Lost: One fuchsia sari underskirt. Last seen at the Top Star Laundry in Mahabs.
With just a few days remaining of our time in India, I discovered that the underskirt to my beloved purple teacher's sari was missing. The sari was a special gift from the teachers 2 years ago and I wanted to wear it today, one my last days, in their honor. When I remembered that the purple sari had recently returned from the laundry, I decided that the underskirt must have been accidentally left behind at the laundry on the last trip. With just two days remaining before we leave, I was very busy at school so Jim volunteered to go back to the laundry to see if it was there. At least that was the plan when we left for school. Have you ever heard that expression, "If you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans."?
As almost always happens every day, how we think we're going to spend our day is not what actually happens. "Welcome to India."
Today was no different. Shortly after we arrived at school and enjoyed Morning Assembly with the kids, Jim got a call just as he was leaving for the laundry trip. John Christian needed his help in Chennai again, moving more items to the new church. I was happy for him to go and have one last male-bonding experience with the guys but I also knew I would have to work hard to squeeze in a quick trip to the laundry if I were ever going to see my underskirt again. The teacher trainings have gone so well that in addition to the all-afternoon trainings, I am also meeting individually with teachers before we leave, sharing and praying together.
Mahabs is a very safe village and I have run a few errands by myself in the past. I'm never afraid and by now, many of the villagers and most of the merchants on the streets know us. But sometimes, that's the problem. As Jim stated last summer, "We don't fit in." We are acutely aware that everyone in this village watches our every move and in some regards, this is very reassuring to know we are under watchful eyes of protection. But it's also a little intimidating to know that every little stumble in my long sari skirt, every cultural faux pas, and every action will be noticed, and remembered, and we'll be reminded of at some point in the future. So as I
stepped out of the gates of the school, I was acutely aware that I was on display by myself on the streets of Mahabs. A woman's role in India is quite different from that of women in America and that includes her appearances in public, especially by herself. There are unspoken rules of proper behavior and while a woman is permitted to walk on the street by herself, she must carry herself in an elegant and proper manner at all times. As I walked toward the laundry, I pictured an India woman balancing a large tub of fish on her head as she glided along gracefully, sari sweeping the dirt and never, never exposing her ankles. It's a mystery to me, as I hold my sari up high, stumbling on the uneven pavement, dodging cow piles and rotting melons in the streets.
Today, though, I felt especially graceful as I was wearing my beautiful ivory sari. It was the same sari that I wore last year that caused such a stir from the villagers when we walked all over town one day. I'm not sure if it is the golden threads in the border or the straw color that matches the only blonde hair in town (mine), but every time I wear it, people seem to notice. Today was no different. As I walked to the laundry, merchants and shoppers alike turned to smile and compliment my sari. I finished my businesat
the laundry and quickened my step as I realized I would need to hurry (gracefully hurry, for Indian women don't hurry) if I was going to make it back to my 4th graders in time. I must have not looked too foolish for on the way back down the block, I received two more compliments from passing men. As I did, I thought again, about last summer's story about the ivory sari. I thought about how honored I was in the village because of what I was wearing that day. And then I thought about the rest of that story - of how it troubled me to realize that the Woman in the Plastic Sari that I had seen just the day before was outcast because of what she was wearing.
If you have not read last summer's story of the Woman in the Plastic Sari, you may find it here.
In the past year, we've visited many friends and were honored to learn that so many of you followed our journey on this blog last year. But no matter who we visited, the number #1 question about India was first and always, "Did you ever find the woman in the plastic sari again?" It was obvious that the Holy Spirit stirred so many of your hearts, right along with ours. We've continued to pray for her throughout this past year and hope some of you have prayed, as well.
So, as I approached the corner in the same sari I wore last summer, all those memories came rushing back. In fact, I was so distracted, I almost didn't notice her. I think most villagers of Mahabs would say the same. But here she was! After a year of praying and the past 3 weeks of searching, here she was! We had been searching for The Woman in the Plastic Sari every day since we arrived 3 weeks ago. We had even looked for her along the 100km round trip to Vayaloor last evening. On a few occasions, I thought I saw her when I caught sight of a gray-haired woman in worn clothing. I had hoped that our prayers had been answered and that someone had given her some clothes. But each time I thought I saw her, I was disappointed when I looked closer and discovered it was not her. I was always certain it was not her for I knew I would never forget her face. But now, when I saw her from the back, bent over a dumpster, even without seeing her face, I knew I had found her! A big smile crossed my face and I said an energetic prayer. Yes! Thank you, Jesus!!
