She wore a tattered, pumpkin-orange sweater and a dirty scarf she self-consciously tugged over her dark hair as she entered the dhaba (restaurant). A small girl with luminous eyes, her features whispered of Rajasthan, the desert state. She had a sore on her lip; a tiny plastic gold bauble was clasped around her neck by a piece of thread; and a small mark in her nose indicated where it had been recently pierced. She had no shoes.
As we sat down with her, we looked into her beautiful face. When her gaze drifted from us, they seemed to shift into pools of black, glinting with a haunted expression. The look in her eyes – I had never witnessed it before. It was coiled somewhere between despair and hope. It appeared like flitting shadows over Asha’s face, where her soul suddenly seemed to surface in her eyes before being sucked back down into her immediate concern – eating lunch. We noted her courage, and how much of it was required for this little girl to come into the dhaba with us, her presence drawing stares from the other patrons grazing at surrounding tables.
Asha told us that she had many siblings, though some had passed away. She said she was six years old, although we thought her to be much older.
It broke my heart to watch her try to use a spoon, the handle poised awkwardly in her small fist. She ate her momos (dumplings) thoughtfully, slowly, the juice from within running down her wrist. She didn’t bother to mop it up. We ordered Asha more food than she could eat and she smiled only once during our entire lunch – when she was handed the packet of leftovers just before we left.
After saying goodbye outside of the dhaba, I glanced back to see if I could catch another glimpse of her as she walked away, but she had already slipped down an alley.
Something about the experience made my heart sink like a stone in my chest. After a flurry of anger and sadness, a terrible ache remained like a bruise.
We see poverty every day in India. About 360 million people in this nation suffer without proper provision of food, clothing and shelter. We are actively engaged in serving, supporting, and discipling the poor in our area, mostly women and children. And yet we struggle with the fact that we cannot do more. No child should be born a beggar. Soon after meeting Asha, I read the story about Jesus feeding the 5000 (Matthew 14:13-21) and was struck again by what Jesus said to his disciples: “You give them something to eat.” Then I read the story about him feeding the 4000 (Mark 8:1-8) and again noted what Jesus asked them: “How many loaves do you have?” In both instances, Jesus didn’t just make a feast materialize from thin air, but rather he invited his followers into the creative process of generosity with him and provided through what was already present among them. Does he do the same with us? After my experience with Asha, I noticed something else in those stories – Jesus broke the loaves in order to multiply them. It reminded me again of a quote by Parker Palmer: “When we give our hearts to the world, our hearts will be broken – broken open to become channels for a love greater than our own.” Just like the loaves, we must be broken to be multiplied, not some malicious process of demolition, but like every seed that dies in order that something new might come forth.
India has changed us. Encounters with people like Asha have left their mark on our lives. We are not the same people as when we first arrived. We have witnessed more despair and devastation in these short years than in all our previous years in North America. Yet we are full of hope and more convicted than ever before of what God has called us to do.