Friday, January 4, 2013


 Alone in Delhi,  I have a few hours to write, reminisce and process before I jump on a plane and head home to my four kids and Ooty.  Greg had to leave early to join our rescue team in Nagpur where they will do a raid that will rescue two girls, one just thirteen years old.

The last time I was in Delhi I was 23, single, but engaged and on my way to Uzbekistan, where Greg was volunteering for the Peace Corps. All I remember of the time was a frantic dash to the Aeroflot office to buy a ticket, and then waiting for 6 hours on the Delhi runway on board an old plane that desperately needed repair. Ancient history. The plane finally worked, Greg and I married, had 4 kids, and now live in India. A day trip to Delhi for meetings with Bright Hope International to see how we could partner to rescue and rehabilitate women from brothels 19 years later, well, yes we've moved on. We are doing what we always dreamed about.

Is it a happy story? Possibly idyllic? Does God protect from harm? Are girl's lives really changed? Does what we do matter, or are we just making ourselves feel better in a world gone wrong?

Yes would be the easy answer. The truth is something harder, something more gutting then sensational, more agonizing than perfect.

Bright Hope must have splurged on us, because Greg and I found ourselves in a lovely hotel, right in the dead center of Delhi, Connaught Place. What a perfect city experience, big uniform buildings set in circles, one inside the other with roads intersecting like spokes on a wheel. White pillars create an endless walking “porch” for people to walk safely.

But just to remind you that its still India, Connaught Place is in various states of upheaval and destruction.  The Hindustan Times noted, "Enter Connaught Place and you feel as if the area has been bombed, (Delhi's Circle of Mess,6 Sept 2012) Huge blocks of concrete and marble lie broken and cracked like a heaving crust in an apocalypse movie. Thick electric cables emerge, only partially buried in packed mounds of earth and rubble along the shoulders of the roads. Temporary metal bridges provide ways through and over the morass, deep trenches, bottomless pits and around every conceivable earth moving and digging machine.

You can only imagine how splendid it will be one day. When the marble is re-laid in the walk ways and pipes are connected once again. When stores have rebuilt their front steps.

The tearing up of what must have been serviceable if  not beautiful. The re-structuring of a place. The breaking of valuable stone, all for what? A better system? Something more efficient? Of greater use?

A moving backward in time, a creation of great chaos for something imagined, a future plan not yet realized?  And all around it, Delhi's traffic roars, its pavements swarm with goods and people, not deterred by the  re-structuring, or the hazards of life and limb, oblivious of the chaos. After all, life and work must go on.

I can't help but think of Freedom Firm. I think in terms of symbols and images these days. Of analogies. Freedom Firm's foundations are shaking. The facade is broken in places and disconnected, its beauty hardly visible under the ploughed mounds of debris. Much of what was good and valuable, along with the bad together is unearthed, broken and cast aside as the rubble in Delhi.

Thanks to some constructive criticism and the lessons of experience we are busy restructuring much of Freedom Firm's restoration program. Our dream was to provide a holistic solution to trafficked young women. That meant providing education, HIV medical care, psychiatric support, spiritual guidance, employment, counseling, horse therapy, housing, meals, and weekend activities.

Mangala and Nitish: therapy works exponentially
While we did it all to the best of our ability, we were always sort on staff, short on energy, and short on resources. No one had time to concentrate on one aspect of aftercare for long. There were always emergencies and crisis, resulting in staff burnout. The time had come to specialize, to choose what we do best instead of bleeding out in a hundred areas trying to do what no one organization (especially a tiny one) could do.

Perhaps even more concerning was that even the short eighteen month program we created seemed to foster dependence, inertia and a welfare mentality in the girls, in spite of the many methods we used to encourage responsibility and independence. The residential aftercare model, for us, seemed to undo the very resilience we were trying to foster. Now, we hope to discover that when girls live outside in the “real” world, and work for a sympathetic employer, she will become strong and healthy. Time will tell.

Pooja, making a gorgeous necklace of beads and leather
So, after 6 years of operation we have closed Roja, our residential home for the girls. Girls will now live independently in various local hostels like the YWCA. They will come to us everyday for a job.  I'll continue Leg Up, our horse therapy program, and after work they will come up for sessions and Saturdays with the disabled children.

