Voices to fill the Silence


Chains

From “Castro Alves from Brazil” by Pablo Neruda

Castro Alves from Brazil, for whom did you sing? 
Did you sing for the flower? For the water 
whose beauty whispered words to the stones? 
Did you sing to the eyes, to the torn profile
of the woman you once loved? For the spring? 

Yes, but those petals were not dewed, 
those black waters had no words, 
those eyes were those who saw death, 
still burning the tortures behind love, 
Spring was splashed with blood. 

I sang for the slaves…
They travelled, and bled
leaving us the weight of a stolen blood.

I sang in those days against the inferno,
against the sharp languages of greed,
against the gold drenched in the torment,
against the hand that raised the whip, 
against the maestros of darkness.

The light, the night, the sky were covered in tears…
and it was my voice the only one to fill the silence… 

I sang for those who had no voice. 
My voice hit doors that until then were closed 
so that, fighting, Freedom could be let in. 

Castro Alves from Brazil…
Your voice joined the eternal and loud voice of the men. 
You sang well. You sang how it must be sung.

 

That poem is about 19th century Brazilian playwright Castro Alves, who fought the slave trade thru his abolitionist poetry. The slave trade we fight today is a different breed. The brothels of Sonagachi, sweatshops and forced labor don’t resemble the slave ships of old cruising the Atlantic, but the realities today are no less horrific, and the numbers of slaves in the world are higher than ever before in history.

May we too “sing for those who have no voice.” May we “sing well… how it must be sung.”

 

 

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Stories and People: Handle with Care

 

I’m crouched down on the edge of a North Kolkata slum, camera in hand, focusing the lens and making tiny adjustments to capture one of those little compositions of light and shape that just jumps out at you: water dripping on broken ceramic shards, rusting spokes of a bicycle tire edging in on the frame, splashes of faded red advertising paint on a cracked concrete wall.

What calloused hands held those pottery shards when they were whole, I wonder? What conversations, words, silences, passed between friends and neighbors over a cup of 3 rupee cha. Daily routine, it seems, is very important in Bengali culture. That tea is an affordable luxury, and the routines of old men sitting on cracked brick stoops and watching life go by is a moment of stability, rest, friendship and familiarity in the bustling city life.

The stories in the shards, the brick and the bike spokes are passing through my mind as I aim the camera. Then, just before I snap the photo, I hear the screech of tires behind me and a voice yelling in heavily accented English. “You must stop! What you are doing is very bad! You are taking pictures of bad things! You must take pictures only of good things!”

The speaker is an angry-looking Sikh, bearded and turbaned, eyes flashing and finger wagging furiously in the air from the safety of his car.

“What’s the problem brother?” I manage in Bangla, transitioning from confused to confrontational as I take stock of the situation.

The man yells and finger wags for a few moments more, until the surge of cars and auto-rickshaws and motorcycles blocked behind him builds up to a critical mass of loud horns and peer pressure and he finally moves on.

Its not the first time I’ve run across resistance to cameras or stories here. There’s definitely a sensitivity in India to how they are portrayed abroad. India is, perhaps understandably, tired of the world seeing primarily the bad things: the poverty of the slums, the inefficiencies, the injustice, and the ugliness. But in my mind, I wasn’t capturing a moment of something embarrassing, but something fascinating and full of story. Yet all this man saw in a snap judgment was a white man with a camera in a slum, exploiting and exposing something that embarrassed him and his country.

I’ve had my convictions on the how and why of storytelling challenged a great deal in the last month. India, and perhaps the justice community in Sonagachi in particular, has a way of doing that.

“We try to never take pictures of the women in a situation that we ourselves wouldn’t want to be photographed in,”  said one expat, who has experience working with the women of Sonagachi for years. And that can go furthers with the different rules that people set for themselves and others: No pictures with the women’s faces, change all the names, don’t take pictures or video at all, only tell stories with hope, broadcasting suffering is re-exploitation…. Most of it makes a lot of sense and is grounded in relationship-driven sensitivity to all that these women have gone through. Some of it seems extremely limiting in harnessing the the power of stories to fight for the dignity of these women. Can it be both?

Phil Kaye, in his Ted Talk “Why do we Tell Stories?” says:

“We like to think that we can plot our lives out, but there’s this big, deep unknowing out there, this deep chance. And I think maybe subconsciously that makes us feel vulnerable. It’s scary. And in the face of that great vulnerability, that’s where that impulse to tell stories comes from…. Story lets us carve our initials into the wet cement of this moment.

