White, American women paraded a bit too boldly down a main alley of the slum area, their brightly colored raincoats standing out against the gray of the Monsoon sky. On either side of the path, broken with streams of sewage and trash, were street venders selling everything from nuts, fruits, and fish to flowers intended to be used as sacrifices to Hindu gods. The women let out hushed, girlish squeals, trying not to draw attention to themselves, knowing that as they rounded the corner and got out of the rain that they were welcomed into a safe place. A school-aged boy of about fourteen looked at them with amused eyes and pointed them down another alleyway. “Elena is already here.” Following the direction of his leading, the women followed the path of an alley not but three feet wide. Peering into the first doorway, a voice was heard. “Hello, hello, come in.” Her voice was strong and assertive, with a slight Brazilian accent. The one room was not large by any means; the reality that it had at one point served as a home for a local family was paining to the visitors. It was here that the one woman with the eyes the natives called so green had met Meenaxi. She had come to India when the rain had come, being dropped down suddenly into a new and dry place, abruptly, like a sudden summer Monsoon rain. She had always been drawn to India. There was something in the color and splendor displayed in things she had seen or read about India that had always called out to her since she was very young. Somehow, deep down, she always knew she would go. And then there was the matter of following her God. She had always said, “Lord, where you send me I will go,” and he had sent her here—to a field of dry bones into which life was waiting to be breathed. After a week in India, she was finding it to be much different than what her childhood fantasies had drawn up. It was beautiful, yes. But it was heavy and empty and chaotic as well. And then there was the dirt that never seemed to leave your eyes and the putrid smell of rotten trash and cow feces constantly dancing around your nostrils. And the colorful clothes that had once seemed so enamoring and lovely seemed so much less beautiful amidst the empty eyes of those that wore them—against the broken backdrop of physical and spiritual poverty.
Light peaked in the unlit room, and the sun offered a brief reprieve from the dampness of the sticky afternoon. And there, sitting on a woven, mildewed bamboo mat, the woman saw incredible beauty. The small faces of children, missing rotten teeth, tattered clothing, and dirty hands rounded the doorframe. Elena motioned towards them. “Come in, come see your teacher.” They came and sat at her feet, listening intently to the conversation of the white female visitors, most likely not understanding the language that they spoke. Soon, it grew time to begin prayer, and the younger children began to disperse as older girls with shining black hair and quiet smiles filled their spaces. Prayer began and several different languages were heard quietly being murmured around the circle. Elena told each of the girls to partner with the white visitors and without a moment’s hesitation, M. came towards her. M’s eyes were round and overflowing with a silent sort of laughter. Her smile was broad and beautiful—and when she sat down and held the woman’s hand, she almost seemed like a song just waiting to be sung out. The ends of her tightly braided pigtails brushed the side of the woman’s hand, as light contrasting dark, their two hands intertwined. And for an hour, neither one of them let go. This was the moment that the woman knew she had fallen in love—that by holding on to this little girl, she was somehow giving a small part of herself away. She knew it must be real—some God given gift and connection—because up until then, she had struggled with feeling anything at all. Pain, joy, excitement. The darkness of her surroundings had somehow cast a shadow over her heart.
Weeks flew by and Fridays passed quickly and always, M. sat beside her, braiding her hair, smiling at her and listening intently as the woman talked about a God the girl so desperately wanted to know. “Show me your hand,” the American woman said one day. “Five fingers for five words. Jesus. Loves. M.. Very. Much.” The girl smiled in understanding. And the rains continued to come down—days began to pass even more quickly and one Friday, it was time for the visitors to say goodbye. M. was late that day, and when she finally arrived, she burst into tears. Her cousin looked at them and said, “Her father doesn’t like her to come and pray, but she loves to pray so she waits until he has gone from the house to sneak away.” The young woman felt her heart swelling with emotions she could not express to anyone but Father God, her comforter. M. seemed to feel it too, surprising the woman with large alligator tears falling softly down her smooth cheek. She kissed the little girl’s tears away, pushed hair behind her ear, and said, “Show me your hand, sweet girl. Do you remember?” A small brown hand was presented beside the woman’s pale one. “Jesus. Loves. Me. Very. Much.” And then they both cried, the sky seeming to cry with them as rain fell from the heavens.
“Don’t cry my dear. God is proud of you, keep seeking after Jesus, and always look at your hand and remember.” M. nodded and painfully, the woman joined the rest of the American women as they hurried off to catch the bus, leaving the slum in a much different manner than the first time they had come. They were silent, like the rain.
The mahindi on my hands is barely visible now, but as I held out my hands in worship this Sunday morning, I couldn’t help but see it and be reminded of five little fingers. I find myself grieving for six weeks I cannot go back and live again. Six weeks of pure joy and growth and many times righteous anger. Six weeks of pain and sometimes heartache and exhaustion. And there are moments I want to burst into tears—but not because the girls I worked with need me. They don’t need me. They need Jesus. And honestly, they don’t love me the way I love them. And I understand that. And sometimes I wonder what good short-term mission work does—if we constantly enter the lives of these beautiful unbelieving young women and leave again. The older ones grow accustom to visitors coming and going. They learn to interact but to not attach. I’ll never forget the cutting words of one. “Why do you all do this to us? You come and make us be friends with you and then you leave.” And that realization is hard to wrestle with sometimes. But then I look down at my hands, and I hear the jingling of my golden bangles, and I am reminded of little hands. I am reminded of hands that taught mine how to crochet. I am reminded of hands that handed me gifts and patted my head and braided my hair. I am reminded of hands that touched my hands and took the love I gave them. And I have to think that somehow some good came in God taking me there. Even if a little heartbreak happened along the way. I have to think that somehow my hands showed them that God loves them and that Meenaxi’s hands might remind her that God loves her as well.
Some nights, as I fall asleep, I say a prayer for that little girl. She told me once that her favorite thing to do was to smile. When I asked her why, she said, “Because I have a nice smile.” I pray that she never forgets that. I pray that God continues to place people in her life to mentor her and spur her faith into something strong. I pray that one day God would use her to be an influential person in her community and in all of India. I pray one day that her hands will be used to bring change.