For the first time in our short history, we have no girls. The nest is empty. It will fill again, but on a different premise. Our business, Ruhamah (a jewelry making workshop) is now what we offer girls. Employment. A chance to rebuild their lives based on a sound, reliable job.

The years of 24/7, 365 days a year of a residential aftercare home are over. A relief and a grief all at the same time. All that work, blood, tears, struggle. Laid gently, reverently aside. Here I honor the amazing women warriors and caregivers, volunteers and staff that poured their hearts and lives into loving the girls. Their sacrifices were not in vain.  

Kalpana, Priyanka and Mangala selling Ruhamah jewelry at
Christmas Fair at Hebron in December
Hopefully girls will rise to the challenge of living independently with a good job and loving supervisors to encourage them on their path to freedom. We are in the next phase of a great experiment. What does it take to rehabilitate a girl? I'll let you know when I find out. I believe the question will span my lifetime. Greg's and my commitment is to stay here, to not give up. To keep searching, trying, learning, asking.

God is calling all sorts of people into this work that we have been privileged to pioneer. I look forward to partnering with others like Bright Hope that have different skills, talents and passions but help to perfect the army of people needed to make a difference. 

In Delhi I met a group of ladies called to the work of inner healing of survivors, of the staff who care for survivors. Emotional, physical, psychological.  Freedom Firm has tried to do it all, and found we are too few. The work of anti sex-trafficking is like a great puzzle with Freedom Firm only providing a small corner. I'd love to see what God sees, all the rest of the pieces and exactly how they fit together.

The Freedom Firm family, playing soccer bowling at
our annual Christmas party.
I am comforted that the great Designer and Architect has a plan. That in the reconstruction of Freedom Firm he will lay down a much greater beauty than was there before, greater efficiency and purity. The new structure will hold strong and sure for its purpose. The detours will no longer be necessary. The bridges over the glaring pits filled with slime and garbage will no longer be used. The holes will be filled in, the rubble buried and taken away. The walkways will be smooth again and clean, and well washed marble will emerge. The road to freedom for many girls will be made smooth, clear and easy to find and there will be beauty again.

I might be talking of heaven. Its possible.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Somewhere In Between

Tetons: America the Beautiful

Traveling 9,000 miles in five weeks through over thirty States in America had its challenges. We needed stamina for the 12 hour days in the car, and wisdom for the weighty decisions whether it should be McDonald's or Burger King for lunch, and clairvoyance to know if we would make it to the campground with enough light to cook dinner and set up the tent. Wondering when we would reach the next rest stop with Morgan jumping around the back seat in agony was of frequent amusement to all of us (except to him).

We learned caffeinated sugared soft drinks really aren't ok on long trips. We learned Greg is happier with a State map from every single of the 30 states we drove through. And we learned its better when I am driving and he is navigating!

We travelled the US as tourists, and as tourists, delighted in its beauty and grandeur. Starting with Washington DC with its monuments, museums and gorgeous architecture to moving west following Lewis and Clark's trail and the Westward expansion arch in St. Louis to Yellowstone with its wild and smoking geo thermal landscape, to the crashing of Niagara Falls we partook of history and national identity. Whether our kids eventually choose America as their home or not, they have glimpsed its scope and Greg's and my own roots.

My dad, taking granddaughters to the theatre
We didn't really travel all that way to sight see. That was just a great byproduct of a much more compelling desire, to reconnect with family. My parents and brother Andy live in Georgia, Greg's parents and brother's family in Washington state (thus the meeting point in Yellowstone Park), Greg's sister in Tennessee, my brother Jona in Kentucky and I have cousins, aunts and uncles in the Pennsylvania, upstate New York area. All those places, separated by hundreds of miles, and terrain as vastly changing as new continents, and all those people beckoned us to a to a wider experience than our previous furloughs.

Kavi's 17th and Morgan's 12th birthdays celebrated in Georgia
with my brother Andy and his family.  Niece Maddie pictured here.
A Freedom Firm board meeting in Pittsburgh meant we had the privilege of staying with cousins I hadn't seen for the last 20 years. We all have kids, some are young adults, some just toddlers. The pleasure of catching up, sharing our stories and seeing our shared DNA in each other's faces was pure joy.
Showing our kids that they are related to a larger family gives greater security and sense of belonging. My children will need that for their futures. They need to know they can belong in another world.

