In many ways, this past month was a slower month because it was Ramadan, the month where Muslims fast. Across the country, offices were on shortened hours to accommodate for the majority of the population that was fasting from sunrise to sunset. Although Erin and I weren’t fasting, this season afforded us the ability to get deeper into the various aspects of our roles here. We also had the time to finish setting up our house and to personalize it (as most of the furniture was ‘inherited’ from previous service workers).
One such side project to decorate our apartment was to dye jute sticks, and during this process one of my colleagues told me of a Bangladeshi parable. A farmer was going to distribute his inheritance to his sons, so he called them together. With him was a bundle of jute sticks, and the farmer asked his sons if they could each take a stick and break it. So, the sons each took a jute stick and were each able to easily break it. The farmer then asked his sons if they could now try and break the bundle of jute sticks, and when they tried they couldn’t. Then the farmer said to his sons, when I am gone, if you don’t work together, you will be weak and can easily be broken. But, if you stick together, you will be much stronger.
The main lesson from the jute stick parable is that through right relationships, we are made stronger. Development practitioner, professor and author Bryant Myers states that:
The poor are poor largely because they live in networks of relationships that do not work for their well-being. Their relationships with others are often oppressive and disempowering as a result of the non-poor playing god in the lives of the poor… Poverty is the whole family of our relationships that are not all they can be.
(Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor, 13).
Although Erin and I have very different roles with MCC, there is one project that we both are involved in (although in very different capacities). Sacred Mark Enterprise (SME) is a social business created in 2008 out of an initiative by MCC to provide sustainable alternative employment for women escaping sex work. The women were hired out of another program administered by MCC called ‘Pobitra’, where they received four months of personal training and counseling and four months of technical skills training. One of the goals for Pobitra was that once the women graduated, they would have the skills to find dignified alternative employment. Unfortunately there was still a stigma attached to these women so MCC created SME to employ the graduates.
Today SME is a very successful business that produces natural soaps and recycled sari products. These two product lines are split evenly in sales, and also split evenly in sales within the local market and export (with products being sold as far as Canada and the US, to Europe, and Japan). My involvement with SME has been more on the business and marketing side, primarily working to help set up SME as an independent business outside of MCC and to ensure it has the capacity to continue to grow so that it can hire more women and be sustainable.
Erin’s involvement with SME has been to work with the producers (about 25 full time and 20 part time) by providing monthly health clinics at the workshop for them and their children. Although they are now able to have dignified and stable employment, many of these women still carry deep emotional and physical wounds, and some of them still face ongoing abuse.
Microfinance pioneer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus provides some great insight into the complexity of poverty and the structures that entrap people:
It is so tempting to blame the poor for the problems they face. But when we look at the institutions we have created and how they fail to serve the poor, we see that those institutions and the backward thinking they represent must bear much of the blame.
(Muhammad Yunus, Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism, 51).
It is these backward structures that forced and trapped many women in the sex trade, and it is these unfair structures that continue to neglect and oppress these women. However, through partnering with these women through right relationships, Erin and I have been privileged to engage in the slow process of healing and the restoration of our God given identity for both these women and ourselves.
In the consumer and self-centered society that we all live in, we have been able to participate in what theologian and activist Ron Sider calls God’s preferential option for the poor:
God is not partial. He has the same loving concern for each person he has created. Precisely for that reason he cares as much for the weak and disadvantaged as he does for the strong and fortunate. By contrast with the way you and I, as well as the comfortable and powerful of every age and society, normally act toward the poor, God seems to have an overwhelming bias in favor of the poor. But he is biased only in contrast with our sinful unconcern. It is only when we take our sinful preoccupation with the successful and wealthy as natural and normative that God’s equal concern for all looks like a bias for the poor.
(Ron Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, 15).
I also believe that God desires to not only reconcile people but also structures, so it has been very neat to work with a business that looks beyond the traditional financial bottom line and seeks to maximize social return as well. The tool of business can be used as a significant force for positive change, and this is slowly becoming mainstream thinking and is reflected in the growing number of social businesses:
The purpose of business, they argue, is not to generate profit. The purpose of a business is to better the lives of the people that it touches – and to serve the common good. Profits are essential, but they are no more than the fuel to sustain a business, just as food, water and oxygen sustain us so that we can serve higher purposes.
(Marc Gunther, Faith and Fortune: The Quiet Revolution to Reform American Business, 11).
The name ‘Sacred Mark’ comes from a poem written by Bengali poet and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Rabindranath Tagore. In his poem Gitali 34, he describes the journey from the pain of disgrace to the raging storm of cleansing and the plea for new life, symbolized by a sacred mark. Although many of us have not experienced the depth of trauma that the producers at SME have, we have all been impressed by God with His ‘sacred mark’ and are therefore able to work together in right relationships.
PLEASE BE PRAYING THAT:
1. We continue to get to know our neighbours who have been extremely hospitable
2. We travel safely on the uncomfortable bus ride back and forth to Dhaka for several meetings
3. Erin is able to properly deal with the emotional burden of hearing the stories first hand of the producers at Sacred Mark and other MCC projects
4. MCC Bangladesh continues to work well through a transition time of strategic changes
Nishant (and Erin)
Check out the full album at: July 2014
SACRED MARK: Handmade soaps in Bangladesh:
For more information about Sacred Mark, check out the video below and their website:
Sacred Mark Enterprise (website)