Saturday, November 29, 2014

Thanksgiving Among Chosen Family

Thursday, as we sat around a big table crowded with more food than we could possible fit into our stomaches, we clinked glass to chosen family. It was a small group of people that had lived in the city for years and I felt so blessed to have a seat at this table of world changers. This group has celebrated many holidays away from family and friends so they are intentional about celebrating well with pumpkin pies and they even had a turkey this year. We even got hand print turkeys from one of the kids which was the perfect addition to make it feel like home. We watched Elf as the feast was prepared. It was still hard to be away from home and family but it felt really good to be welcomed into a chosen family.

I love the idea of chosen family especially when living halfway around the world. There is a growing group of expats in Kolkata, but there is a small group that was invited to take part in Thanksgiving. It is a group that has walked through the hard goodbyes and rejoiced in the good things together. They know how to be thankful for the little everyday gifts in this city of everyday chaos. We ate together until we could not possibly fit any more stuffing or mashed potatoes into our bellies. There were so many pies so once our stomachs had slightly recovered, they were filled again with pumpkin, pecan and apple pies. My belly was full and my heart was overflowing.

I am about six weeks into my time here and I am loving working with the women at Sari Bari. I have been working on marketing plans and helping with shipping which make the days go quickly. I begin teaching English with a group of managers this week so it will add some variety to my current routine. We live near the red light area so the mooring walk to work is usually less than fun but I have started listening to podcasts on the way so I have some control over what I hear and it drowns out the constant honking and yelling. I am so grateful for technology which has allowed me to keep in touch with family and friends. As the holiday season is in full swing back home, I am missing being home to bake cookies and going to Christmas parties.

I would love to receive notes or Christmas cards through this season so if you feel so inclined send some my way. My address is listed here.

If you want to check out Sari Bari and how you can get involved or buy product check out their website. They have some really great deals for Cyber Monday and they have a ton of bags and blankets which make great Christmas presents. Each purchase helps fan the flame of freedom within the red light areas. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Family. Familia. Poribar.

Family. I have the family I was born into and a few family I was adopted into by circumstance. When I lived in Kolkata a few years ago, I lived with a family which I lovingly refer to as my Indian family. Many times over the last few years I have referred to my Indian sister, brother, mom or dad to which people usually ask if I was adopted or if my family adopted a child from India. I lived with this family for 4 months is a relatively small space where we laughed, learned, ate and cried together. We got a small glimpse into what life is like for Indian families. I will forever cherish those moments of singing the National Anthem (because it was the only song all three of us white girls knew by heart, dancing to T. Swift and chatting with mom while she cooked dinner.

I have been in Kolkata for more than a month, and I had not seen my Indian family until last weekend. I had been looking forward to seeing my little brother and sister who were not so little now and chatting with my mom over tea. I wanted to ask so many questions. I wanted to just sit and hear about their lives over the last 3 years. I walked through the neighborhood which was my home years ago and saw familiar faces and they asked where my roommates were. Upendra met me on the main road and walked me to their new flat, and as we approached, Lucky was waiting at the gate and ran to give me a hug. It was the warm welcoming back into my Indian family. My little brother was not so little anymore and was eager to offer me cold water and a place to sit as we entered their flat. My mom gave me a big hug and welcomed me back. We ate and laughed about all the good times we had over the four months they had 3 American daughters. Mom shared about a time when a man from the neighborhood asked her how she had 3 foreign daughters and she shut him up by asking if he had a problem with it. I sat and talked with them for hours as they fed me until I literally could not eat or drink another bite. It felt just like home. I love how family picks up where it left off. I am so grateful for the family I have around the world.

This week is Thanksgiving. I am thankful for the opportunity to come back to a place to love and serve with some really amazing people. I am thankful to have a community all over the world supporting me on my journey in Kolkata. I am thankful for my community and their ability to walk alongside me in this crazy, chaotic, amazing city. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Month One

I arrived a month ago with so much excitement and anticipation with a mix of fear and anxiety. I have taken on a few big projects that I am excited to share with you as they come to fruition.  I had big picture ideas of how I could use my gifts to help Sari Bari, and I was looking forward to jumping in knowing my time here would fly by. In the last month, I have enjoying tapping into the marketing part of my brain which has been life giving as I get to dream and brainstorm new ideas for getting Sari Bari more exposure online. It has been almost 6 years since I was an intern at an ad agency which was an exhausting time of life but I realize how much I miss the business world. I love getting to plan and dream as I sit among the women which makes me want to work harder to help spread awareness of Sari Bari products and programs. I am also getting to tap into my teacher side by teaching conversational English with the managers. These women are all amazing leaders and I am excited to spend intentional time with them.