To write is, in one sense, to attempt to put a clear, linear narrative to a world that is far from clear and far from linear. To make sense of that “deep unknowing,” as Kaye put it.

As a writer in the non-profit sector, writing for me often functions as my means of making sense of a senseless world and bolstering up my attempts at understanding foreign cultures or complex or difficult situations with bulwarks of nouns and verbs. But I’ve also worked with the conviction that storytelling is more than just an alleviation of personal uncertainty, more than just some kind of creative outlet therapy for a big, scary world. Words can be powerful. Words can compel and move and change with their stories, their perspectives, the architecture of their construction and the music of their sound. To tell the story of a person forgotten or marginalized by the world in their poverty or oppression is to acknowledge their existence as individual created in the image of God. To declare that they and their story are worth being witnessed. To carve their initials into the wet pavement of the moment for a world that forgets and wants to look away.

But sometimes forgotten people want to be forgotten. Sometimes invisible people want to stay invisible and the voiceless don’t want to be heard. Maybe its shame, maybe just a desire for privacy. Telling someone else’s story is a deal with someone else’s vulnerability. It’s a privilege to tell those stories, and people have a right not to have have their story told as much as they do to have their story told.

How do I expose a largely oblivious western audience to the injustices I see here in the Gach, while preserving the dignity and privacy of the individuals being exploited? How do I use words as a weapon to fight the oppressor, while simultaneously loving and respecting the oppressed? How do I balance showing true hope with showing the equally true gritty and hard realities of this world?

These are questions I expect to have to continue working through, not to suddenly develop all-sufficient answers for. Stories have power. That’s not disputed, or the issue. The dilemma is how to wisely handle the enormous responsibility that comes with the power of stories.

Stories belong to people, and stories, like people, must be handled with care.


 

As my role here in India takes shape, I’m focusing in on working with the Team blog rather than my own personal blog (though I’ll still be writing here). In any case, check out the Love God Love Neighbor Blog and you’ll be able to read some really great blog posts from all my teammates.

 

Cheers!

Justice and Profit Margins: the Garment Industry in Bangladesh

 

 

Sewing on the Factory Line

Sewing on the Factory Line

 

Tongi

We’re heading North from Uttara to the Tongi Industrial District. High-class apartment buildings and new high rise developments fade out to ramshackle tin-roof houses and bamboo and tarp shelters. Rumble through the potholes, past the bamboo lumber yards and open air welding sheds to the highway, and for the first time in two months I see green fields stretching out on either side of the road. Rice paddies, a few lumbering cattle, picturesque shallow-draft boats floating in green murky water, agricultural laborers taking their cha in the shadow cast by a billboard advertising mobile phones. Brick kiln smoke stacks dot the fields and belch black and white fumes. The sky is cross-stitched with power lines and the Tongi garment factories mass in the distance like a stage silhouette.

Garment production in Bangladesh is a $22 Billion per year industry. A huge source of income for a nation struggling with rampant poverty and frequently reeling from flooding and natural disasters. Before coming to Bangladesh, the vast majority of what I had heard about the garment industry was bad. The Rana Plaza disaster, called the deadliest garment factory disaster in history, in which over 1000 garment workers died when their building collapsed, slave labor conditions, fires, sweatshops, rich Westerners living off of the exploitation of oppressed Bangladeshis, and calls for the socially conscious to boycott major brands linked to injustice in the supply chain.

Shortly after I arrived in Dhaka, I met Naomi. Naomi manages a team that handles several major customer accounts at one of the top rated factories in the city. Over the course of several conversations, a great deal of research, and finally going to see the factory for myself, I realized that the realities of the garment industry, the system, the goods, and the evils, are far more complex than I had imagined.

The garment factories line the trash-strewn drag in Tongi, everything from unregistered single room set-ups to huge, sprawling complexes with corporate logos, shiny glass windows, razor wire, and as many as 20,000-40,000 workers inside. On the right, a mountain of baled up garment scraps that has been gathering for years takes up a square block of space. On the left, a bit in the distance, the top two floors of a hulking mass of a building are beat up and burnt out, now under construction.

“That’s where the Hameem Factory fire happened in 2010,” Naomi tells me later, pointing it out on the return trip. “They reported just over 100 dead, because it was during the lunch hour, but it had to be almost 1000. But the guy who owns that place is an MP, lots of retired military guys involved, so they can say whatever they want. Get away with anything.”

We enter the walls of “The Zone” through guarded gates, and everything changes. Less trash. More space. Trimmed trees and hedges.

