A crazy, messy, beautiful journey

Reflections by Ellie Cooke

I have always had a love for India so deciding to live in Kolkata for nine months was not hard. Living and volunteering in the red light area there was another matter. It was something I prayed hard about and truly felt God had given me a sign to go. I had great support from friends and family and when people asked, “are you not scared to go?” I would say, “no” because it felt right, like this was what I was meant to be doing. I was searching for something extraordinary, something more than just 9-to-5 in a job that didn’t satisfy me, ending each day watching mindless TV and feeling left with no real energy or zest for life.

I had skills and wanted to use them. I remember the first time I was really aware of human trafficking for the sex trade, it was at Greenbelt when I was around 17, listening to a talk called ‘The Truth Isn’t Sexy’. After that my passion for women’s rights, for women’s voices to be heard and my want for them to receive the respectful love that they deserve grew. So off I went to use my design skills; creating new products and training the women to make them, along with graphic work, catalogue design, promotional material and involving myself with photo shoots for Freeset and Sari Bari.

I didn’t really have many prior expectations, I knew I would have a chance to do some great design work, to develop friendships with the staff and local ladies to whom I wanted to show a respectful kind of love. I hoped to build their confidence and in some small way, make an impact in their lives for the better. My goodness how my expectations were exceeded, I experienced so much more than I could have ever anticipated. I made some of the closest life friendships that I think I ever will in my life, not only with the expats, but with some of the ladies and their families too. I have never used Skype so much for keeping these international relationships alive.

My relationship with God was changed too, it strengthened, we became closer and more connected. I never knew how much love I could give, how hard it would be and how much rage I would feel inside of myself. But through all the tough times in the community and personally, I was still the happiest I have ever been. I had found something special, something very hard to explain; I found a level of love, friendship and community which I would have found incomprehensible before I left. Everyone said when I first arrived that after their first visits they had experienced such a sense of brokenness, but it’s only now, looking back that I really understand what they meant.

I feel broken in so many different ways. Despite my close relationship with God, I have more questions now than ever before, more confusion, and whilst I was in India I often felt like I was left in the dark. I was surrounded by poverty, sex, violence, drugs and alcohol constantly. My trust in the judicial system diminished over time, from a mix of personal experience and from living in a community where police stood at the corners of the red light area, fully aware but completely unresponsive to what was going on around them, their behaviour stemming from either corruption, or simply the fact that they didn’t care. There was never really a safe place, apart from my room, to rest, relax and get away from the stares and the inappropriate touching.

Reality was one of the hardest things to face. The longer I was there, the more pain I saw, the more stories I heard and the closer I got to the ladies. There are a lot of harsh realities in Sonagachi, nothing is hidden away, nothing is kept a secret. Girls stand in line at 9am to start work, men are passed out on the pavement from drugs or alcohol, the smell of marijuana fills the air and the girls who are working show all the flesh they can. It was painful to witness. But I learnt that with brokenness comes restoration through faith.

Every day we had devotions together, both at Freeset and Sari Bari. It was always beautiful and moving hearing the women sing and pray for their friends, family and most often thanking God for everything they have. Community was my restorer, community on a level that amazes me still, such generosity and love shown to everyone, from everyone. It made it easy to practice wholehearted living as everyone wanted the same thing. We tried to love selflessly, be generous always and include everyone. I saw so much hope. So many smiles and I never expected such love from the women, I became friends, even family to some. I always felt a warm feeling of happiness when I saw positive marriages in the community, positive relationships based on respect and infinite love. I have a great deal of trust to put in others and in God.

I gave absolutely everything I had inside of me to that community and those women, I was vulnerable, open and honest. I loved the women and all those around me with my whole heart and it broke when I left. Since being home I have been grieving that loss. I devoted my skills, big bear hugs and smiles to those who felt shy and a lot of my time to friendships and trusting in God. But I received so much more than I gave, I received love and affection from the most courageous women I have ever and will ever meet. Love is a very powerful thing and I now believe it’s the most important thing in Christ, in relationships and in life.

I learnt so much about myself, I had no idea how strong and independent I am. I learnt how to love myself, give myself what I needed to maintain a wholehearted life. I learnt what made me, me, what made me happy and how to replenish my soul. Despite being seriously ill, having dealings with the police and going to court, after 9 months I was still being stubborn and holding on. I never wanted to leave, at no point was I ever ‘ready’ to leave. I pictured my worst case scenario when I went to see the doctor one last time regarding my deteriorating health. I imagined he would tell me I needed to go home, that I could not recover in India and that I needed medical attention once home…and that’s exactly how it played out in reality. I was so disappointed, but I had to trust, trust that this was right and say my goodbyes. The women would tell me every day, leading up to my departure, that they would miss me and that I must come back again to visit. We all knew it could never be a ‘goodbye’ from me, just a ‘see you soon’.

My view of life has certainly changed, I’m not interested in a society or community that measures those by how successful they are, how much money they earn or how busy they are. I’m interested in a community and a life filled with generosity, love and respect. I am excited to be home, to work with women in my country who are looking for freedom. I want to walk that freedom journey together. I want to see God more clearly and see the bigger picture. This journey has not ended and I left India realising I had started my own freedom journey, something I never expected or anticipated.

Every day I miss India, miss the crazy, messy beauty of it all. There is so much more to freedom than I ever knew. My innocence of mind has been stolen, my view of life before India, killed, and previous life path I saw for myself destroyed (reflection upon John 10:10). I cannot express how excited I am to continue on this freedom journey, always remembering to, “Be the change you hope to see in the world” – Gandhi