the final say.

for all the abuse, all the anger, all the crisis of faith, questions, and brokenness, death, and depression…
i sit here tonight, four days before i depart this country…thankful…so incredibly thankful.

i am a woman aware.  i’d not be where i am today had i not experienced all that this cup had offered me…

i sit in awe at the love i have received, and the love i have learned resides within.

my own dark heart revealed and saved.

kolkata has been to me a mirror, a black hole, a cup of suffering and celebration. i have held and toasted and drank…

i have learned how to cry here,  how to bury ones i didn’t know how to live without… how to give news to those i’d never want to hurt…i’ve heard thousands of stories, a majority of which may never be repeated, and i hold each one as a treasure, as my pearl of great price. the women of sari bari are lodged in my chest, never to be removed. they have saved me, they have revived me, they have cut my heart in pieces, and they have taught me what love can mean, what sisterhood can mean, what little power language barriers have when trust is involved…

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i carry shards of my community within..memories, wounds, and the gift of being known.  i understand grace because of them, i understand my effect on others and who i am more deeply because of those who have walked so closely with me. you know who you are…we have walked together, in gut wrenching cries, in hours of communion within the BK Paul Kitchen, in veranda dreamings, we have protected one another, and fallen apart…and i will never be the same because of it.

I fell in love here.

and my heart will not possibly be the same.

oh kolkata. how you have grown this heart of mine, in the smallest crevices and cracks green has taken root, surely only God would know that the cemented could give way to gardens…

and to the men of this city…perhaps you have robbed, and cheated, and disrespected. but not every time…and for the times it has been, i offer my forgiveness. and for those who have offered respect…may you know what even a seed of respect can bloom into…

and to my sisters…in brothels just a few alleys down…i do not forget my times with you. nor the reason i took up this fight.  may my feet not rest till many more of you know the taste of freedom, value, and safety…may someday, when all is said and done, you know that someone cried for you, thought of you, spoke your name in love, and drempt of you. may you know you are not alone in this world that seems so one sided and unfair.

i first came to kolkata in 2004 because i wanted to be among those who had the hardest time believing God was good….and i’ve realized that is not why i came at all…

to my family at Sari Bari…thank you for showing me that the God i followed here exists…sometimes in deafening silence, sometimes in painful restraint, but yes also in goodness, and hope, grace, and love…

you have allowed me into your stories, your fears, your homes…you have literally clothed me in gold these last few days…and yet it is only a dim reflection of how you have clothed my spirit, and my journey…

as i say goodbye to the place i have made home for the last seven years….i see, as i have always, that the celebration and the mourning are bound together….a richness we were created to live in.  may none of us  turn back from either, nor cheat others out of knowing how their impressions have left our lives…

kolkata, i raise my glass to you…my lungs may be black, but my heart has been refined…full of light…and i will never be the same.

May the God of all grace, the lifter of our heads, the hearer of our curse filled prayers go before and behind us all, and above all, may love have yet the final say.

My Transition…

Last year, I took a six-month Leave of Absence. I was burned out, depressed, and beginning to suffer from panic attacks.  I did not know how to fix myself.  I was scared, and for the first time, I asked for help.  Thanks to the graciousness of my Kolkata community and incredible support from many of you, I took the time I needed to begin unpacking my years being witness to trauma and pain, and experiencing it first hand.  I attended a retreat center in Michigan called Alongside whose focus is on burnout.  I began to let my heart soften.  I began to rediscover who I was created to be.  I had the chance to breathe, to rest, and to be…I write so honestly, because perhaps many of you understand this vantage point well…and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that hiding is the opposite of freedom…mirrow

My leave of absence, gave necessary space to examine the dark places in my heart that I’ve refused to visit in the past, it allowed the grace to rekindle faith, and dream.  As I emerged from those six months, I felt like one who had been awakened from a long deep sleep.  One of my realizations was the dormant dream of becoming a counselor, which aligns with my passion and my giftings.  I have longed to move our Sari Bari community forward with a mental health and counseling focus, but I have never felt fully prepared or properly trained for the trauma and difficult situations we encounter.  My dream is to hone these skills and offer the best of who I am to the women and men around me.

 To pursue these dreams, I have made the decision alongside my community to return to school for my master’s in trauma psychology starting in the Fall of 2014.  I will be going on Sabbatical starting this August and will be resigning from WMF after my sabbatical is done in April 2014.

