We wove through streets that didn’t look out of the ordinary for Varanasi. Men rode by on bicycles, ringing their bells as they dodged around stray dogs, pedestrians, and potholes that we would probably classify as ditches in America. Shops with snacks, tobacco, and small packets of soap were scattered down the street. Making up the space from shop to shop were doors of many colors which were cracked open enough to teasingly reveal the humble homes behind them. Alleys twisted off in between the doors that led to more doors concealing many more mysterious lives.
The main difference between this street and the thousands that look just like it in this city is the women. Those that would typically be found inside taking care of household duties or tending to family members, here sit idly in the thresholds of their identified doors, occasionally chattering with a neighboring door-dweller. The men squat in groups on mats laid in patches of grass speaking loudly, laughing, and throwing down cards.
Our friend came to meet us in the street then turned to lead us down one of the alleys to the side. We turned a few corners, greeted a couple clusters of saree-clad women, and passed door after door until we got to her’s. She went right to work preparing a delightful orange colored treat for us and it wasn’t until we were full and satisfied that she sat and I was able to actually see her.
I saw everything. I saw the attention-seeking, flirty personality that she held in her back pocket for the moments she would need it. I saw her “profession” and all the labels the world slaps on her: dirty, worthless, dishonorable, whore. I saw her in helplessness and I knew she had little to offer me. I saw the bitter little girl who had been hurt by broken trust too many times by Christians and non-Christians alike. I saw her sincerity, vivacity, spunk, compassion, and strong will. I saw her vibrant smile slowly lighting up her face and the twinkle of hope hiding in her eyes. The mysterious facade she wore just waited for someone brave enough to peel it back and cross the threshold.
I loved her.
I didn’t love her out of pity, obligation, or even compassion. I didn’t love her because I had something to offer her or because she was something that was broken and needed fixing. I loved her because I loved her. I loved her because I saw her like Jesus saw her, in all her mess and all her majesty.
The newness of the ghats had worn off. I’ve seen this place enough to understand on a surface level how life and survival and religion works here. Still as I walked on the uneven brick I tried to wrap my mind around the mysteries of India. Bells ring faintly in the distance as a small crowd gathers for evening puja (worship). On this rainy grey evening there’s an eeriness about the noise and the ancient brick buildings towering up five stories high along the river. Each drop of rain ripples across the surface of the opaque water. On the filthiest river in the world, rancid with the stench of human waste, you can occasionally see a dead cow floating amongst the trash and ashes of human bodies burned in temples along the shores. Nearly naked men stood waste deep in the water and poured the allegedly purifying holy water over their heads, allowing it to run into their mouths so they could have more of a chance at attaining the next life.
As I approached the stage my head started ringing with the redundant clanging noises being lifted to the gods. Men, dressed in extravagant outfits, danced in the spotlight in front of the river with flaming torches in hand and incense burning at their feet, attracting a crowd of Hindu worshippers and foreign spectators. A giant pillar raises to the side of the crowd with a mural of the god of destruction, Shiva, with six arms, blue skin, a scepter in hand, and a great and terrible expression.
As I walked I wondered at India. She is so extravagant, flashy, and attention-seeking. People have questioned me countless times on why I would ever want to visit her; after all she’s dirty, crowded, and incredibly poor. The darkness can be overwhelming, worship is lifted to a different god at every corner and in every home. Sometimes I wonder if this nation has anything to offer me. It seems like there’s brokenness wherever you look, even in the church. Yet, she is beautifully intense, expressive, hospitable, committed, and vibrant. And there’s something brewing beneath her bricks that smells good. There’s a faint sound of life and hope reverberating from the questioning hearts that fill every street.
I love her.
I love her in the same unexplainable, unjustifiable way that I love the prostitute. I love her fiercely, just like God loved Israel fiercely even when she was whoring after other gods. I love her in the way Jesus loves the church. I can’t help it. I love her because I love her, in all her mess and all her majesty.
And the LORD said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods” ~ Hosea 3:1