata for all these years.
The truth is, I’m fine with how they were able to know and love the women here. You can’t walk the streets without folk calling out to greet them. Offering these women the hope that only comes from knowing the power of the cross was a beautiful thing to witness. It made sense to me.
It’s the prayer that I heard next that completely wrecks me.
“Lord, I pray for every Madame, that their heart would be turned to you because that would impact many girls if this were to happen. I believe you are a BIG GOD”
Ok. I’m listening. I’m confused but I’m listening.
“I pray for every man that is on the streets that they might come to know your love.”
And then it dawned on my naïve lens of following Jesus. This IS what keeps them. This is what Justice looks like. This is what Freedom looks like.
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson Aboriginal Elder and Activist
When it’s wrapped up in someone else’s freedom. Knowing that we are all in need of it and fall short of it and knowing where we can find it. It’s found when we look to the cross. For me, it was a fresh revelation of what God calls us all to. There were so many things with her prayer that felt unordered. The reality? It is was utterly entwined.
It’s freedom that presents itself with a servant’s heart. Love your enemy. To know the power of the cross and in that knowledge make declarations that look like acts of mercy. To be true to the Jesus’ words:
“May your Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven”