When I lived in Africa I loved to fix broken things, to build with my hands.
The long equatorial days were filled with unanswerable questions: numbing poverty, spiritual vacuums, legacies of suffering, problems that demanded addressing yet rejected easy answers or clear-cut solutions.
And in the shadow of my inability to fix broken people and their broken land, I found solace in fixing broken bicycles and boreholes.
It was easier, I found, to wield a welder’s torch and build something new and good and useful out of scraps of steel, than to wield economic theories and sound biblical counsel to build something new out of broken people.
And there was comfort in that sense of completion.
This city is worlds away from those African days of dust, but there are still broken people in a broken world that rejects quick fixes or easy answers, yet demands an attempt at healing.
Our small piece of the larger picture involves pouring our efforts and prayers and lives into the lives of seven women who the world has turned its back on.
I want for the healing to be instantaneous, the transformation to be complete and exponential. But people and cities and institutions and generational legacies of suffering and exploitation take more than a welding torch and a screwdriver to patch together.
The weeks have been long, but we’re beginning to settle into a rhythm.
Devotions. Songs. Prayer. Group therapy. Math. Cha. English. Baking. Lunch.
We add short modules teaching practical life skills. G teaches a class on budgeting. I take a morning session for first aid instruction.
Tomorrow I will teach a basic self-defense module.
The shipment of equipment from China is delayed. The café renovations are hitting obstacles. We adapt. We improvise. We make mistakes often, sleep little, and love much.
Lessons. Plans. Coffee to make it through the mornings, noons, and long nights.
Monday to Friday. The schedule and repetition lend a sense of normalcy and routine to a life that is far from normal and far from routine. And then something jars us out of it—
Brief breakdowns and tears, bruises, steely resolve juxtaposed with frustrating apathy, tiny chapters of unimaginable histories.
Widowed when still a child.
Her first child at age 12.
Her junkie husband making trouble.
Her name tattooed on her wrist like a brand from Dachau. If she winds up dead in an alley someone can at least read her name.
And then we remember the high stakes. We remember that the Monday to Friday routine that six seconds ago seemed almost normal, is, in fact, a daily battle.
Teaching in a foreign language, learning grace in the face of hopelessness, constantly adapting, exercising compassion, crying out to God for wisdom and strength.
They crack at the seams, these children of God, literally in some cases. Life in the brothels takes its toll physically, mentally, and spiritually.
The women from “the Lines” age more quickly than others. Several of our women in their 30’s look like they could be grandmothers. Several are.
There’s a line from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables that I go back to time and time again:
“His humble soul loved; that was all…. That he raised his prayer to a superhuman aspiration, is probable; but one can no more pray too much than love too much… He inclined towards the distressed and the repentant. The universe appeared to him like a vast disease; he perceived suffering everywhere, and, without essaying to solve the enigma, he endeavored to staunch the wound.”
We try to understand. We try to hold the pieces together. We try to empower them and tell them that they are strong. That they are worth something. We do our damndest and lean heavy on God’s helping hands.
And we hang on to the glimmers of progress and hope and redemption that we are granted day by day.
The light in her eyes when the empowerment of a new English phrase clicks.
The gears of their minds whirring to solidify the steps in a recipe.
The soaring laughter that transcends language barriers that fills the rooms.
In the streets flatbed trucks and carts carry 10-foot idols of plaster-and-paint gods with blood red eyes and six hands holding severed human heads, and the people dance and beat drums and cry before them hoping, just hoping, that if they make enough noise their gods of death will hear them and grant their requests.
In these rooms tears fall as these children of God hear for the first time of a suffering savior, a God who cares for the poor and the downtrodden and hears their faintest whispers.
The bakery’s name has been changed and the author’s identity kept anonymous for security reasons.
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