“The Zone,” also called the BEPZA (Bangladesh Export Processing Zone Authority) or EPZ Dhaka, is an area cordoned off by the government (with literal walls and guarded gates), specially designed to attract foreign investment.

“There are advantages to working a factory in the zone,” Naomi says. “Tax-free holidays, foreign investment friendly, bank loan privileges, that sort of thing. But factories in the zone also are the ones that get inspected and actually have to meet compliance. Workers wages are much higher in the zone… and because we’re walled in, if there is trouble here it’s much easier for the BEPZA authorities to control. [They] have a set of Industrial and BEPZA police in the zone at any given time… Outside the zone they bring in the police and the army. They have these water hoses they use…”

Mob Mentality

Labor unrest in Bangladesh is no joke, and very common. Naomi has her share of war stories.

“When trouble happens in one factory, the foremen from other factories in the area will just tell their workers to get out,” Naomi says. “Better to let them go than destroy everything inside the factory.”

With factories containing thousands of workers apiece lining the road, you can imagine the potential for chaos. On the bad days, mobs of tens of thousands of angry workers can be out in the streets, hurling rocks, breaking and burning, clashing with police.

“Sometimes we’ll just be driving through and I’ll keep my head down in the car,” Naomi says. “You never know if a brick is going to crash through the window.”

The last time Naomi’s factory had significant unrest was 2012. A disagreement with management over broadcasting a cricket match on the PA system avalanched quickly and seemingly inexplicably into violence.

“They workers are rioting,” the voice on the other end of the phone line said – a warning call from another factory. “They’re beating up the expats in the lunch room. Get out now before it starts there.”

The office staff evacuated, and sure enough, the workers in Naomi’s factory were soon rioting as well, kicking off a weeks long standoff that ended in bloodshed.

The following weeks played out like a Hollywood thriller. Production was stalled and millions of dollars lost in the missed deadlines and lost time. Every day the factory head would brave the bricks and mobs to come in for negotiation, and all the while, behind the scenes a cloak and dagger game of who-done-it played out. Undercover agents, sent by factory management, infiltrated the crowds and discovered that a local NGO, concerned with worker’s rights and dangerous factory conditions, had been inciting the riots.

The coup de grace came when a factory exec darkly joked that the head of the NGO that had caused so much damage that he “ought to be shot.” Two days later the NGO head was shot dead. The investigation lasted for weeks. Rumors flying. Bengali intelligence? Company thugs? The consensus was that the murder was unconnected, but it shook everyone up.

In the months that came quietly on the heels of the riots, Naomi and the other managerial staff spent a good deal of time on the floor, walking the lines and talking to the workers to build report.

“I would ask one woman: ‘Why were you rioting?’ And she’d say: ‘I don’t know. Because that other worker was doing it,’” Naomi says. “And I’d ask that worker, and they’d say the same thing. No one knew what they were fighting for. The mob starts and there’s no reasoning and no purpose.”

But when I visit it’s quiet. The worker’s are content for the moment. In fact, Naomi’s factory has one of the highest retention rates of any factory in Dhaka.

Profit Margins and Justice

Inside the building, the factory’s welcome foyer is sparkling clean, well lit, spacious and professional looking. I’m following behind the factory production director, a smiley Sri Lankan named Sanjit who strides with a commanding air as we step through the door onto the production floor.

“They’re not all like this you know,” he says. “My god, in Bangladesh, most factories you go from first world in the offices to third world on the floor. Here, top of the line for all.”

Factory production line

Factory production line

The production floor is massive. And Sanjit is right: it’s clean, reasonably well lit, hundreds of spinning fans buzz and keep the air flowing, red and yellow and black lines are painted clearly on the concrete floors demarcating work stations, personnel, flow routes, and 3500 Bengali garment workers bend over their sewing machines and stitching up pockets, attaching buttons, sewing pant legs.

Sanjit takes me through the process from start to finish: from the rolls of fabric shipped from China to the measured, cut, sewn, clipped, buttoned-and-zippered, cleaned, tagged, and sealed packages sorted, bagged, boxed, and ready to be trucked to container ships and sailed across the seven seas to ports across the globe. In his office, Sanjit proudly shows me the entire operation broken down into its component parts, mapped out in sticky notes on a glass wall. The sheer complexity of all the moving parts to bring a product from conception to fruition is mind-boggling.