She looked almost the same as before. She wore the same dingy gray top but now, she had a filthy piece of cloth over her shoulders like a shawl. And while I was happy to see her clear sheet of plastic sari had been replaced with an opaque white fiber-like plastic sheeting, I was heartbroken to see that she was still, "The Woman in the Plastic Sari." She still had no shoes and I was certain her matted gray hair had not been washed since the last time we'd met last summer. From the back, I could see that she had a gray bird feather stuck in the mats of her hair. A lucky charm for protection, I thought grimly. But as excited as I was to finally find her, I was quickly discouraged. I didn't have anything to give her! I had left school in such a rush that I didn't take my bag, so didn't have any food or money or anything else with me. Not even my video camera.
Once again, in this woman's presence, I stood frozen, uncertain what to do next. She had been lost to me for a year. And now she was found. But what could I do? I had nothing to offer her but prayer. As I prayed, I quickly decided that if I hurried, maybe I could return to school, get some food and other items, and get back to her before she left. I had been waiting for this moment for so long; I was determined to trust God this time.
On the way, I prayed, asking God to please keep her at that dumpster long enough for me to get something for her and get back. I prayed and I ran. Through the crowded bus stop, dodging between people staring at a crazy blonde woman running in an ivory sari. I ran past the flower vendors and the street temple, knowing that I was probably creating a spectacle not at all appropriate for a proper "Mam" in India. I didn't care. God had given her to me and this time, I wasn't frozen in my tracks. I was running for Jesus.
My mind raced right along with my feet. Last year, after our initial encounter with her, we had prepared a care package for her: a bag of nonperishable foods, antibacterial wipes, tissues, shoes, 2 saris, a small booklet called "Knowing Jesus", and 1000 Rupees (about $20 USD). We had carried it with us constantly, every single day until we left. We even drove the back roads of this village, at varying times of the day, praying and searching for any sign of her. When we visited Vayaloor some 50km away, we searched there, hoping for the miracle that never came. She was lost to us and we were left to wonder why God had said no to our prayers - and yours, for so many of you prayed faithfully that we would find her and reach out to her from the heart of Jesus.
So as I ran the 2 long blocks to school, my mind raced as I frantically tried to figure out what I could do for her now, before she disappeared again. I had plenty of food at school as Jim had been expecting to have lunch with me at school. Our refrigerator had quit working again last night, (for the 2nd time this week) and for the 2nd time this week, we had to throw out most of our food. We had salvaged some leftovers from yesterday's lunch of spring rolls, fried rice, and naan and had brought everything to school with the intention of eating it for lunch before it spoiled, too. So as I ran, I thanked Jesus for the good fortune of the refrigerator conking out so that we had lots of food to share with her today. But the issues of clothes and shoes were more troubling. It is common for us to have clothes at school, either on their way to or from the laundry; but today was unusual since we are nearing the end of our stay here and are sending no more clothes to be washed. Our last load of laundry wasn't due back until tomorrow and so here I was, without any clothes to give her. I thought of giving her the ivory sari that I wore. Could I wrap myself in something else until I could get back home to my other clothes? I was crazy enough to run through the dirt streets in a sari but not crazy enough (yet) to take off the only clothes I had. I thought of running to the Acts of Mercy widows' tailoring center across the street from the school. I imagined bursting in and begging for some cloth, but the tailor and the widows don't speak any English so I knew that by the time I made them understand, she might be gone. It was then that I realized I would just have to buy her some clothes. The textile shop is in the opposite direction and I was afraid to let her out of my sight for very long so I decided I would grab some money and food, hurry back to her, and somehow convince her to come with me to buy some clothes.
I ran through the school gates to the smiles of the teachers who were curious why Susie Mam was running with her sari pulled up mid-calf. "I'm OK," I assured them as I rushed past them, hurrying on the way to the library and my personal items. "I have a very important errand to attend to and must go." I thought of my sweet 4th grade class waiting 3 weeks for a bible story and asked the
headmistress to apologize to them if I didn't make it back in time. I grabbed our leftovers and shoved them into a bag that I filled with crackers, breakfast bars, antibacterial wipes, tissues, and even my hairbrush; I decided to keep the lipstick. (My daughter, Ashley, will smile at this.) Last, I dug in my purse and found the copy of "Knowing Jesus" that I keep with me in India. It was the same booklet we had hoped to give her last summer and now, I put 1000 Rupees in it and stuffed it in her bag. I was certain she wouldn't be able to read English and doubted if she could read or write in any language. But for some reason, it was really important for me to include it and hoped that somehow, or through someone, the name "Jesus" would have some meaning for her. Little did I know how true this would be.
