In late November, I was blessed with the opportunity to go on a week-long mission trip to Mumbai.
The trip was part of Redeemer Presbyterian’s short-term missions program, which coordinates dozens of trips each year to assist and serve international nonprofits and NGOs in various capacities. Thanks to the generous support of family and friends who contributed financially and prayerfully to the cause, I was able to embark on this eye-opening journey into the heart of India.
Words can never adequately describe the full experience, but I attempted to share some highlights and takeaways. The following is adapted from an email I sent to supporters shortly after the trip:
With open hearts and minds, the Mumbai mission team traveled into the heart of India for Redeemer’s 4th mission trip centering on human and sex trafficking issues.
Our team of 13 doubled down on efforts to bring light to the victims of sex trafficking through spiritual, educational, and artistic activities. This was made possible thanks to a blossoming partnership with 2 partner organizations on the ground: International Justice Mission, and another organization (whose name must remain hidden for security purposes).
Our team split time between two locations: 3 days in Mumbai, and 4 days at a school/shelter in Badlapur (a small town about an hour outside of Mumbai).
Below is a day-by-day summary of how our time and dollars were spent.
Day 1: Context
We started our trip in the Red Light District of Kamathipura, Mumbai, arguably the world’s largest hub for sex trafficking (it is reported that 40% of the world’s human slaves live in India).
It’s an ironic truth that within the sprawling confines of Mumbai, there’s a booming industry – one that runs counter to the city’s moniker, “City of Dreams” – where thousands of women are stripped of their dreams through violence.
After worshipping at the Red Light District Church alongside women (some of whom still work in the brothels), we drove through the Red Light District’s noisy and winding roads. Though we were shielded from view in a car, the scene was a harrowing glimpse of the reality that some 300,000 women experience daily in Mumbai.
Women stood wistfully on the streets, platform-heeled & sari-bedazzled, while men casually eyed ‘goods for consumption’; it was an image reminiscent of a meat market. Grotesque as it was, what we saw doesn’t come close to capturing the full situation. All-told, the Red Light District houses more than 1000 brothels, with most hidden from sight within the District’s dark alleys.
Days 2 – 5: Badlapur
We traveled to the ATC Village*, a recently-built educational facility an hour outside of Mumbai, where approximately 40 rescued children of women in prostitution receive a free, high-quality education.
Here we spent the next 4 days leading Bible Study, financial literacy classes, arts and crafts activities, and homework help. Most of the girls’ mothers are still enslaved or undergoing HIV/AIDS treatment. Despite their lack of parental figures, they were eager to learn: many speak fluent English and have dreams to attend university, have a career, and become financially independent.
At one of the shelters we visited, rescued women underwent job training and learned to make beautiful handmade quilts, jewelry, and handbags, with the ultimate goal of creating their own businesses.
To top it off, our Events team “made it rain” with sprinkles and glitter at each of the three facilities (including a shelter home for rescued women and their children as well as a dedicated home for HIV positive children). Dressed to the tee in fedoras, glowsticks, and fancy shades, the girls (and boys!) had a blast posing at our instant Polaroid Photo Booth.
Days 6 and 7: Mumbai Slums
If the first part of our trip was “service”, then our last two days were serious “education”.
On the final leg, we returned to Mumbai and served food to the homeless at a food mobile truck. We also met with International Justice Mission (IJM) to learn more about their unique 4-prong strategy to protect the poor from violence.
Not only does IJM conduct raids to rescue victims from sex trafficking, they actively work to change the system through prosecution of the perpetrators, legal advocacy, and policy-making. As of December 2015, they’ve trained 10,000 Indian police officers to more effectively enforce the law and swiftly bring perpetrators to justice!
Equally important is their rehabilitation work that restores current victims to their community through educational and health services. We were blessed with the opportunity to meet with a leader of one of these Mumbai outreach ministries, Pastor Guy. Guy is an inspiring and energetic soul with a heart for the poor.
He took us to a slum community where he ministers; there we met with a family who graciously welcomed us into their home and we then prayed over each other.