Naomi’s factory is one of the highest rated in Bangladesh. They are the top tier, 99% compliant with regulations, they provide transport and lunch for their employees and, as a policy, do everything in house, and they pay their workers a “living wage” as opposed to a “working wage.” That works out to around $70 – $140 (plus a 10% bonus for attendance) per month for work on the production lines. In other factories, until just this past year, workers would often receive only around $35-$55 per month, barely enough to scrape by in the slums or “hostels,” living cheek to jowl in cramped and basic living conditions in the urban flow. Just this past year the minimum wage was increased by 77% to $65 per month, but reports since have estimated that 40% of factories were failing to pay at the new requirements.

So why isn’t every factory like Naomi’s? In the face of disasters like Rana Plaza and international outcry over unsafe working conditions and poor pay, why don’t all the customers simply refuse to do business with the dicey factories and only employ responsible, well functioning, more secure factories like this one I look at with Naomi. The answer, as always, is money.

“Every [major brand] looks to average a 70% profit margin from factory cost to sale to make their targets for the season,” says Naomi. “So for someone like us who costs more because we’re more compliant and pay a living wage, they might only make a 60% or 65% profit margin. To make that up that means they have to have some factories at that 70% and some at 80%.”

Think of it like this: Bangladeshi garments factories can be broken down into three tiers. At the top are the factories like Naomi’s, largely compliant to labor regulations, secure, reliable, and mostly in the Zone. Most of the factories within EPZ Dhaka run much smoother and meet compliance much more consistently than those outside.

On the next tier down come the registered factories outside the EPZ. Outside Zone walls, the cost of labor immediately plummets because the factories are not subject to the same requirements and restrictions. These factories, though registered, often have extremely substandard work conditions, but most are still subjected to some sort of inspection system (enforcement is another story). However, to meet quotas, it’s a common practice for these factories to practice “indirect sourcing,” subcontracting to smaller factories to save money and meet quotas.

Many of these subcontracted factories make up the next tier down: the unregistered factories. These unregistered factories do business in cash, off the books, and completely unregulated and unrestricted by labor laws, safety inspections, or wage requirements. Low pay with forced overtime and dangerous work conditions, in crumbling buildings with little airflow, are the norm. Around 5500 garment factories are registered in Bangladesh. Naomi and Sanjit estimated that there are over 8000 total factories, making for an estimate of 2500 unregistered and completely unregulated factories.

Factories like Naomi’s function as the public face of their customers – operating within regulations and within the zone, they are a more secure bet, and they look good to consumers across the globe. Companies contract through factories like Naomi’s because then they can say: “Our clothing is manufactured at a facility that pays a living wage and meets compliance. One of the best in Bangladesh.” And for a fraction of the work, it’s true.

But to make their target profit margins, for every top-notch factory contracted by a customer, several cheaper factories, outside the Zone, with lower wages and worse conditions, will be hired on to cut costs and meet deadlines (and ultimately make the customer happy). These factories, in turn, will often subcontract parts of their order to unregistered factories. These third tier transactions take place off the books and in cash, allowing the customer a level of safer ignorance.

When it comes down to it, the customers want to make their profit margins and meet their deadlines, and not know more than they have to.

“Everybody does this,” says Naomi. “All the major players. Sure they’ll talk, but for every factory like ours that they use, they’ll hire five more that are cheaper.”

So What?

So what do we do with this? If the reality is that virtually every major clothing manufacturer making anything in Bangladesh is, whether on record or not, employing exploitative labor conditions in their supply chain, what do we do with that information?

Women at the embroidery station

Women at the embroidery station

The balancing act for consumers comes from pressuring transnational manufacturing companies to reform, to pay their workers a living wage, and to ensure safe working conditions, without pushing them so far that they pick up and leave. Genuinely good things have come from the garment industry as well, chief among them the jobs created directly in the industry for 4.2 million people, plus the jobs and economic development indirectly created to support the towering industry. The goal is not to shut down the garment industry in Bangladesh – that would only result in jobs and opportunities lost in a country desperately in need of economic boost – the goal, rather, is to push global brands, factories, and the government of Bangladesh itself, to improve working conditions and reduce corruption but keep the sector growing, without everyone jumping ship.

The profit margins are high enough, and the executives are making SO much money (a very apparent fact in Dhaka) that the clothing companies can afford to make some reforms for basic human rights without needing to jump ship. But, human greed comes into play here as well. Just because they can afford to reform, doesn’t mean they are willing. When labor becomes too expensive in Country A, moving to Country B, where the laws and regulations haven’t been inacted yet and labor is cheap, can seem a lucrative option.

