My house isn’t far from a renowned red light area, and lately more and more women have been moving out of the area and standing beside the entrance to our place. I know there are lot of things I am naive about here, but there are some realities that are so obvious you don’t need to have a major in anthropology to ‘get’. These women are here a lot – mostly at night but sometimes in the afternoons, and on the odd occasion the mornings too. They stand there, loitering, unless the police happen to come and chase them away. Join the dots.
I talk to several women on the street most days. I don’t know if they know that I know what ‘work’ means for them, but it doesn’t really matter to me or to them. We are friends. To everyone else though, there seems to be a big problem that myself (and whatever social ramifications that being white and foreign, wealthy and educated has over here) and these women would have anything to do with each other. Many other people on the street are forever eyeing our conversations with suspicion and brood over our engagements waiting to swoop in and rescue me from these “bad women.” Sometimes they interrupt the conversation just to ensure everybody is aware of that fact, and to make certain I’m not associating with anyone I ought not to be…
This morning when I was walking home from language school I passed by a woman leaning against a wall just outside my gate. I don’t remember having seen her before, but I presumed she was probably ‘working’ too. I smiled and waved and kept walking. Her gaze followed me and a few metres after passing her I turned back. She smiled broader still. I walked closer and she reached out and touched my hair. She made some comment about it being long and beautiful – I had just washed it this morning, thankfully – and gestured that it should be up. Or maybe she was asking if she could do it up for me. I wasn’t totally sure what she was saying but I made out that I did and nodded. We walked down my driveway together, slowly. We shared names and then sat on the steps outside my apartment. And she leaned over me and braided my hair. Beautifully.
As I sat on that step in full honesty I felt the self-loathing of knowing I was nervous about this. Nervous about what the neighbours might think, and nervous that security or landlord might see or hear about this, and treat us like everyone else does. I can’t help but think she would have expected the same…But the more beautiful thought crept in to my mind – along with that strange heart-quivering warmth that I think happens when you come to realise new truth – as I remembered that sacred story of the woman who once broke open and lavished on the feet of Jesus an expensive oil (that story is in Luke if you want to read more about it). It wasn’t any seeming ‘parallel’ that moved me – I am certainly not Jesus, woman I met this morning is not the “sinful woman” (although, aren’t we all?) and the smell of the streets of Kolkata aren’t the precious kind you bottle away. It was a new perspective on that story that captured me. For the first time I imagined that story not through the eyes of the onlookers, as I normally do…
This morning that woman who sat on the steps with me and braided my hair was the brave one. She was the humble, courageous, beautiful and vulnerable one who stood against what society would say or believe each of us are, and what each of our places should be. Instead, she generously understood me – though many others I’ve met here haven’t – as someone who wanted to know her, to engage with her, to share time and space and experience with her. She grasped that. She allowed me to come closer and be with her as I’ve wanted to be, to hell with the barriers.
The story of Christmas, our great hope, is that Jesus Christ the Son of God – who being in his very nature God – stepped in to our world out of his severe longing to be with us. To share with us. To re-establish the unity between God and Man that there was when it all began.
For the very first time in my life, this morning I felt a whisper of the intoxicating joy that perhaps Jesus knew as his own longings were fulfilled; the joy he felt when the humble, courageous, beautiful, vulnerable and perceiving woman in that wonderful serving act embraced him as the very God he had moved from heaven to earth to express himself as. The God with us. Emmanuel.
Joy to the world.