My mother and Morgan zooming around on ATVs
at a friends house on Lookout Mountain

Visiting a few colleges started us on the process Kavi's eventual departure from India, as this is her senior year, or St. 13 as Hebron calls it. We looked at private Christan colleges, big state colleges and smaller liberal arts universities. Where will she feel comfortable, connected, challenged and supported, with us 10,000 miles away? As a third culture kid we know there is a dislocation and search for identity that will be part of the process for her. Good to start probing, good to be exploring together, good to evaluate, and analyse the positives and negatives of each institution. Already Greg and I taste the bittersweet of this upcoming stage of parenting. Also the excitement.

And all this splits my heart. That I have roots in two places, India and America. That I have a foot in each world. (They really are not countries, they are worlds apart). The image in Ben Stampers's movie Horse and Rider, where the Indian woman in a sari is caught in the median of a busy street with traffic to heavy to cross.  I identify. When I am in India I do not want to go to America, and when I am in America, I do not want to go back to India.

I am used to these emotions after 12 years of my fractured existence. At first I thought it would get easier. I thought the sense of dislocation would fade. I thought my reluctance to bridge distances and cultures would disappear over time. And yet it has not.

I wrestled all night, as Jacob did with the Lord, before I regained courage and got on the plane with my family bound for India a week ago. Its the same every transcontinental trip I make. Its a sort of Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde moment for me. Shedding one part of my identity and gaining another (though hopefully minus the good and evil metamorphosis of that good book). Moving away from sister, cousin, brother, father, mother, and friend into a degree of relational isolation, more demands and expectations, and the life of the work we have chosen.

A few of our "girls" at the Ooty Botanical Garden display of
 the World Map
We recognize now the emotional drain of working with severely traumatized women, the toll it takes on our inner selves, our marriage, and our friendships.  I've watched Greg mirror some of my own agony as he  managed and developed the Aftercare program after I stepped away.   Stepping on that plane, we willingly walk back to the full knowledge that our well will run dry (figuratively and literally, as India has an officially failed monsoon), as we witness the unpredictable (and often incredibly sad) choices the rescued girls make.

We've been three weeks today. One of our girls in the “indepentdant living reintegration stage” stole a lot of money from the warden of the YWCA. The warden was in tears yesterday saying she had trusted our girl (I won't divulge her name), and had given her keys and invested in her, mentoring her, only to be betrayed.

I know that tune. I have tasted that bitter fruit. Those who give always expect something in return. Love, gratitude... honesty. But I read somewhere that real love is giving unconditionally. Not expecting anything in return. Can she, can I, love with such an open hand? I want to tell her that this act of betrayal is not personal. It comes from  a life broken early and broken painfully.

Today, Greg is in the early stages of deciding on consequences and the repercussions of our girl. He covered her debt so the warden doesn't lose her job. Our girl will no doubt lose her place at the Y and have to live in another hostel. She will have to pay back the money, although, most likely at this stage, she will run. It has happened before, it will happen again. Often there is no obvious benefit of pouring ourselves into the girls God sends us. But I believe the “good” is in the act of giving. Full stop. There is no pay back from these girls. Simply gifts given with no return. And that's ok, if we take ourselves out of the equation.

So, when I stepped on the plane bound for India, I knew what we were heading back to.  I struggled in dread of our calling for a moment. I fought inwardly to gain the perspective I needed to in order to love with an open hand. I steeled myself for the future.

We landed in Bangalore India, and my kids started giggling in a way I hadn't heard for two months since leaving. They breathed deep and swore they liked what they smelled. Morgan wanted to pull over immediately for onion dosa and idly (South Indian breakfast). As we drove the eight hours up to Ooty, we left the heat, dust and noise.  The beautiful Nilgiri mountains came into view. We caught glimpses of  elephants ranging in the National park as we drove through.  The scent of jasmine, tea and eucalyptus filled the car and we were home again.