Admittedly, in the wake of public outrage following the Rana Plaza disaster, just over a year ago, some significant progress has been made. The minimum wage has been raised for one thing, and two groups, known as the Alliance and the Accord, have banded together major Western brands and inspected some 2000 factories. Working in a context of some of the worst factory conditions in the world, in a massive industry under a hugely corrupt government, this is a tough job, to say the least. But the worst factories, registered and unregistered, remain uninspected and unregulated. It’s absolutely a step in the right direction, but the work is far from over.

Perhaps first and foremost then, is the need for transparency at every stage of the supply chain, big and small. Shady subcontracted deals done off the books that big companies can officially turn a blind eye to and claim ignorance of are, in reality, just as shady as if those companies were simply exploiting all their workers equally. A façade of justice is not the goal. Only real transparency and real accountability can result in real change.

 Finding what direct action we can or should take as individuals is tough though. I’m still wrestling through it myself. Should the socially conscious person or the justice-driven Christian boycott all clothing made in Bangladesh? I’d say probably not. That industry is providing jobs that allow opportunities for millions of Bangladeshis. But do we just take that as “good enough,” and ignore the injustices? No. For me, knowing that within Bangladesh and within the industry there is both good and bad, I feel compelled to learn more about where products come from and what’s involved in the process, and support the efforts to regulate and inspect factories and promote transparency to the public.

My friend Naomi is both proud to be part of an industry that provides millions of jobs to people who need them, and acutely aware of the shadiness that takes place on a daily basis. “I’ve been fortunate to work for one of the top factories in Dhaka [in regards to safety standards and treatment of workers],” she says. “That’s been a really good thing.”

Like so many things, I wish this were black and white, but like the Dhaka skyline, I find myself instead bogged down by a smoggy haze of grey. I wish I could unequivocally vilify heartless big industry oppressing the people, but I realize that that same industry provides millions of jobs and opportunities for those who otherwise might have nothing. This isn’t an issue that you can just throw a few dollars at, or go on a charity run. The industry is part of the global economy, and by extension, we are connected to it. Smoggy haze or not, whether or not we have solutions, you and I are part of this, and we ought to know as much as we can.

Works Cited:

Greenhouse, Steven and Elizabeth A. Harris. “Battling for a Safer Bangladesh.” New York Times, April 21, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/22/business/international/battling-for-a-safer-bangladesh.html?_r=0

Kristof, Nicholas. “Where Sweatshops Are a Dream.” New York Times, January 14, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/15/opinion/15kristof.html

Kristof, Nicholas. “My Sweatshop Column.” Nicholas D. Kristof Blog: On the Ground, January 14, 2009. http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/14/my-sweatshop-column/

Labowitz, Sarah and Dorothee Baumann-Pauly. Business as Usual is not an Option: supply chains and sourcing after Rana Plaza. NYU Stern School of Business: Center for Business and Human Rights, April 2014. http://www.stern.nyu.edu/cons/groups/content/documents/webasset/con_047408.pdf

“Bangladesh garment factories failing to pay minimum wage” The Tribune, January 24, 2014. http://tribune.com.pk/story/662841/bangladesh-garment-factories-failing-to-pay-minimum-wage/

4 Things That Can Get to You in Bangladesh

Buriganga Flotsam

The people can get to you. The staggeringly warm hospitality, open homes, hot food, generous smiles and generous portions (“No, no. You must take more.”) In all the places I’ve been in the wide world, the Bengali people I’ve encountered (and Indians) have been some of the most generous and hospitable I’ve ever met. A few folks and I met recently at the house of an Indian couple I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a bit over the last month, soaking up their wisdom and eating their food. The spread for dinner was absolutely fantastic: lentil stew, dhal, rice with nuts and garnish, fresh vegetables, roti, chicken, fish, and ice cream for dessert. She had spent literally all day cooking for that evening, and that after a long week of visiting and helping an impoverished young woman through the delivery of her first baby. “Yes, it’s very tiring being a mother to so many people,” she said offhandedly. Would a foreigner, only in the country for a few months, be welcomed so warmly, so genuinely in the U.S. I wonder? In my own church? By my own friends and family? They set the bar high.

The Bangla language can get to you.

“Shorkari chuti” means “government holiday.” “Torkari chuti,” while easy to mix up, means “vegetable holiday.” This, as it turns out, does not make sense, but results in a lot of laughter from the Bengali staff.

The sentence structure is completely different from any kind of Western sentence structure I’ve ever seen. It worse my in English writing may make.

“Shobdo” can mean either “word” or “loud.”

Quite often I am unable to remember the Bangla word for “I forget.”

I counted 42 different words specifying the relatives we, in English, would call “Father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, niece, and nephew.” Where, in English, we might say “that’s my uncle.” In Bangla there are different words specifying your father’s sister’s husband – and then two different versions, depending on whether a Muslim or Hindu is in question.

