This essay is a product of the Collegeville Institute’s Emerging Writers Mentorship Program, a 13-month program for writers who address matters of faith in their work. Each participant has the opportunity to publish their work at Bearings Online. Click here to read other essays from the 2021-22 Emerging Writers Program cohort.
The humidity dampened our clothes as we walked through the morning rush of Kolkata. Small automobiles carrying disproportionately large numbers of people shared the road with pedestrians, bicycles, and motorbikes moving in unpredictable patterns. As we walked past flower carts, women waved bright orange and white blossoms at us, hoping we’d buy them, and a man flipped egg toast in a sizzling pan, its fragrant spices barely penetrating the exhaust smoke which had already settled in our lungs. Then, suddenly, after turning a corner, we entered a small building with a red door and everything was different.
I felt flustered at first by the contrast between the chaotic scene I’d just left and the building I stepped into. The clean air was refreshing, and my breathing returned to normal after our hurried pace. Women in colorful saris greeted us and guided us from the doorway into a large room. Although we were there for only that day—guests of the Christian nonprofit helping these survivors of sex trafficking reestablish their lives—they greeted us warmly and welcomed us in their space. Pulling out some floor pillows made from faded saris, they gestured for us to sit.
The warmth in their voices and ease of their gestures relaxed me. As the women settled beside us on the floor in a loose circle, they became still and quiet. A minute later, one of the women opened her mouth and sang a song of worship in a clear, strong voice, taking deep breaths between words as her body rocked back and forth. As a worship leader myself, I was awed by the way she led us. She was not the eldest in the room, yet she stood out by her confidence, her singing and breathing and rocking. Soon, the other women were rocking back and forth too, as they followed her in song. I felt grateful to be surrounded by such a beautiful chorus, fully engaged and lifting praises to the Lord. After the song ended, the leader pulled out her Bible with tattered pages, reading scripture in the same manner as she sang. She ended with a fervent prayer, the cadence of her voice rising and falling in intensity and volume, as the others moaned and prayed aloud in affirmation.
After the worship service, the women dispersed into smaller rooms filled with old saris and sewing materials. I followed some of them and sat with tea and crackers as they settled into their task of repurposing used textiles, layering them into quilts. Their hands moved swiftly, in rhythm with their conversation, and the older women seemed as quick and precise as the younger ones, everyone focused on what they were making. While they worked, their children napped or wandered the building, safe in the presence of a loving community.
One of the women opened her mouth and sang a song of worship in a clear, strong voice.
I knew the bodies before me had experienced things I could not imagine, but the way these women moved now—their eyes surveying colors and designs to sew together, their hands measuring and cutting fabric held in place by bricks, their fervent singing and praying—conveyed a different kind of understanding of who they were in the world and to each other. I sensed a depth in their relationships, birthed in uncertain and vulnerable places, coming together daily to carve out alternative lives with each other. It felt overwhelmingly powerful.
After the visit, we left the house and ate dinner with the nonprofit workers in residence with the women. I asked them what their day-to-day operations were like, secretly wondering if what I experienced was real or just a display meant for us. They shared about what it was like to show up daily, not knowing what conflicts or joy would arise, and how layers of past experiences and memories could masquerade as yelling matches over fabric choices or competition for management positions. How, within the small rooms with sewing fabrics and laughter, the women learned how to stay in the room and deal with each other and themselves. I realized that each day the women showed up for work, they created their futures together and with one another, and I think this communal power was sacred and rare.
I sensed a depth in their relationships, birthed in uncertain and vulnerable places.
Will I ever find that kind of good power in my own community? I wondered. At the time, I was dealing with the embarrassment and shame of a failed business, letting go of my employees and selling off whatever was left. I felt lonely as a new mother, struggling to catch up on sleep and figure out new rhythms of daily life. And after experiencing racial microaggressions delivered with smiles and good intentions from church members and being deceived by church leaders I respected and valued, I formed protective edges around myself to safeguard my vulnerability. Years later, I no longer feel shocked or surprised when friends tell me about men in the church disrespecting them for being women, or when I read headlines about scandals involving pastors whose books I used to read and study. When these acts were contained and hidden by Christian leaders, I knew it was to protect another kind of power, far distant from a communal one.
Reaching for communal power where real relationships can be forged through the vulnerability of Jesus means removing those carefully placed edges. It means revealing my vulnerabilities, trusting others to see, and hoping that others will do the same. It means showing up consistently to face others, adding depth to our relationship in ways that allow us to worship God together more fully. And I admit that I still hesitate to remove the edges.
I catch glimpses of that good kind of power from time to time, and I am reminded of those moments in Kolkata. Being silly when taking study breaks with seminary classmates during stressful final exam preparations and papers. Deep breaths with friends as we meditate on our spiritual vocations in the backyard by the fire. Giving and receiving affirmations as I lead worship with other leaders in confidence and wisdom. Free-flowing tears together after suddenly losing a beloved young friend.
I catch glimpses of that good kind of power from time to time.
These glimpses are enough, maybe, to keep my hope of a powerful and sacred community alive. Some days it feels foolish, but I keep looking for that goodness. I long for places where I can reach out and touch the hem of Jesus’ robe alongside others, places where my hope can grow powerful enough to face injustice, love our neighbors, and live together in community.