California Poppies welcoming us home in my Ooty garden

We walked through the woods to our house in the rainy dark with no flashlight, singing at the top of our voices to scare the panthers and wild bison. Our seven month old labs went insane from excitement and we hear the horses whinnying through the darkness, a welcome. Suddenly America fades in my mind and I am  here, embracing all of it and I realize I've done it again. I've crossed the great divide of my heart to be fully present in this land, and I have been given grace to live this life, and have grace to pass on.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Enough Water

I recently turned forty-two.  Most of my birthdays are marked by yearly traditions: amazing breakfasts in bed, dinner or a motorcycle ride with Greg, and maybe a meal shared with friends.  This birthday, however, few traditions applied since our annual Avalanche Camp was in full swing.

Instead of breakfast in bed, I awoke cramped and sore and crawled over the slumbering bodies of my tent mates and out into the early dawn of a new day.  Avalanche camp, nestled next to a resevoir an hour and half from Ooty, was quiet and serene.  Over thirty-five rescued girls and another 20 staff were scattered in various tents on the hill side.  A few early risers started their hot water bucket baths and sounds of splashing and quiet whispers punctuated the silence. 

I wandered away from camp, down to the cracked dry earth and the shrunken stream of water, all that was left of the lake after 3 months of the seasonal drought.  Its a regular cycle; the lakes fill in January from the 6 months of monsoon rains, and then slowly are depleated by thirsty Ooty, and fill again in June when the rains return. 

Enough water remains for kyaking, enough water to splash in after repelling down the cliff into the pool below, enough water for washing feet.

Here I was, at Avalanche, for the 6th year running, staying with girls, many of whom Freedom Firm had rescued, most whom I would never see again.  A moment in time, a brief window into their world.  A pause in their stories. A place to be a child again.  To forget the horrors of the past.

Avalanche.  The beauty of the mountains surrounding us speak of a good God.  Gut wrenching stories spoken around campfires end in applause as we cheer each other through pain.  And the ultimate culmination of the camp?   A couple of servant men, good men, washing their feet in a ceremony echoing Christ washing the disciples' feet.

That's the image branded in my mind. Girls, stripping off their shoes and socks in a hurry and slipping and sliding on rocks to be the next in line. Waiting as they lifted their feet in expectation.   The urgency of their movement.  Tears streaming down faces, unashamed.   God's Spirit, palapable and near, moving over the pool of water, touching, healing, cleansing.

But I can't stay in that place of intense emotion, where my heart feel split in too.  I can't hold on, don't want to hold on to the one story I will remember.  A girl approached me before the foot washing.
"Didi (sister), I get so angry when we sing and pray to God."
 "Why," I asked.
 I thought I had heard every story under the sun and was immune to shock.  I was wrong.

Her mother was very religious, and when her daughter was eight years old , they travelled to Hindu shrines to worship and pray.  As part of the rituals, priests violated her at every temple.  "The gods have hurt me, didi, the priests hurt me.  Why should I want to worship again?"

Christian pastors wound and maim too.  How do I tell her there is a loving God?  A God who does not take, only gives?  The one God who does not force our worship.  The God of free choice.

Sunayana, our camp leader, and I spoke long and earnestly to the girl.  Her face cleared as we walked toward the pool.  She rushed forward with the others for her feet to be washed by men who represented the sacrificial God.  Something pure and undefiled was given that day.  For once. One moment in time.  By men.  Mere falible humans. Did she catch a glimps of the loving God? Will she be betrayed again?
But who can carry these questions for long?  I cannot stay here.

 Avalanche ended, and I woke up the next morning to an omelett, strawberrys and cream, my own soft bed, Greg and my sweet innocent ones surrounding me, comforting me, lavishing me with thier cards and little gifts and words of love.  My heart wrenches back into place.  Another life comes into focus again, the seesaw balances.  The girl and her story receed.  The moment at the pool of water fades.  I can breath again.

Greg and I headed off that weekend to Bangalore to celebrate my birthday.  I told Greg I wanted a gift that committs me to write.  A desk.  Now its the desk's job to pin me down.  I will have to name her, since I have already personified her.  A little desk, please, to fit into the bay window of the bedroom, where I can look out on the garden, the mountains and write.  A place to remember.  A place to will the mind to look again.