I expressed my consternation at this arrangement, declaring that in English there are much fewer words, and it’s much less confusing.

“But then,” begins my teacher, looking genuinely concerned. “If I ask you: ‘Who is that?’ and you say ‘My uncle,’ how will I know if it is your father’s brother or your mother’s brother, or your mother’s sister’s husband?”

I open my mouth, and then shut it again.

The newspapers can get to you. Mixed in with the cricket scores and a beautiful arts page are typeface and ink reminders of just how cheap life comes here, suffering and injustice delivered to your front door for your convenience seven days a week in two languages.

The gritty stories spare no expense on vivid detail. A murder victim found by the railroad tracks, throat cut with a wire. Assistant sub-secretaries of some committee of some political party bound and beaten at a university riot.

Every week it seems I read another story about another rape that ends the same way – the perpetrator gets off with a fine, while the victim, often a young girl, is either forced out her village because of the shame or forced to marry her rapist. She is “tainted” now. “The victim was found hanging by the neck from a scarf, having committed suicide,” the stories end.

But while it’s all raw and real, it’s not just tales of carnage, corruption, and injustice. There’s also the highlights of the people feeding the poor, profiles of local artists capturing beauty in the streets and the beautiful faces of a beautiful people, rags to riches stories and poetry reviews and calls for reasonable dialogue.

That’s when the beauty can get to you. The wonder. Unexpected. Takes you by surprise.

I was at the gym lifting weights, a daily ritual that keeps me sane and sleeping well with the physical challenge and exhaustion, when outside the rain came pouring down like a sudden flood into an ash bin.

After the storm I walk back as the sun is setting, and the light seems trapped, pressed down under the swollen honey clouds. Rays ricochet between the skyscrapers and the puddles ‘til it seems the very atmosphere is glowing. A creaking rickshaw wheel dashes the light from a puddle in front of me, and then I wait and watch as the water settles and the picture reforms: a clear, still, honey-gold reflection of the trees overhanging the road. For a few moments, before the all that glow escapes out of the gray, there’s poetry on this road, in this city – and its very elusiveness, its very transience, makes it worth the chase.

Work as Worship

For those of you who like it short and sweet, here’s the breakdown: Work Matters.

In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church N.T. Wright writes:

“The point of the resurrection… is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die… What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it… What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”

Back during my days at Covenant College this was drilled into our heads over and over again. “Calling” was the term that was thrown around – this divided into our “Big C” calling (believing and following our Creator) and our “little c” callings (our relationships, activities, passions and, yes, our work).

The divide between the sacred and the secular breaks down when we view our vocation thru the lens of the kingdom.  (I wrote more about the holistic redemption narrative a few months ago in a blogpost here: https://worththefightingfor.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/holistic-redemption/)

 

Check out this video by RightNow Ministries:

 

 

To pursue work that falls within our passions and is directed in a manner meant to build the kingdom and glorify our Maker is a solid, meaningful thing. That’s why it’s so cool to me when I see those who work towards providing others, particularly the oppressed or those who lack opportunity, with opportunities for meaningful work. Work can give dignity, power for the powerless, opportunity, joy, and the pride that comes with doing a job well. This can be truly transformative. If Christ-directed work can be a conduit for worship, then providing work for the impoverished or oppressed can be a work of worship in and of itself, perhaps even exponentially so.

Organizations like Freeset and Sari Bari that provide jobs for women coming out of sex trafficking, or the efforts of my own little team in India, working to start a café and bakery for the same purpose, have the potential to transform people and places both in physical circumstances and in hearts. When organizations like Work of Worth are able to import and sell products made by entrepreneurs across the globe – the capital of those profits can be used to grow those little companies, providing more jobs with fair wages and opportunities around the world. Work, worship, and justice, are quite often intertwined.

 

People Jobs

A rickshaw wallah in Old City, Dhaka, Bangladesh

A rickshaw wallah in Old City, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Bicycle rickshaws are everywhere in Dhaka. Brightly-colored, squeaking, grinding contraptions by which thin men with knotted-rope sinews pedal businessmen, school bound children and their burka-clad mothers, tourists, and families of four around the city, operating for short distances and able to reach some streets that larger vehicles can’t fit.

From what I’ve heard and researched, most of these men are here as a result of urban flight, seeking better job opportunities in the big city away from the struggles of eking out a living from the soil. Though Dhaka is known most for its garment factories, transport jobs are low-skilled and perhaps even more readily available. Only a fraction of the bicycle-rickshaw wallahs actually own their vehicles. The majority rent the use of the rickshaw for a few shifts, giving the owner a cut of their earnings, and feeding their families day to day on the remainder.