I have danced much. I have cried real tears. I have been frustrated. I have seen injustice. I have been welcomed into community. I have read books. I have enjoyed the benefits of technology. I have enjoyed morning coffee. I have built new friendships. I have eaten street food. I have explored new places. I have been force fed. I have been loved well.

I am looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving with my community here. I am excited to attend the Sari Bari Christmas parties where much dancing will happen. I am so grateful for technology so I can be a part of Christmas back home. I am grateful for the strong community here and their willingness to take me in for the holidays. I am forever thankful for my community back home who is reading updates, sending packages, supporting me financially and most importantly praying for each day of my journey in Kolkata. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Beautiful Messes

I was listening to a sermon online this morning on beautiful messes. One thing thing hit me in a new way this morning, I am a beloved child of God. He loves me in an unconditional way and wants the best for me regardless of where I am geographically. Living in a city as broken as Kolkata and working at a business in the middle of the red light district, I sometimes forget God is still good and still working and still wants the best for me as His child.

I have had this discussion with a wide range of friends at home and abroad. This topic has come up in Kolkata about how God does not expect us to have all the answers, but instead, to embrace our own messiness while working to see His beauty in this city. There are many times I feel so inadequate to be a part of the work in this city, but God can work great things through my inadequacies to help me see the beauty among the mess. As I walk through this city, most of my time is spent looking down to make sure I avoid stepping in all different kinds of messes that line the streets. The sweet moments of a Sunday morning stroll or walking through a less crowded corner of Kolkata are when I have the ability to look up to notice the beauty of the city. I see the bright, colorful saris hanging from the building as they dry in the afternoon sun. I see flowers blooming on a tree growing in the middle of a busy sidewalk. The view from our roof helps me change my perspective and the beauty above the chaos. The bright colors of the buildings are faded and slightly decayed, but yesterday I noticed flowers growing out of the broken bricks. It was a visual reminder that life thrives among the brokenness. I am challenging myself to see beauty even among the brokenness of my everyday walk through the red light district to Sari Bari.

As I write this, Christmas music is playing, the weather is turning cold and we are sipping tea. It has been a restful, life-giving weekend going to coffee shops and eating dinner with friends. I am ready to take on another week.

I will leave you with this picture of beauty among the broken. Happy Sunday!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Some Things Will Never Feel Normal

There is a new group of volunteers at Sari Bari for the next few weeks. As I walked them to the metro, we chatted about the trade and working at Sari Bari. One of them asked me if walking through the red light area ever gets easier knowing what is going in the lanes or walking past women who are working the line. I told her it never feels normal knowing what is going on behind closed doors or seeing women line the streets and lanes of the red light area. It breaks my heart and makes me want to break faces when I really think about it. I hate the men that see a woman a something that be used and abused. I hate that often times poverty determines if a woman will enter the trade. The few times I have walked through the heart of the red light area, I felt the heaviness of the area which stayed with me for the rest of the evening. It will never feel normal.

There is such a stark contract between the journey through the streets and lanes surrounding Sari Bari and inside the walls of Sari Bari. There is a sense of peace as I walk up the stairs and say hello to the women. It is a safe place for these women to find freedom and feel secure as they struggle and fight to continue the journey. It had been three years since the last time I was in Kolkata, and when I landed from a journey halfway around the world, Sarah asked me if I wanted to rest or jump right in and head to Sari Bari. It seemed like a no brainer. I went to Sari Bari and it felt as if I had only been gone a few weeks. There is a sense of hope, joy, peace and love among these women. It feels normal.