I grabbed another 1000 Rupees for the sari I intended to buy her and took off running back to the dumpster. As I ran out of the school gates, I was fully focused on praying that God would keep her at the dumpster until I could get there. I was so distracted that I almost collided with a man and a woman who were carefully making their way across the street, directly in front of the school. Th couple was dressed in typical (but humble) Indian clothing: a simple sari for her and a lunghi for him (a folded skirt-like cloth tied up around the waist so it billows out just above the knees). But for him, there was only one knee, for it was easy to see he had only one leg extending below his lunghi and used a cane for support where his missing leg had been. Once again, just like last year, I was frozen in my tracks. The woman jabbered something to me in Tamil and held out her hand. Though most here live in poverty, we are rarely asked for money in the streets so I was shocked that this woman seemed to be approaching me for help, presumably for the man with one leg. My mind raced while, this time, my feet did not. Who was this man and why had I not seen him in this small village before? Why now? Was I supposed to help them instead? Was the woman in the plastic sari gone already and God was now placing these needy people in my path instead? Or was this a distraction of the enemy - an attempt to divert my attention away from the woman whom I had been searching for, and praying for, for a year? With a quick sigh and a prayer, I shook my head and turned away from the couple, picking up the pace until I was once again hurrying toward my objective. I prayed that if I had chosen poorly, that God would allow me to serve them when I returned. I also gave a quick prayer of thanks that at least this time, I didn't waste time pulling out my video camera.
When I rounded the corner, my eyes searched frantically for her. Hallelujah! There she was! Still digging in the dumpster. I stopped and thanked God for now I knew that after a year of prayers, I was now going to meet her, face to face. I wanted to feed her. I wanted to dress her. I wanted her to have my hairbrush. I wanted her to see the face of Jesus. Understanding this was a holy moment for me, I pulled out my video camera for the first time and slowly walked toward her.
She didn't see me approach, as she was still digging in the dumpster, eating bits of food she found there. The cows on the street eat better than she. Hindus have their own version of a smashing pumpkins ritual where they offer pumpkins (actually green melons) to gods by smashing them in the streets all over town and sprinkling them with red holi powder. The cows love it and follow closely behind the participants, eating the sacrificial leftovers. The woman in the plastic sari wasn't so fortunate, for she had no fresh melons to eat, just rotting leftovers. But I'm confident she expected nothing more. She knew that she was worthless to most everyone here, destined to a life less than an animal.
As I approached her, I stopped short, about 10' behind her, and prayed. Somehow, I sensed the opposition that would come and so I prayed that Jesus would open her heart to my genuine expression of His love. I took a deep breath, and moved toward her. It took her a moment to realize I was there. She continued to eat from the dumpster and didn't look up at me as I stood right beside her. I called to her several times before she noticed me. "Mam. Mam. Mam!", I said. I think she was so used to being invisible in this village that it was hard for her to understand someone would be speaking to her. I realized I need to know her name.
As she turned to me, her eyes were inquisitive, yet extremely black and hard at the same time. Her face had aged in the past year and she had wildness about her that I had not seen in her face last summer. Jim and I have scoured the short video of her over and over again, looking for clues as to her origin, her whereabouts, or her current mental state. She had been very intentional at the well last summer and when she looked directly, but briefly, into the camera, we froze the video, looking for meaning in her face. After much analysis, we came to believe that she was quite lucid and that, sadly, she must be painfully aware of her condition.
That alone, broke our hearts.
But as I stood a few feet from her and looked into those stone-cold eyes, I was reminded of the stone-cold idols that surrounded us. She grunted in an unintelligible language and turned away from me and back to the dumpster. By this time, I was attracting quite a bit of attention. The same men that had complimented me on my ivory sari on my first trip down this street were now even more curious, not about the woman in the plastic sari, but in this strange blonde woman who, in trying to help this person, was acting even crazier. I wonder if they thought I was confronting her because she had stolen from me, or had, (even worse) offended me
by her presence. A nearby man, in very limited English, appeared to be trying to help me. I begged him to speak to her, to tell her I had food for her, and that I wanted to give her some clothing. The man was obviously perplexed and I think he didn't trust his English enough to believe he understood me correctly - that I was actually trying to help her. A young man on a motorbike stopped next. I turned to him. "Please help me!" I begged. "Please!" Both men spoke to the woman and when she spoke back, it was obvious they did not share a common language. The men looked at me, almost apologetically, and shrugged. But they remained close, almost as if to protect me - or perhaps to see what both of these crazy women (one American and the other in a plastic sari) would do next.
