SAME AGE, DIFFERENT LIVES

During our last visit to India, we observed our partner organization's new projects and spent time with their staff. They took us on a long walk through one of slums where we met community advocates and learned about families who resided there. One of the first places we stopped was a little home across from their school. As we walked through the doorway, we entered into a small single room house with a dirt floor. It had no furniture, no bathroom or kitchen - it was simply a small little home with four walls made of pieces of tin. 

They introduced us to the woman who lived there. She shared this small space with her husband and three sons. They told us that they had helped this family move off the streets and into this little place in the slum. Her husband was unable to work due to some health conditions, but we quickly learned that there was a lot more to the story. 

She sat across from me on the ground. A mother of three boys, she's been married for 13 years. Her oldest son is 11, her middle son is 6, and her youngest son is 4. They explained to us that she was originally from a village in a different part of the country. She and her husband had been transient throughout their marriage. They lived in train stations and on the streets, working as day laborers. Her husband is an alcoholic and very abusive towards her and their children. He wasn't present during our visit, but I could see the pain in her eyes as she talked about him and the things she has endured. 

Her boys were handsome little guys. The oldest has never been to school because of their lifestyle and lack of money. The younger two are enrolled in the school our partner organization has in their slum. She is currently a teaching intern and will become a teacher for the 2-4 year olds over the next 3 years after proper training and a certification course. 

As I looked around at the tin walls, mats on the ground, and barren space, I couldn't help but feel so heavy hearted for her. Knowing that she is facing abuse, the breadwinner, and responsible for all chores and raising her boys, she has a lot on her plate with no support. I tried to encourage her as best as I could. I told her how proud I was of her for taking this opportunity with our partner and having her younger two in school. I told her to stay strong and thanked her for allowing us to spend time in her home. But as we were preparing to leave, I had one last question for her. It's as if I instinctually knew the answer, but needed to hear her say it. 

"If you don't mind me asking, how old are you?" 

She smiled and said, "29." 

I exclaimed, "me too!" We smiled at each other and held onto this thing that we shared. 

I think about her almost daily. I've not been able to shake her or her story from my mind. We are the same age, but have lived completely different lives. I come from a loving family who was able to meet my needs, provide me with stability, and give me higher education. She was married at 16 and has lived a life of homelessness, abuse, and extreme poverty.

Despite our differences, for a split second, I could feel our similarities. Two young women with potential and possibilities in front of us. For her that means becoming a teacher and finding stability for the first time. For me that means furthering my nonprofit and going deeper into the unknowns of loving and restoring this hurting world. Either way, we're just two 29 year old women trying to make our way through this life. We couldn't be more different, but we also couldn't be more alike. 

2018 PASSION PROJECT

Over the last few years, I've had the privilege of meeting people all over this beautiful world and hearing their stories. Meeting new people, sitting in their homes, sharing a meal or cup of tea together, this has changed me. It's made me more compassionate, more empathetic, and more understanding. This is not a privilege that I take lightly and one that I want to steward well. I'm constantly surrounded by people and stories that inspire me and transform my heart.

As I look at our divided world, I can't help but think that if more people could hear the stories and experience breaking bread with people who are completely different than them, it would change the world as we know it. I've wanted to capture and share the stories of people that I'm meeting and the cultures I'm immersed in for the last couple years. 2018 feels like the year to do it.

Images by Caryn Noel

Images by Caryn Noel

I might be an idealist, but I hope that this small gesture of sharing stories will change our hearts and minds, challenge stereotypes, and ultimately restore identity and dignity to those who are desperately misunderstood. We don't have to give in to the "us vs them" mentality. We don't have to live divided, fearful, and judgemental. No, we can live in a world where we invite, accept, and relish in our differences. This is how we fight against division and move towards unity. It's how we fight against hate and move towards true, unrelenting love for others.

This is a passion project for me; something that compliments what I'm already doing. I'm praying for courage to share with my whole heart what I'm learning and experiencing from the incredible people that God has placed all over the world. I hope you enjoy the stories that will come from this little passion project of mine and pray it changes you like it will me. 

SANAM'S STORY

I had the pleasure of talking to Sanam on one of my recent visits to India. He is the epitome of joy and fully committed to his daughters, which he serves wholeheartedly. I wish there were more Sanam's in the world. Here's his story:

 

When hired in 2011 as a part-time tuition teacher, Sanam had no idea the ways God would use him in this ministry. In 2013, he was promoted to full-time academic coordinator and father figure in the home. Over time, his name has changed too – from Sanam Sir to Dad. 