I will be spending the holidays in Kolkata which is always fun but not always easy to be away from friends and family. One way you can bless me this holiday season is by sending your Christmas photo/card to Kolkata with a fun note or word of encouragement. It will be fun to see familiar faces arrive in the mail and it will serve to make my room feel more homey. If you want to send other fun stuff (drawings from your kids, 99 cent store holiday decorations, magazines, holiday candy, coffee, coloring book masterpieces created by you, etc.) my roommate and I would not be opposed. (If you need my address click here.) I am so thankful for the loving community of people that love me well even half way around the world. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Leaning into Community

I have been in Kolkata for almost 3 weeks. On certain days it feels like I just arrived and certain days like I have been here for months. One of my biggest anxieties/fears (which I was terrified to voice) was finding community when I arrived. I knew the Sari Bari North American staff was intentional about spending time together but what did that look like for a short-term person like me. The community had shifted and changed in the 3 years I had been away and I wouldn't have the familiar faces of my team members from last time. I have been blown away by the way the expat community has welcomed me into small groups and morning coffee and spontaneous outings when we randomly run into each other while shopping. It is nice to have people who can say its okay to not be okay.

Last night we had a Halloween party where we dressed up in costumes, ate pizza on the roof and danced the night away. It was great seeing a group of people from 3 different continents come together and talk about the different projects everyone is involved with throughout the city. We talk about the realities of life here and the poop scale. (Yes it is a real thing.) This morning we had community church where all the expats come together for a time of prayer and Bible study. It blows me away that I get to participate in a group of people that love the Lord and fight for justice for those in this city. I love being challenged to see things in a new way and change the way I view the world and streets of Kolkata. I love being welcomed into this awesome community of amazing human beings.

Personally, the transition into life here has not been nearly as hard as it was last time. I feel at home as I fight my way to get places. I have learned how to buy food at the local market and gotten into a routine of hand washing clothes. My morning cup of coffee helps to start my morning as I pray and think about the upcoming day. The weekends are a gift to sit in shorts and a tank top as I catch up on blogs or reading for my internship. I am blessed to have the support of a loving community praying for me and encouraging me as I continue to do life here. As the holidays approach, please pray for our community as we will all be away from family this holiday season. Pray for health as the seasons are changing and sickness tries to creep in. I am looking forward to dancing, eating and celebrating Christmas with the Sari Bari women and the North American staff.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Importance of a Making Space for the Sabbeth

A few weeks ago, our Friday devotional time was about the importance of taking/having/creating a Sabbath day in our week. At that point I had been in the country approximately 72 hours and knew being intentional about creating space for a sabbath day was a struggle back in the States so I didn’t know what it would look like here. Kolkata is a city that demands respect from all who walk it’s streets so I am learning a sabbath day is super important for sustainability. Often times God sets up divine appointments such as running into friends while shopping yesterday so then we spent the afternoon over delicious treats and coffee. Through my time spent here a few years ago I know Sundays spent in Indian churches often left me more drained than renewed because of the journey to get there and the cultural differences. I wasn’t sure what my morning would look like then I received a text from Sarah, a wonderful human being and  it is a gift to work with her, who had made banana bread and invited me over to indulge in this treat. It was a gift to sit and chat over coffee and banana bread. We talked about God’s goodness through Sari Bari over the years and the way God has blessed her in 10 years in Kolkata. She is a woman who has passionately pursued God’s call and I have already learned so much from her in the few weeks I have been here. I was encouraged and learned so much in the few hours I spent with her this morning. I am learning health rhythms as I settle into life here and a intentional conversation over coffee is becoming something I look forward to as a time of renewal. (If you would like to contribute to the coffee stash that would be greatly appreciated since good coffee beans are not readily available here. You can send them to this address.

One of the big projects I have taken ownership of is the annual Sari Bari quilt auction which will happen in May 2015. We are currently looking for people who would like to make a quilt using recycled saris that would then be auctioned off to raise funds for a new building to provide freedom for more women. If you quilt or know someone who does and would be interested in participating please send me an email ( and I can send you all the information. 

I am in the full swing of life here and it has been a huge blessing the weather has been cooler. We are sleeping without our fan which is a big deal in October. I am learning my way around the city and feel comfortable negotiating the metro. My weeks are full of sitting among the women for tea and speaking broken Bangla. I have enjoyed being welcomed back into the Sari Bari community and I am looking forward loving these women well over the next 6 months. 

Mailing Address

Here is my mailing address for those of you who want to send me words of encouragement, coffee or other fun stuff.

Sari Bari Private Limited
℅ Upendra Saha 
Attn: Natalie Cook
9b Imam Box Lane
Kolkata 700006

If you are sending a package, the best way to ensure that all the contents arrive safely is to wrap the entire box in packing tape. It makes is harder for mail workers to cut into the box and take things out.