It is with great emotion I write this. Though we reside in distant places, there is a sense of camaraderie and partnership that has come through years of partnering together.  Your prayers, encouragement, and extreme generosity has moved and upheld me.  Thank you for your voices, your prayers, your sacrifices on my behalf. I would have never dreamt that seven years in Kolkata could instill such depth of value for community, honesty, and the desperate need for celebration.  I have grown up here, discovering more than I could have ever asked or imagined…and for the pain and the celebration I am profoundly grateful.flowers

In these last two months, I am working to wrap up many loose ends, from moving out of my flat to transferring my work responsibilities, and spending valuable time with the women and staff of Sari Bari…mostly over LARGE plates of rice and various forms of chicken…

I will be flying back to the US to begin my Sabbatical on August 5th.  I humbly ask that you consider continuing to offer your prayers and support of me through the next 6 months…it is an honor and gift to be able to receive Sabbatical after seven years of service in India. I will begin my Sabbatical by hiking the Way of St. James through Spain, in Sept/Oct and then relocating to Jacksonville to spend my remaining months preparing for school.

I will be hosting a raffle at the end of June on a special blog to raise money for various aspects of my Sabbatical.  More details to come!!!

Although I am leaving Kolkata, I am still planning to stay in partnership with Sari Bari by advocating and speaking on their behalf through the next few years.  If you are interested in having me share about Sari Bari at your churches, small groups, or colleges during my Sabbatical I would be thrilled to!

hands I covet your prayers for my transition in these last two months, and for my Sari Bari community who will be sending me off. I cannot help but think of the parable of the seed that must die in order to reveal new growth. It is in this posture I am moving forward, hopeful in the promise of newness that lies ahead.

My email during sabbatical and further into my schooling will be bethiewaterman@gmail.com.

To make donations to my personal account or the Sari Bari ministry: send checks to WMF, PO Box 70, Omaha, NE 68101 (on a separate paper, please note for Beth Waterman or Sari Bari ministry.) Or donate online at  https://portal.ftnirdc.com/WMFW/Checkout

Much love to all of you,

Beth

A new normal…

Last Sunday afternoon I went for lunch in one of our women’s homes. Delicious chicken curry, fresh mangoes, spicy dhal…

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She is a woman I respect and love. She has been through more than one life should be able to bear.  She loves the people around her with devotion, albeit at times a bit twisted and confused. She is a connector and a protector.

Her little room is located on the far hallway of a second story brothel…

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Beautiful women in miniskirts and halter tops pass through the veranda where we sit enjoying our lunch…they joke and laugh and offer conversation to pass the time.  And then, I watch a group of middle-aged guys walk up the stairs.  Intoxicated by thrill and liquid courage, they arrange a dance show in the upper rooms of my friend’s home.

My brain tried connecting dots, they were husbands, sons, fathers, out for a Sunday afternoon…

Later the woman they arranged would lock herself in a room with them, and dance. The equivalent of 75 dollars to shut the door and do whatever they pleased. An hour scaring more than her arms and legs and breasts by their cigarette butts.

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One does not leave an afternoon of observing this unscathed.

“Did you ever dance?” I ask my hostess.

“I used to”

“Weren’t you afraid?”

“Of course I was afraid, but what else can we do. If we run out, we have to pay back the money that’s been given. But it’s only really dangerous when they drink too much, and put their cigarettes on you, and pass you around…”

The violence of it all…is too much to bear.

I am not angry. I am perplexed. I am grappling.

Our stances on many issues are likely varying in degree.

I do not care, I celebrate difference.  I celebrate the freedom to express and question and use our voices.

When we use our stories for good, our brokenness to bring darkness into light, we have started the revolution for change. It is when shame keeps our stories locked up that bitterness and fear can poison and destroy.

I have seen this in my own life, and I am choosing a new way…

I recently finished an interesting read…the title may surprise you.  I am hesitant to mention it, but in light of all I’ve experienced here in Kolkata, and at the risk of being misunderstood, I share it none the less…

Vagina: A Cultural History by Naomi Wolf is about, straightforwardly, the connection between a woman’s sexual organs and her brain chemistry.