But are these jobs opportunity for the urban poor or unjust and cruel exploitation?

A year ago, my first time in Kolkata, I was talking about the prevalence of rickshaws in that city with a seasoned NGO worker. “Kolkata,” she said, “mostly uses auto-rickshaws (AKA “CNGs” for: the Compressed Natural Gas which powers them). Bicycle rickshaws were mostly outlawed several years ago. They exist, but we never use them.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because its horrible!” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

Bicycle Rickshaw Sketch

Bicycle Rickshaw Sketch

And there’s truth to that. These rickshaw wallahs are quite often, if not always, impoverished, overworked, and underpaid, hauling their light vehicles through dangerous traffic and inhaling their city’s toxic smog all day long. They’ll earn only enough to keep them afloat day by day, not enough to save.

But, on the other hand, these men do have work. Inhumane working conditions with little opportunity for advancement yes, but when the alternatives are worse, more dangerous, and pay less, the rickshaw wallah still has the ability to earn a living for the unskilled laborer, however sparse that living may be, and the dignity that comes with that ability.

There’s a section in the novel Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts where Lin, the hero of the tale, is talking about the men in Bombay who run around town with a water cart, manually filling tanks around the city:

“He told me it was a people job… that each man is supporting a family of four from his own wages… They were strong, those guys. They were strong and proud and healthy. They worked hard to earn their way, and they were proud of it. When they ran off into the traffic, with their strong muscles, and getting a few sly looks from some of the Indian girls, I saw that their heads were up and their eyes straight ahead.”

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff takes this idea of the worth of manual work in poor conditions a step further in his 2009 article “Where Sweatshops are a Dream.”[1] Kristoff, writing from years of experience living and reporting from East Asia, controversially argues that sweatshop and manufacturing labor actually ought to increase to help the plight of the urban poor, as the alternatives are far more terrible.

Now all of that doesn’t mean the whole situation is all fine and dandy. Conditions and opportunities for the poor, the disenfranchised, and the disempowered, need drastic change and reform. Fair wages, safety regulations, and revamping or actually enforcing traffic laws would do wonders for rickshaw wallahs and garment factory workers alike, and fair-trade, fair-wage jobs that can actually support and empower individuals absolutely ought to be championed and sought for. But, while that is pursued, I still would rather see a man working as a rickshaw wallah than as a trash picker.

I write that with a bit of trepidation coming from a city like Dhaka, a place that has made the news over the last few years with hundreds dying in unsafe factory collapses or fires, and where the newspapers tell everyday of horrific traffic fatalities. I am by no means blind to the suffering, or the things that we ought to fight to change. But I realize that it’s more complicated than that. We can’t just say – “these working conditions are horrible so we must get rid of them.” Because then, where will the people go?

I think about all of this when I climb on the back of a rattling rickshaw here in Dhaka. I think about the arguments of those who won’t take rickshaws because of the danger and conditions for the workers. But then I think too that, like it or not, right now this is how these men feed their families. So, still not entirely sure of myself, I ride along the weaving, wobbling way, and I stumble through my Bangla phrases and hand over a fistful of Taka at the inflated “Badeshi” price, and I hope that it’s the right thing to do, and not the easy way out.

Cornerstone: Birmingham Blues and Hyperopic Humanitarianism

For many of us, myself included, the brokenness within the borders of our own country, our own cities and zip codes, goes unnoticed. Not that hyperopic humanitarianism is anything new. People have been bemoaning the evils in the wild jungles and deserts of Africa and the perhaps wilder metropolises of Asia for hundreds of years, while often failing to see the full extent of the injustices on their own street corner – or rather, perhaps, on the street corners in the dicey neighborhoods and projects of Anytown, USA; pushed back, Verdun-like, further and further to the fringes, out of sight, and out of mind.

It’s one of those problems we all know is there, but don’t grasp just how much is going down in our own backyard.