So once in Bangalore, Commercial Market, we started asking for old furniture shops.  I knew the nice shops were expensive, and I am lover of garage sales and deals, so we wound our way through crowded streets into the Muslim section of the market.  A completely different world.  Mosques on every corner, goats the size of Shetland ponies tied to shop corners, sizzling mutton shiskababs on skewers, and the best yogurt lassies (a drink) I have ever tasted.  Rats scuttled everywhere in the bright sunshine, unafraid. 
 a new born Rajasthani kid, not a dog

Junk shops emerged.  Shop after shop of broken plywood furniture, rusty skeletons of beds and metal tables, old filing cupboards and chairs all tossed in high mountains.  I was in heaven.  Somewhere, I was sure, in all of this, was my desk.  I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Greg was engaged, a good sign.  Both in high humor, streaming with sweat and dust, we started pushing our way through tiny passages in the junk. 

Right in the middle of the first shop, like a jewel among rubble, we spotted a teak wood old-fashioned cupboard, (not a desk).   And the price.  It was cheap.  Like they didn't know its worth.  Back in Ooty it would have cost a bomb.

By the end of the afternoon we were proud owners of a host of "finds." The jewel- like cupboard, an old table, a chair, a mechanical art/drafting table (for Kavi) a teak wood bed (for Abbi ) But no desk.  The ones we found were either too broken, too masculine, or, horrors of horrors had a laminate top. 

Independent of each other, we spied an old sewing machine table.  The ones here in India have a cast iron wheel and pedal, as even today most tailors don't use electric machines.  Coaxing a shop owner to remove the sewing machine, we bought the table.  We will put on a desk top later (when Greg gets back from the latest rescue in Nagpur).

That night we dined on buffalo wings and french fries. For dessert we went to the Hard Rock Cafe which rents space from the Bible Society of India.  We couldn't hear each other at all, the music pulsed through our skin, our stomachs.  Even the waiters had to use sign language.  We grinned like idiots and ate our cheese cake and in my heart I tried to reconcile my life of hunting for second hand furniture in the underbelly of Bangalore, and the luxury of good food and music, and the world of pain glimpsed at Avalanche.  Did all this happen just a day apart?  Really?  Can one person contain it all?

The next day Greg flew to Nagpur and I drove back the eight hours to Ooty, my minivan piled high with furniture, and somehow it reminded me of Grapes of Wrath and the jalopy full of old furniture, and I had high adventures getting home, but that must be saved for another blog.

My own personal gift to myself this year was made possible by two people.  My mother bought the harness, and Laura, our Leg Up volunteer left Ooty at 10 am and returned at 2am with a white and apple green cart.  It is a way to use the ponies in a different capacity, it adds options to our horse therapy, and very small ponies like Herc will be used much more often.  Hercules (the pony) seems to like it as much as I do.

 To see more photos of the horses visit

So last but not least on the list of profound and mundane things of my birthday, after two years of searching in the archives of Calcutta for proof of my birth in Calcutta, multiple paper swaps with the Indian government, enormous frustration for my tenacious husband (he is balder now), hiring a lawyer, and finally the invaluable help of Indian friends, I am now a proud OCI.  That stands for "Oversees Citizen of India." 

It means I have a life-time right to be here.  No more visas for me.  It means my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren can choose to live here.  It means the property we bought is safe, since I cannot be denied access to this country.  In a way, it means I belong. 

And so, God surprises me once again.  A sense of rootedness washes over me this 42nd birthday, and I stand in awe of sovereignty, timing and eternity.  I also know I am not bound by fate, but have the gift of free choice and I chose to be here.

 In the midst of all that is my life, the stories of the girls run like a stream, a stream of gravity, sadness and great loss that continue to haunt my dreams, even as I experience the privilege of sharing life with a  few of the girls we rescue.

I am deeply grateful for the punctuations, the pauses, the surprises:  a camp in the woods, just for fun, the pony and cart, hunting desks with my husband (who humors me), Hard rock cafe and my children's hand-made cards of abiding affection,OCI, which all weave together, inseperable, as gifts from a good God as I walk down the center of the stream. As the spring rains have suddenly burst forth filling our parched mountains with lush growth,  I am grateful for enough water.