In the Freedom Business

Millions of people in this world suffer from extreme poverty and exploitation. When we seek to reach these people with Jesus’ love, we need to communicate this message in a meaningful and appropriate way.

Our brothers and sisters living in situations of suffering need liberation from the physical and emotional pain they face every day, as well as the freedom that is found in a life centred in Jesus. Not only do people need to hear the gospel but they also need to feel it, touch it and experience its healing and freeing power in a tangible way. To communicate who Jesus is, how much He loves people and what it means to follow Him, we need a way that humbly and sacrificially brings God’s justice, healing, and redeeming love to all aspects of a person’s life… in other words, we need a holistic approach to mission and ministry.

My wife and I, along with a team of passionate and inspirational people, live in a red-light district in Kolkata, India, and work in a business committed to sharing the message of Jesus in a holistic manner. The business was started ten years ago by a New Zealand couple, who moved to Kolkata with the simple desire to extend the love of Jesus to their neighbours. However, after the Smiths* naively signed up for an apartment in the middle of the day, they discovered they were living in a red-light area, and their ‘neighbours’ were over 10,000 women trapped in sexual exploitation and abuse.

Undeterred by the enormity of the task, and realising that communicating Jesus’ love to these women through word only would be insufficient, the Smiths came up with the idea of starting an export business. The goal of the business would be to rescue women from the sex industry, but they knew that more than alternative employment was needed for the women to find true freedom. They needed a place where they could heal physically and emotionally, and where they could have a real encounter with Jesus in a new community of love, care and trust. With this vision as the foundation, the Smiths’ business was born.

From its small beginnings of 20 women working out of a rented apartment making jute bags, the business now employs over 170 women, and sells hundreds of thousands of fair trade bags and t-shirts every year. Most importantly, though, it’s a business that offers an opportunity to be part of a community of unconditional love, where people can find freedom, hope and healing, and come to know Jesus. Hundreds of women’s lives are being transformed through this holistic approach to ministry, and the stories emerging from the work of the business are amazing and inspirational.

Suraya* was trafficked from rural Bangladesh when she was thirteen years old. She came from a poor, uneducated family, and faced very limited employment options. When a smartly dressed businessman told her he could secure her well-paid domestic employment in the city – the wages would support her entire family! – Suraya agreed to go. However, there was no domestic service job waiting for her; instead she was taken to a red-light area, and was sold, drugged and raped. This was her life for twenty years until she started working in the Smiths’ newly opened business. Suraya’s new job provided not only freedom from the sex trade but also education and healthcare. As she was loved and cared for and treated with respect, Suraya regained her confidence and self-esteem, and became a follower of Jesus. Now a senior member of the business, Suraya still walks the streets and lanes where she used to work, but now it is to take a message of freedom, hope and healing to the women still trapped there.

Holistic mission – bringing Jesus’ love and liberating power to every aspect of a person’s life – should not be reserved just for the overseas mission field. It can, and should, be applied wherever we seek to express the love of Jesus, whether in a red-light district in India, in a struggling community in New Zealand, at school, at work, or with the person who lives next door. Jesus’ call to His followers is to bring the kingdom of God to earth, to feed the hungry, heal the sick, care for the widow and orphan, to be generous, to turn the other cheek, and to invite people to find freedom in Him and His way.

My personal journey that led me here to Kolkata, to help free women from slavery, was shaped by many things: overseas travel where I witnessed extreme suffering in the lives of women; questions about God, His plans for the world, and what it truly meant to be a follower of Jesus; and questions about the life I was living. Was working nine to five – so I could buy things I didn’t really need – and just ‘doing’ Church on Sunday, really living out Jesus’ call to build the kingdom of God here on earth?

As I wrestled with these issues, I reflected on the six months I’d spent as a volunteer with the Smiths’ business several years before, and on how much my own faith had been impacted and transformed by the women I had prayed, sung and eaten with. And I realised that my time of living in that red-light district, walking as the broken person I am with other broken people, and seeking transformation together in a community of faith centred on Jesus, had made more sense, had been more exciting, and held more beauty than anything I had experienced before.

It was a combination of these experiences, thoughts and a strong sense of God’s calling that drew my wife and me back to Kolkata, to live and serve on a long-term basis in the red-light district. It’s emotionally demanding here, noisy, dirty, crowded and often heartbreaking… but there is no place I’d rather be than here in the centre of God’s will.

Dan and Mai are Kiwi Partners. Dan is 33 and has a marketing background, Mai is 25 and is a graphic designer.

* Not their real names.