I spoke again to the women, telling her I had food for her and that she must take the bag. She ignored me, focusing on the treasures of the dumpster instead. I took the spring roll container out of the bag and opened it, showing her that inside, lay 2 large, delicious, 6" spring rolls, already sliced into small pieces and ready to eat. It was more than either Jim or l could eat in a meal. She paused. I pushed it close to her face. "Please. Please.," I begged. I held my breath, for once again, we were frozen in a suspended moment as she considered the offer. Slowly, her hand reached for the first piece in the corner. She kept her eyes on the food and didn't make eye contact with me as she very slowly put the first bite in her mouth. On her second bite, I slowly found my video camera in my bag and, without taking my eyes off her, began to capture this holy moment - but it lasted just a short time. As she was finishing her third bite, I spoke to her again, telling her I wanted to give her some clothes and that I had more things for her in the bag. When she didn't understand, I touched her plastic sari and her shawl, and then I touched mine. "Clothes.", I said. I motioned for her to come with me, but she didn't understand. So I prayed. I prayed that Jesus would speak to her in a language she understood. And somehow, I believe that's exactly what happened. For as I prayed silently, she quite suddenly turned, threw her remaining tiny bit of spring roll in the dumpster, shoved the full container with all of the remaining spring rolls back to me, and walked rapidly away from me. I called after her, "Wait! Wait! You NEED this! I have more. I have rice. I have more food. I have more. Please!" She didn't look back as she rushed away from me.
Despite the spectacle that I had now created in the middle of the busy street, I ran after her. I caught up to her and walked a few steps beside her. "Please. I have more." I shoved the bag against her arm, not wanting to frighten her by touching her. "Look. This bag is for you." I lowered my voice to barely a whisper, so the gathering crowd couldn't hear. "Rupees. Rupees for you." I pulled the "Knowing Jesus" booklet closer to the top of the bag and pulled the corners of the two 500 Rupees bills out so that she could see the money. She stopped and looked down at the money and then up at me. This must have been more money that she had seen in years. I'm certain she could not fully understand that I wanted her to have it. She seemed confused, but she did not move, looking from the money to my face, over and over. "Please take these Rupees." I whispered. And then I prayed silently and
quickly. Please Jesus, help her understand it's from you. And as I prayed, I turned the little book around so that she could see the name of Jesus on the cover. And that's when it happened.
The wildness returned in a flash. Gone was the lucid, inquisitive expression as she attempted to understand. She shoved the bag with the book and all that money - so much money - back to me, this time almost violently. She babbled frantically as, for the 2nd time, she walked rapidly and forcefully away from me. Away from food. Away from clothes. Away from money. Away from Jesus. I had lost her once before and now, by God's amazing grace, she had been found. And now I was losing her yet again.
This time, hard as it was, I honored her wishes. I stood in the middle of the street and watched her walk away. Where she was going, I did not know. But I knew that where she was going, I could not go. After about a minute, I slowly pulled my video camera out of my bag and for the last time, captured what I feared might be my last sight of her forever. As she walked away, I prayed. She could reject the food and clothes and she could reject the money. She could stop me from helping her, but she could not stop me from praying for her. As I prayed, I wondered at the atrocities that must have been done to her, that had broken her and brought her to this, surely the lowest point of life. Where was the little girl who laughed and played with her friends, had tied ribbons in her hair, and surely had dreamed of a handsome husband who would love and cherish her some day? My heart broke for her. In this culture where generations live together for a lifetime and elders are honored, where is her family? She looked so alone, as she continued down the street, moving farther away with each step. I was losing her again. I prayed again. I prayed that somehow, Jesus would speak to her heart in a way that she could understand. And for the 3rd time that morning, He did. For just as I finished my prayer, she turned back and looked directly at my face and it was then that I knew there was some connection - just a tiny connection in her that somehow understood that this woman in an ivory sari had reached out to her. In that moment, I smiled and waved to her as I turned off the camera. Yes, I prayed once again. Thank you, Jesus.
