“Even if we are not sure how it is going to end, we still have this obligation to struggle.” Chinua Achebe
Holding out hope for those who are least likely to believe in it is, in itself, a story with a question mark at the end.
I recently moved into Columbus’ oldest neighborhood. There isn’t a street in the neighborhood without at least one abandoned and dilapidated house. Sex trafficking happens regularly here, slightly hidden under the veil of more conventional inner-city issues of drugs, domestic violence, and unjust landlords. We might label it poverty. We might be right. But a friend of mine who moved into the neighborhood with his wife and kids 6 years ago recently wrote “that poverty is a mask we put on a person to cover up his or her real wealth.” The issues can be made into little platforms where we stand on top. And whether in pity or anger or ignorance, we confidently and grandly talk about solutions. But we have stopped laboring for an actual flesh and blood solution. And perhaps we never did.
There are those who do struggle, who walk the long roads where hope is whispered and not shouted. To shout is too much. To whisper is to have not given up. I have become friends with some of these folks. They live in Kolkata, and in Columbus, and deep in the heart of Appalachia, and even in the suburbs. They live with feet firmly planted, toes squishing into the mud and muck of struggle. They choose to engage.
In Columbus, a local bicycle co-op now stands in the place of a previously empty store front. Getting advice on fixing your brakes or changing your tire becomes a way to find where you belong, even if the only thing you own is a broken and rusted bicycle. The local community gardens reclaim empty lots, recognizing the value of the neighborhood and the people that have lived here their whole lives. To engage in my neighborhood is to uncover what labels and stereotypes and fear would mask. It is a choice to embrace suffering. To simply ask “who is struggling, so that I can go and be with them?”
In Kolkata, a business now stands as a light in the place where darkness had previously won the day. Suffering has a confidant. Sari Bari’s place of engagement means that no one has to go it alone. And if you go and visit, you will see it with your own eyes. The tenderness of it will bring you to tears.
We live in a culture that celebrates victory, triumph, and all the glitter and glitz that accompanies it. Yet if you desire more than glitter, a walk towards the brokenness may reveal the gifts you hope to receive. The first step in making hope tangible is to suffer with and among. It doesn’t end there, but it does begin in that space and it holds out hope for what is not yet known.
Merilee Newsham is Sari Bari’s U.S. Distributor, making sure that every beautiful blanket or bag ordered from the website arrives safely at its destination. She’s visited Sari Bari several times over the last 4 years, and most recently in May, where she re-connected with the fantastic ladies of Sari Bari and enjoyed many afternoons of stories (shared properly with tea and biscuits!)
Prior to working for Sari Bari, Merilee’s passion for empowerment and leadership had taken her to Appalachia, where she spent five years as a community development youth worker in one of America’s most under-resourced counties. She considers her work with local teens in a youth entrepreneurship program as the most rewarding work she’s ever had. This past spring, Merilee earned a master’s degree in applied economics from Ohio State University. She hopes to use her degree in future work through research and analysis of poverty and its causes and solutions.