Thanks to the generosity of our donors, we were able to purchase a plentiful stock of groceries for the family, as well as a new motorcycle for Pastor Guy! We hope that these gifts can nourish the family’s health and facilitate ease and convenience for Pastor Guy’s work in the slums.
More than anything, this trip reinforced a nascent view of mine about simple grace and generosity. There were several moving moments, but one in particular stands out.
At an evening devotional with the girls, after prayer and worship, the group of 40 girls prayed over each of us. The fervor and depth of their murmurs were more heartfelt than anything I could ever muster! It hit me then: this belief that we came to “bless” was a misnomer, for along the way, I received more than I gave.
“Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.”
– 2 Corinthians 8
More importantly, I left Mumbai with hope that organizations like the ones we worked with are providing victims with opportunity to start new lives in a protected environment of love.
IJM provides a great overview of the human trafficking issue at large, if you’d like to learn more. While more healing is needed to restore the spirits of those affected by the scourge of human slavery, I am personally blessed by the “votes of confidence”: friends who listened to my doubts trusted counselors who nudged me to take this trip, as well as all who generously donated to the cause. Words never suffice, but thank you.
*Christian organizations like the ones we worked with, have recently been the target of hardline grassroots organizations who oppose spiritual freedom in India. A partner organization’s name and its facilities are hidden in this post to protect its identity.
It started with a simple suggestion.
When I was teaching in Italy two summers ago, one of my host Dads suggested that I check into a nunnery. Something told me this wasn’t a compliment. I didn’t think spending all day with 8-year old Italian children had made me that wild, but who knows. Then he clarified,
“I recommend it for everyone. Silence can be good. We all need to be alone sometimes.”
Those words stuck. Not so much the nunnery part, but being alone. Up to that point, solitude had been a bit of a foreign concept. In college, I was pretty social and regarded as an extrovert. That summer too, I was constantly surrounded by people: at camp with students during the day, at home with my host family at night, and at various destinations with camp counselors on my travels in between. My sole alone time was before going to bed or in the shower . He’s right, I thought. I could use some alone time.
Since then, I’ve held an odd fascination with isolation. I’d dream of going on my own “Eat Pray Love” sabbatical. I found myself leaving a lot of social functions early to be alone. I arranged my current living space so I could spend a lot of time with myself. I live with strangers who work long hours and are usually out of the apartment, so my space is my space and my time my time. It may sound strange, but I’m really comfortable with it. Spending nights holed in my room reading and writing, once uncommon for me, is now routine.
I still had never traveled alone. I tried several times that summer in Italy but somehow there was always something that got in the way (a last minute travel partner or cancelled trains)…I even ended up looking into nunneries but they were quite pricey and I couldn’t communicate with the nuns on the phone.
Then, two weekends ago, a $89 round-trip Amtrak deal to Montreal floated into my inbox. My first inclination was to share it with friends in New York to see if they wanted to join me on an adventure. But then I realized that this was my chance! This could be my “eat pray love”. My itinerary. My trip.
Selfishness ignited. Alone I went. 2 nights and a full day in Montreal, 18 hours on the train (9 hours each way), a little over 40 hours in Montreal, for a grand total of 60 hours in isolation. I was so EXCITED.
Of course, it wasn’t complete isolation. There were people around. I talked. People talked to me (sometimes in French). It wasn’t a silent retreat. The majority of my exchanges revolved awkwardly around my standalone nature. This is a typical conversation when people saw me eating by myself:
“Are you waiting for someone?”
“Um, no. just me.”
“Are you visiting Montreal?”
“Yeah, for the weekend. Wanted to get away from New York.” (my way of signaling I wanted to end the conversation)
“Ohh, I see.”
At which point people would cautiously back away, assuming my boyfriend had just dumped me or I was a stressed out New Yorker on the brink of a meltdown, and that basically my life was in shambles. None of which was true, of course. Not entirely at least.
Most of the time, I kept to myself. The best part was the efficiency. By 4 pm Saturday, I had climbed Mont Royal, suffered near cardiac arrest waiting an hour in line for the city’s best poutin, embarrassed myself by bargaining at a Quebec designer’s fashion sale (note to self: it is not proper protocol to bargain outside of Asia), and consumed a half bottle of wine at a university cafe (judged by onlooking McGill University students studying for finals).
