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Freedom. Freedom of religion. Freedom of conscience. Freedom of choices. Freedom to be whatever it is you want to be.
I realize that everything I understand about the world is seen through my American lens, so it’s hard not to be biased – to come into situations and cultures and countries and see them for what they actually are, and not just what I perceive them to be. The idea of freedom is ingrained in us Americans from the time we are old enough to walk. We memorize the Pledge of Allegiance, which ends with the phrase, “Liberty and justice for all.” We thank the troops for fighting for our freedom. Freedom of speech is the very first amendment of our constitution. America is synonymous with freedom. We are the leader of the “free world.”
So it’s hard for us, even those of us who didn’t necessarily come from a lot of money or privilege, to understand what it means to not be free. Opportunities abound in our country, and while it is more difficult for some than others (see my blogs from New York City) there is no doubt that we live in a culture that values and respects and fights for freedom.
Not so in India.
For those in low castes, they are bound to exist in the cage of a choiceless existence. If you are born into the Barhai caste, you’re likely going to be a carpenter. If you’re from the Nai caste, you’ll be a barber. If you’re a Bhotia, you’re a shepherd. And if you’re from the Bedia caste – and you’re a woman – you’ll be a sex worker.
Last week, I, along with Truthseekers International, were invited to attend and speak at an event held in a rural town about five hours south of New Delhi. The event was held on the holiday of Shivaratri, which is a holiday in the Hindu world celebrating the marriage of Lord Shiva and the goddess Parvati.
For those of you who are not familiar with Hindu gods, Shiva is known as the Destroyer, although he takes many forms. One of his forms is that of “Nataraja,” which is a depiction of Shiva as “the cosmic dancer who performs his divine dance to destroy a weary universe to make preparations for the god Brahma to start the process of creation.” I don’t know if you’re supposed to have favorite or least favorite Hindu god, but Shiva is definitely my least favorite. He freaks me out. He’s a god who demands to be appeased, lest he destroy the world in his anger.
So this event was specifically organized to honor this god of destruction. And because of its geographical location, the attendees were mainly men from a nomadic tribe known as the Ardh Nomad caste and the Bedia caste of women sex workers.
As I sat on the stage with Pam Sardar, co-founder of TSI, looking into the sea of Indian faces, I whispered to her, “Do you ever wonder what life decisions you made that got you to this place?” How is it that I find myself having the opportunity to speak the name Yeshua to hundreds of people who worship this god whose aim it is to destroy the earth? And I come back to this: in large part, it’s because of the freedom I had, growing up in America, to be treated as an equal, and to have the same opportunities as men to study, work, and chase my dreams. No one tried to push me down because I was a girl. No one ever forced me to do anything I didn’t want to do. I had the freedom to choose my major, pursue a graduate degree, and apply for any job I desired.
So as I looked into the faces of young girls – innocents – my heart broke for the absence of freedom, the bleak existence, the black hole of stolen opportunities. And this is all because they were born into a caste that determined who they would be before they breathed their first breath.
I was called up to the podium and I began to share with them about their dignity and self-worth. I wanted to communicate – heart to heart – that while systems may be in place that keep them down, and they may never have the opportunity to be in any profession other than the one they are currently in, it doesn’t diminish the fact that they have dignity, they are created in the image of a beautiful God, and they are worthy of unconditional love. Nothing they can do can stand between them and that reality. There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still. There is no wound so crushing that the love of Yeshua cannot heal.
Present at the event were two fairly prominent guests, one being the state president of the Bhartiya Janta Party, Nad Kumar Chauhan. The BJP is the largest political party in India, and also the party of Prime Minister Modi. When Pam, TSI co-founder, went to the podium and started speaking about the lack of dignity for women and poor laborers in India, Mr. Chauhan visibly bristled.
The opposition toward us present in that place was undeniable, but the people in the crowd were hungry for the truth we had to share. I thought to myself, Who knows what the adults think about what we have to say today…but there are children here who have perhaps never heard anyone tell them they are worthy of love.
If you’re reading this blog right now, it’s likely that you’re sitting in a place where you’re surrounded by freedom, opportunity, material wealth (it may not seem like much but it’s probably more than most of the world), and hope.
I challenge you to let this penetrate your heart. There are people half a world away who will never know those things, the joy of that kind of freedom. Women in the Bedia caste have been robbed of their choices and are raped for money every day. It seems hard to believe as I sit here in this warm house with my garden view that there is a community only a few hundred miles away where that is accepted and even expected. How much more difficult is it for us in the West, thousands of miles away, to wrap our minds around that kind of systemic injustice?
As we debriefed after the event, a better question wasn’t so much how I got there, but how did Truthseekers, a blatantly Christian organization, get invited as honored guests to a Hindu celebration honoring the god of destruction? It’s nothing short of a miracle. But that is exactly the kind of influence that Truthseekers has – influencing politics and religion and culture in revolutionary ways. And as it so happens, we got reports the following day of how the men and women in attendance (but certainly not the other high-profile guests) loved the message of hope that we brought.
We can’t be present in every single fight against every single injustice of the world. Nor should we be, nor are we called to be. At the same time, we can allow ourselves to be aware of the issues and not shield ourselves from them or ignore them. There are people faithfully attacking the wickedness of the world system, on the ground, and they are working at it tirelessly, day and night. There is a great need here in India for resources – time, labor, and money. Truthseekers is in the trenches of the fight and is eagerly seeking others who will partner with them, both prayerfully and financially. I have joined them. Will you?
Until next time,
About the Author: Sarah is a journalism fellow with World Next Door. She has her undergraduate degree in Business Communication from Azusa Pacific University in Southern California and is currently working on her Masters degree in Organizational Leadership. Sarah recently finished a two and a half year assignment working for an anti-trafficking NGO in Kathmandu, Nepal, where she had the opportunity to mentor and lead college students in ministry abroad. She is mildly obsessed with Jeopardy, coffee, running, and the Atlanta Falcons.