Naomi Wolf writes about the way trauma to our sexuality affects the normal functioning of our neurology. She writes openly about the sexualization of our culture, and how it affects both men and women, and our relationships to one another.  This is not news to any of us…And I admit that the red light culture offers amped up sexuality and twisted understandings of male and female relationships, I admit my reality is not the norm. Not everyone has their Sunday lunch on a brothel veranda…

But I have appreciated the way Ms. Wolf speaks openly of sexuality and its varying affects on us. She bravely explores those places tagged as taboo.  She speaks openly of pornography and the way pixelized or purchased stimulations change the way an entire culture respond to one another.  And I believe it is worth thinking on and talking about. I believe there is a better way…

“While we are told we live in a time of sexual liberation, this may only mean more sex, or even just more images of sex-and not better or “freer” sex…but a nation of masturbating people who are looking at screens rather than at one another-who are consuming sex like any other product and who are rewiring their brains to find less and less abandon and joy in another’s arms, and to bond more and more with pixels-is a subjugated, not a liberated population.”

Let me be clear, I am not pointing fingers. I am not playing a blame game. I am mourning deeply broken relationships. And the power of shame over both men and women, that keeps us from talking about the things deemed untouchable.

The things that keep us silent and ashamed.

I am wondering where to from here. I saw it played out Sunday.

Normalization at its finest…

How do we fight against what’s become “normal” in our cultures.

What stance is there against the highest grossing industry in the world.

Where can we best use our voices to make changes…

May we have the courage, all of us, whether in Midwestern living rooms, beach houses on the South Island, or dance bars in a second story brothel…to tell our stories, to use our voices of hurt and betrayal and scarring to seek out something honest and freeing and full of light.

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Why I am a feminist…

I’m not a man hater. In fact, I hope to marry one someday.

I’m not into burning my bras…it’s the only sexy secret I get to keep in a country bent on modesty…

But I do call myself a feminist.

I care about all people, treated as people. As equal heartbeats. I’m talking about respect, not who can win an arm wrestling match.

And living in India, has made me all the more sure.

Life in Kolkata is like living in an American 1960’s throwback.

AMC’s Mad Men, live. Everyday.

And yesterday, I decided to write about it.

I am not angry. I am not trying to push my ideals onto you. I am expressing my experience and my conviction. I too am a work in progress…

People say the red light area exists here in Kolkata to keep the good women safe…what does this say for the self- control of men? What does this say for the value placed on women?  I am dumbfounded that some women can be allotted as daughters, mothers, sisters, pure. And others because of lack of resources, are deemed a body to be purchased, owned, used.

Protection against the good…

These women are my friends, my sisters, the ones who cried with me when my grandfather died, the ones who call when I’m sick, the ones I spend every day alongside.  These women are not second-class. They are mothers, daughters, sisters, pure.

And when I walk home at night, chatting with girls draped across the alley, colorful, empty, working. My heart, it does more than ache, it is crushed, it is offended, it cries out for something else, something new.

Yesterday, I was grabbed by two guys on a motorcycle. I was walking back from purchasing syphilis injections for some of our women…a gift from the men in their lives…

I later had visions of pushing them off their bike…

The locals in the alley offered their fight, they were offended for me, they would have chased after them and brought justice. I am respected and known in the red light area.  And I am so thankful for the good men in my life.

Then I wondered, what about the girls who have no one to stand up for them…why is it different when there’s a monetary interaction? Abuse is not different, even if one is waiting on a street corner.

I was told last week that sex workers do not report their rapes, the police will blame them, better to burden the load alone than be publicly blamed I suppose…

But yesterday was not an isolated incident. Last weekend two guys on a bike harassed me through a taxi window…

Once a guy followed me out of the red light area, saying “fucking, fucking fucking,..” I called my co-workers for backup. Upendra and Kyle met me on the road, and shamed him in front of everyone, with his hands around the guy’s neck, he “encouraged him strongly” to “apologize to the Madam”…it was the first time someone stood up for me. Most of the time, justice is elusive. And we shove it down and go on…

And this is what breads the anger…

Just sit down at lunch-time with the Sari Bari women and listen to the stories. Next time stick your finger in his eye one says, then he’ll never get to act like that again…Carry a safety pin on the bus to jab the guys who try to rub their crotch against you, my Bengali principal once commented…Next time take your shoe off and beat him in the face, another advises…

Story after story after story, and that’s just normal abuse on the streets, everyday conveyance. Men see you exit the alley of the red light area to grab a bus or a train, they follow, they assume, they want.