As I turned to go back to school, I realized, for the first time, how much attention we had attracted. Everywhere I looked, men gathered in small groups at food stalls watching us in silence. I had never approached the men on the streets before but suddenly I found myself crossing the street to a food stall where 3 men were standing. "Do you know this woman," I asked? They shrugged and smiled, again almost apologetically. I continued with the questions in English and even though they didn't speak much English, I began to piece together a tiny bit of information. The woman had appeared in Mahabs about 2 years ago and was homeless. She walked these streets every day, looking for food. They shook their heads when I asked her name. "No name", they said. One man pointed to his head. "Head changed," he said and I thought of the homeless people I had encountered back home and how their mental illness limits their ability to care for themselves or accept help from others. Yes, I could see that she had changed in the past year; I just didn't know why.
"But she needs clothes. Everyone needs clothes!" The men shrugged again. "Will you give her some clothes? Please!" About that time, a well-dressed woman came closer to us, watching me intently, curious about the commotion. I looked at her and said, "You're a woman. You know that a woman needs clothes. Please give her some clothes!" The woman just looked confused and I was left to wonder if, as an Indian woman, she felt powerless in the presence of these men or if she truly didn't understand. "Do you know her name? Every woman has name. We need to know her name." The woman just shrugged and looked helplessly toward the men. There was nothing left to do but to return to school with my full bag of food and all those Rupees. This time I didn't run. I walked slowly, praying, asking God what it all meant.
When I returned to school, I went immediately to the Library and sat quietly by myself for a while. I didn't know what to do next Finally, I decided there was nothing else to do but to eat the remaining portions of spring roll that the woman had rejected. Somehow, it made me feel a little better to know we had shared this meal.
Quite suddenly, I remembered that the 4thgrade students were waiting for me! I grabbed my book and rushed up the stairs. When I appeared in the doorway, they cheered, genuinely excited that I had arrived better late than never. I was thankful that God reminded me that there was still work to do and children to love that day. Being with the children always brings me joy and today was extra special in that regard. Today, I needed their innocence. As I sat down in front of them, preparing to read, I felt the need to apologize for my tardiness. When I began to tell them that I was away on a very important errand, I really had no idea that I would continue talking and tell them the story of the woman in the plastic sari. As I described her and her condition, the little faces winced in sympathy. When I told them I prayed for her for a year, they looked at me in amazement. Even M., an active, fun-loving 10 year old boy seemed mesmerized by the story. Looking into their eyes, I told them that Jesus' love for us is kind of the same. He offers us all food, clothes, friendship, love ... everything we need. And yet some reject His offer. Why? It doesn't make sense to us any more than the woman's actions made sense. Together with the children, we prayed. We prayed for the woman in the plastic sari and we prayed for each of us to accept Jesus' gifts to us every single day. I told the children I was leaving soon and likely would not see her again. When I asked them to watch out for her and to pray for her, they gave me their solemn promise they would do so in my place.
I continue to pray and have so few answers.
Last year, I was certain she was lucid and yet this year, I'm not so sure. What happened to bring about this deterioration? Could I have prayed for her more often?
If she was eating garbage out of a dumpster, why did she refuse good food from me?
She paused when she saw the Rupees and obviously understood their value. Why did she reject them when she saw the "Knowing Jesus" book? It was the same rejection that came when I prayed for Jesus to speak to her heart. This is a dark land, filled with witchcraft and evil of all kinds, the name of Jesus is often met with opposition. What force is at work in this woman that would react so violently to unspoken prayer?
I was frustrated when the villagers seemed to say, "Oh, she's just crazy." How often have I thought that about a street person? This woman is a child of God. He created her to be a beautiful woman, full of life and meant to be loved. John 17: 23 teaches us that God loves us as much as He loves Jesus. He loves her now, as much as he loves me and as much as He loves Jesus.
I'm not giving up on her for I believe there is hope. There's always hope when someone prays. She looked back. Confused as she appeared, "changed" as she was, she knew I was trying to help her. I wasn't sure how much she understood, but in the final moment, she looked back for me. Maybe she wondered if I was real and if I was still there, just as we sometimes wonder if Jesus is real and wonder if He's still there. When she looked back for me, I was still standing there, just as Jesus is still standing there for us too. I'm holding on to hope. But her only hope may come from our prayers. In that final moment, I prayed for Jesus to speak to her heart. Just as I did, I think He did. It was then that she turned around and looked back at me. She must have heard something in her head - something that made her wonder if it was possible that someone could really care for her. I prayed. Jesus answered. She turned.
If you have ever been Lost - Found - and Lost again, will you please join me in praying for the Woman in the Plastic Sari?
"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'
Matthew 25: 39-41