In drunken glory, I reached the peak of my trip when I trudged through two feet of snow to the top of Mont Royal, 200 meters above ground to the sight of a city blanketed in white. The awe and wonder lasted about 42 seconds. I didn’t have anyone to ooh and ah with. So, as I slid back down the slippery slope of the mountain, I wondered – ‘What next?” If I’d been traveling with others, we would be running behind schedule (which would have surely been frustrating) but that wasn’t the problem. This time, I didn’t know what to do. I had no one to share the beautiful sight with. What’s more is that it was nearing happy hour and I was far from happy. Somehow in a matter of minutes, I had fallen from my highest high at the top of Mont Royal to major depressive disorder.
I mustered the energy to enter a bar, order a beer, and make friends. Something told me the latter probably wouldn’t happen when I pulled out my phone and discovered free wi-fi. “No, Lynne, no.” I connected anyway. 15 minutes later, I was entering my 8th completed cycle of the vicious Facebook-Instagram-Twitter -Gmail wheel, which is where the anti-social part of this saga begins. Few things I can say with certainty, but I say with the surest certainty that scrolling through your social media feeds while surrounded by real living human flesh is the quickest way to feel like the loneliest person in the world. I left the bar a complete mute.
I returned to my hostel cold and tired. Earlier in the day, a McGill University student had recommended a vintage nightclub. “Don’t worry,” she said reassuringly, “You won’t feel awkward going by yourself. I’m sure you’ll make plenty of friends.” That I needed reassurance I could make friends was enough to convince me I didn’t want to go. By 11 pm, I was packed and ready to catch my train for the next day.
The train ride back was markedly different from the train there. Two days earlier, the excitement of my solo adventure flooded my thoughts as I undocked at Montreal’s Central Station. Anything was possible. I dared myself to make a new friend, meet a guy at a bar, or go crazy wild. None of that happened. Maybe that says I’m anti-social, a hermit incapable of connection. (Okay, calm down Lynne. You’re just introverted and shy.) But after 60 hours of little meaningful social contact, my feeling of loneliness had escalated to the point where I truly believed I had no friends in the world.
So, what can be gleaned from this adventure in isolation? That I’m an extremely melodramatic individual, prone to depression and marred by rejection? That solo trips yield delusions? Yes and yes. But more important than that, once I gained my senses back, I learned that we are not meant for isolation – – at least not for more than 24 hours. It’s not healthy. Also, social media does not make you more social. Shocking, I know. However, it does supplement many social activities nicely which is why I would never completely eliminate it if you want to stay connected to a larger group. It’s a tool to document memories and keep track of interactions. (Case in point: while writing this post, I turned to my Instagram photos and Foursquare check-ins as a way of remembering the chronology of events and places I went to on my trip. In just two weeks, I had forgotten a lot.)
My eagerness to be alone has taught me several things. One is that we are social beings, even the most introverted of us. We need external stimulation to prevent us from going insane. Another is that independence, while efficient and empowering, does not make the best memories. Yet I had to experience a taste of it, in the form of loneliness, to know how to appreciate others. For so long, I’ve selfishly believed my time alone was immensely more valuable than time spent with other people. I wanted efficiency in personal interaction and while listening to people talk, I wondered why they couldn’t get to the point. “What are you trying to tell me? Do we really have to stand here and make small talk?” I now see that people who are willing to allow me to enter their lives, be it through small talk or deeper exchange, are doing me a favor.
Of course it’s a matter of balance; it is never ideal to hear someone ramble on and on about nothing. And we all need our space and time. But when you can find that perfect volume where you can tune into other people’s stations without overpowering the own thoughts in your head – that’s a sweet spot.
To say that we each have our own story is only partially true. We do have our own story, but we are not always the main characters. Pilots need passengers to take off. Otherwise it’s just a flight and not an adventure.
Note to friends: this saga reveals a slightly maniacal side of me. I am aware that I have many dear friends (including some of you readers) and appreciate your love and concern if you were worried . I am fine (usually) 🙂