In high school after reading the book Night by Elie Wiesel, I wrote a paper on what it means to be in utter desolation. My conclusion was that utter desolation is of the absence of anything good or hopeful—a place void of anything that draws the mind back to life: a place like a Nazi concentration camp. The ending line of my paper was that utter desolation is the moment when music is heard no more.
Although at the time I might have said I understood what suffering looked like based on what I had already seen overseas, I can say today that I had knowledge without understanding. The paper was well written and received the “A” stamp of approval from my teacher. Looking back now, I concur with the conclusions I drew, but if I rewrote that paper, I would be able to base it off stories I have either witnessed or heard first-hand. Night does not have to tell that story for me anymore. Here in Kolkata, our ladies’ lives say it all.
Utter desolation seems like an odd topic to relate to life within Word Made Flesh Kolkata or Sari Bari. Obviously, God is doing something beautiful and hopeful in the lives of women here. Desolation is not the word to describe our larger story—hope is. However, when the tapestry of our ladies’ lives is viewed up close, one can see that desolation is written into every fiber of every lady that picks up a needle to begin sewing her freedom story. That is what gives her story such strength. This makes me wonder if true hope can only come from being brought through a place of utter desolation and hopelessness. Even at Jesus’ death hour, he cried out to God asking why God had forsaken him. It was in that moment, though, that Jesus conquered death. Only because Jesus went through the darkness and desolation was he able to give the world the greatest hope imaginable.
Through high school and university, I was told that I could be a world changer. Honestly, I wanted to take this world by storm, change it for Christ. By the time I decided to come to Kolkata, I knew that it was not about me changing the world; it was about impacting one life at a time, and the life to be impacted most would be mine. At the very least, though, I thought that in coming here I would be able to thrive. But now I have come to a place of humility . . . life is hard and I question what I am doing constantly. I look at our ladies who have come through hell on earth and am amazed by their resiliency. Why do I struggle with such small things, like motorcycle horns, or the disfigured dogs roaming the street?
When I began my time on staff, I started reading books about spiritual formation and the disciplines. I started reading about the “dark night of the soul.” I have heard it described as a spiritual place of the soul where there is emptiness, loneliness, a complete breakdown of ideologies once held dear and a desperation for hope because little hope is seen. This dark night of the soul sounds a lot like desolation. Why would God want to take us through that?
For those who walk through suffering or through a dark night of the soul, they find there comes a point when all they have left to cling to are shreds of faith, all the while crying desperately for more faith. Most often, the place of utter desolation becomes a place of utter dependence on God.
When I walk the lanes and see the girls waiting for customers, when I look into their eyes and see a place beyond desperation or hope, I feel in my soul those questions we are sometimes scared to ask: God, where are you? How long will you allow this to continue? Those questions often feel like doubt, like me not trusting God in whatever he is doing. But I am finding that those questions are not asked in doubt. In walking through a world of desolation, I still have faith enough to talk to God and to trust that I can ask the difficult questions.
Whether a sky rise or a bosti (a slum), desolation is written into every building plan here in Kolkata. There is little else with which to describe this city. From the buildings falling apart, to the dogs limping along, to the people begging for food, to the injustice calling from the street corners, every view through this city tells a story of the destruction of what once was supposed to be good. How many times have we witnessed this desolation in the lanes of the red-light area? In the eyes of hopelessness, there is only emptiness.
When my soul feels in utter desolation from what I see and experience, I cry out. I do not want to be in this place. Yet in the midst of my pain, I find I am completely dependent on God for my next breath because I have nothing left in me. This is where I find the grace to go on because I somehow do go on. As Andrew Murray said, “Humility is the place of entire dependence on God”.1 I realize humility is not about seeing myself in a poor light or putting myself down. Humility is about seeing myself for who I really am and what I really need: I am nothing without Christ; I need him desperately.
What is most amazing is the joy I find when I return to Sari Bari after feeling defeated on the streets of Kolkata. I ring the bell for someone to let me in, and as I wait for the door to open, I hear a song bouncing throughout the rooms. It is a Hindi song with my name in it, and for the last month, every time I walk into Sari Bari, I hear the words to the song I don’t understand. Hearing the music from the lips of the ladies and men who for years past have little reason to sing, I remember that I am not in a place of desolation but a place of hope and dependence on God to keep moving forward.
Even in the darkest of nights, the music has not and will not end.