In his recent article in The Rolling Stone, ”Apocalypse New Jersey,” journalist Matt Taibbi writes:

“Camden is just across the Delaware River from the brick and polished cobblestone streets of downtown Philadelphia, where oblivious tourists pour in every year, gobbling cheese steaks and gazing at the Liberty Bell, having no idea that they’re a short walk over the Ben Franklin Bridge from a full-blown sovereignty crisis – an un-Fantasy Island of extreme poverty and violence where the police just a few years ago essentially surrendered a city of 77,000… It’s a major metropolitan area run by armed teenagers with no access to jobs or healthy food, and not long ago, while the rest of America was ranting about debt ceilings and Obamacares, Camden quietly got pushed off the map…. Over three years, fires raged, violent crime spiked and the murder rate soared so high that on a per-capita basis, it ‘put us somewhere between Honduras and Somalia,’ says Police Chief J. Scott Thomson…. All over America, communities are failing. Once-mighty Rust Belt capitals that made steel or cars are now wastelands.”[1]

It’s not just Camden. Some friends of mine work in a Bible-study/outreach ministry in south Jackson, Mississippi. Teen pregnancy, drug use and dealing, dropping out of school, and a general fatalism of life are common threads. Over the last few months I’ve been told that they’ve had a kid shot every week – either one of their own or someone known by their kids. It’s a warzone out there.

Another friend, involved in a ministry in Chattanooga, told me how, some time ago, some local community development experts had gone around to low income neighborhoods and asked people: “What do you want to change in your community?” One girl answered: “I just wish I wouldn’t get raped so much.”

Inner city inequalities, education, crime and justice came on my radar more than usual over the last month or so, when I took on a freelance assignment chronicling the 20-year history of a school in inner city Birmingham. I listened and collected the stories of the courageous and driven men and women who had been instrumental in founding the school, and turned them into polished articles. Their stories were inspiring and, frankly, heartbreaking at times. I know I only scratched the surface, but it’s good to hear of an organization gaining some real headway in inner city ministry and education.

Building from the foundation of a pre-existing after-school care and tutoring ministry called El Shaddai, Cornerstone Schools was started in downtown Birmingham in 1993 with the mission of renewing the neighborhoods of a crumbling city. The inner city carried the weight of a dark history of racism and bombed churches, and cracked at the seams by a seemingly endless cycle of pervasive poverty, violence, drugs, and gangs. I listened to the stories of drive-by shootings, households with no father-figure in sight, and a 12-year-old kid trying to succeed scholastically who was beaten up by a group of baseball bat wielding teens hired by the boy’s aunt, angry because, in her words: “You can’t be better than us.”

Spearheading Cornerstone’s efforts was Molton Williams, a successful Birmingham businessman who had developed a passion for transforming the inner city through his experiences in prison ministry. Williams, along with other community and business leaders, looked to intervene in the seemingly endless cycle of poverty, crime, and brokenness deeply rooted in the city and its history. The best way to end this cycle, determined Williams, was through education – reaching kids while they were young.

In 1993, El Shaddai officially became Cornerstone Schools of Alabama and started up their elementary classes with K-3rd grade in the El Shaddai ministry center. Within three years, Cornerstone had shifted completely over a property in the Woodlawn area of Birmingham, renting a building from a local Methodist Church on a dollar per year lease for 99 years.

“That’s Bull Connor’s old church,” laughs Board Member Bill Hart. “Bull Connor was the one that called the fire hoses and dogs out on the protestors, that’s the irony. We laugh and say: ‘The very people you hated are having their lives changed by this church.’”

The years that followed had plenty of bumps, but Cornerstone has grown from 15 students in the very first class at El Shaddai to nearly 300 hundred students, from an after-school tutoring center to a top notch center for inner city education, Christ-centered character development and transformation.

“We’ve become, I think, probably the best private school within the city limits of Birmingham,” says Nabers. “We created a school to give an excellent primary education to kids, and that’s what we do. I want us to be a light on a hill, an example to the community that – Yes. Inner city education is possible. And you can give a really good education to really poor people, at a very low cost compared to public education. “

Neighborhoods and communities in Birmingham (and elsewhere I’m sure) are seeing real, redemptive change. It’s not just Cornerstone of course. A few of the struggling parts of town have seen a huge influx of ministries and community leaders actively looking to take back their neighborhoods, but it’s all made a difference and shown that such a thing is in fact possible.

In Camden, Jackson, Birmingham, and Chattanooga, bullets fly and lives break and fatalism sets in cyclically and exponentially far more than we would like to admit to ourselves. This is America, after all. We’ve got it together. We’d like to think that the real gritty stuff only happens to either bad people in dark alleys or in the far frontiers of continents more ancient than our own. I have no magical prescription for “fixing” things, but the answer is not to hole ourselves up in suburbs and church walls and grumble between bites of raspberry-nutella muffin that “the neighborhood is going to hell,” but rather to look for ways to learn what’s going on in our own town and then to engage. Schools like Cornerstone give us an example of one way that can be done, and its a privilege to tell stories like theirs.