There is no regard for the other, for a human heart beat. There is only lust and want.

I have been grabbed countless times in this country. As a foreign woman I once thought it was because of my difference, my color.  I now understand it is because of my gender. It is the solidarity of being female.

Until the ideology of this country changes, and both men and women act differently nothing will change. Women can grow stronger and more empowered, yes. But until men realize that they do not own the right to grab and enjoy and satisfy their lusts at any whim on the street, metro, auto, or bus…nothing will change. And women, yes, women (and men), we must use our voices. And somehow begin believing the mantra at Sari Bari: our lives have so much value…

I wonder, in this city of sexual oppression and rampant lust how differently it is from anywhere else in the world. It may look different but the root, the poisonous results, still come out the same. Trauma. Anger. Fear. Division of what was meant to be beautiful relationship between male and female.

Why am I writing this?

Because I needed to share the reality.

It is not just my experience. It is my community’s. It is an entire population’s. And I am aching to know how to bring change to it.

I believe in more than equal rights of women, though that is part of it. Equality is more than equal pay, equal vote, equal opportunity. A law can force those things into existence.

But the change of heart, the acknowledgement of humanity and equal respect is what I’m advocating.

I still do not know how such change comes about. Except for voices like Sari Bari’s and Freeset’s, the chorus of women and men throughout the world who sing against being treated this way. I don’t believe it comes through anger. Violence for violence cannot solve a problem like this.

Perhaps its starts within our own hearts.

Believing we carry value. Believing others possess the same.

Perhaps it comes through prayer, though it doesn’t seem that God promises to keep us safe from such abuse, just that He is present, even in the suffering…at least in my experience…and perhaps that is enough…

I admit, I don’t know…

But I’ll give my life to figuring out how to affect change.

And bringing as many along with me as I can.

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Stories.

stories.

i’ve always loved a good one. i remember sitting on my bedroom floor listening to my mom read me “Where the Red Fern Grows” before i could read myself…both of us crying when they had to bury the doggies…(sorry, yes, the dogs die…)

But it hasn’t stopped with plot lines and imagined characters. The people in my life, those woven into my own story…I love sharing their memories, windows into a secret inner life, experiences, ideas, dreams, pain.  Hearing them moves and changes me, reminds me of the inward kingdoms that we each inhabit and rule. Listening reminds me how connected we all are.

For the past few months i’ve been gifted countless invitations to the homes of our Sari Bari ladies…they have used their precious resources, money and time, to love me.  And in the space of an afternoon I have received more gifts than would be adequate to try voicing.  I have lounged on beds, and floors, and kitchen doorways watching my friends grind garlic and chilis and seeds into cooking paste.

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I have reaped the rice belly benefit of India’s love language, force feeding…and in that space I have heard stories untold. Accounts of childhoods…or lack thereof…weddings and disappointments. Dreams and unanswered prayers. The gift of knowing one another’s story is about connecting, not about power or trying to fix someone. It is about caring enough to choose presence, validation comes in hearing someone, and both people can receive…

Eight year olds should not have to work for their food.  And little girls should not be married at 14.  Husbands should not leave their wives for younger versions.  And kids should not have to bury both parents by the age of 12. But suffering is only part of the story. The thoughts, the process, the dreams…they are there too, side by side. And my favorite part, is when we arrive at where they are today…the person they have become.

The people we have become, because of our stories.  Gifts to one another, woven together.

As i told the Sari Bari women two weeks ago…In 2004 when I set foot on Indian soil, I knew none of their names, they were living their lives only two metro stops away, and yet I knew none of that then. While I was hand pumping my water from the corner pump in Nehru Colony, they were doing the same just 15 minutes away…neither of us with even the seed of a dream that one day we’d both end up at Sari Bari discovering Freedom. I love looking back, and seeing how our colors run together.  I love watching a good story unfold.

Today I am thankful. For the chance to look back. For the chance to know and be known, by many who don’t even speak my same language. To be trusted by women whose trust should be buried and gone by now.  I am thankful to be called to listen.

Perhaps those days of hearing my mom read borrowed realities from the library were a great preparation for other far off settings…other bedroom floors…other tears, crying and embracing and even celebrating the things that we bury…Image