When I talked with Sanam about his role as a father figure, his face lit up. He said, “I only come for the girls.” There is no other motivating factor beyond his love and the heart he has for the girls and this ministry. He said he doesn’t feel like an academic coordinator. Instead, his main role is being “dad” to a house full of girls. 

From taking care of school payments, attending parent-teacher meetings, ensuring uniforms and supplies are maintained, to combing hair, Sanam has been fully integrated into the family. He loves the girls the same way he loves his own son, who affectionately refers to the girls as his “didis” or older sisters. 

For Sanam, this isn’t just a job. He has brought his own family into the ministry with him. His wife and son are part of the family too. They love the girls, visit them frequently, and pray for them daily. It’s their support that allows Sanam to be so devoted to his large family. 

One indicator of how deep his relationship with the girls has grown over the years is the fact they call him “daddy” outside the home. When they see him at school, it’s the name they call him and the teachers and staff know which girls belong to him. He advocates on their behalf, ensuring their educational needs are met and keeps them engaged with daily activities to aid in their development. 

He contributes his parenting success to the ongoing education and support that is provided, which teaches him and the rest of the staff about parenting and child development. He has successfully incorporated the things he has learned into the home where the girls reside and at home with his own son as well. For Sanam, being a good parent to his children is of upmost importance to him. 

In his words, “I praise God for the ways He is working marvelously here.” Just like any proud father, his heart swells with affection and a smile fills his face as he talks about his daughters. He wants what’s best for them and he wants to be prepared for the years to come. He jokingly asked, “Do you have any extra guidance on parenting teenagers?” 

A house full of teenage daughters is on the horizon, but Sanam is joyfully up for the challenge because after all, he is their dad. And a great one at that!

AMSTERDAM RLD

She was on the second floor, not one of the lucky ones on the street-level. I could see smudges on the window left behind from her attempts to capture the attention of men below. I could hear her knocking on the glass. I could see her dancing in the window. But I couldn’t see her eyes because she wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I stood and watched this particular woman for quite some time. I think there was something about the fact she wasn’t down with the others. She was a little more isolated and the men didn’t seem to respond to her attempts to lure them upstairs. She intrigued me because she had to work harder than the rest.

She was like hundreds of other women we saw. They were provocatively posed behind glass doors. Some looking more interested in this whole gig than others, but all working hard to get a client.

Thousands of men were carelessly “window shopping” for a woman to pleasure them. There were men of all ages, shapes, sizes, and races. You could tell the majority were nervous, slightly unsure, but ready to give it a whirl as soon as they found the perfect woman.

Live porn shows, sex shops, “coffee shops” (aka weed cafes), bars, and strip clubs - everything imaginable lined these streets. Everything one would need to fill a desire or to make he or she brave enough to act on it was in sight.

And then there were the churches.

Nestled in the heart of the red light district, closed. Now a tourist attraction or some sort of business, but the beautiful, old buildings were in sight and a reminder of what once was. These beautiful, old buildings are in the women’s direct line of sight. It’s what they see when they look out their glass doors – a closed church. A beautiful, old building representing what once was.

I want to know where the people went? Where did the church go? Why did they abandon an area like this?

As we walked through the narrow streets, I could only utter “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” for the longest time. These women looked like my friends and people I know, which was a little shocking. As we walked by and time passed, I began to find the words to speak to God. I also took my hand and ran it across their doors because even if they wouldn’t look at me, I wanted them to know I saw them.

They were so beautiful and I wanted nothing more than to cup their face in my hands and tell them how much they’re worth. I wanted to speak life and value over their hearts and their souls. I knew I couldn’t so I asked God to do that as we walked by. I don’t know their stories. I’m not sure if they are there by force or by choice, but I know one thing: they were created for more.  

These women of the night were created to be women of The Light.

I’d love to go back to this quaint little city where beauty abounds and the darkness overshadows. I know Jesus is there. He’s working. He’s moving. He’s redeeming. He’s restoring. I want to partner with Him in it all.  

I can’t get this city off my heart. I can’t get these beautiful women out of my mind - especially the one on the second floor who was working harder than the rest. So, I’m praying and waiting with a longing heart and curious mind, asking God to give me direction and open doors to be involved. 

They need to know how valuable they are. They have to know.