I have never seen poverty that looks like the slums of Delhi.
This poverty is dirty. Oppressed. It’s full of chaos and strict gender roles and nonexistent dreams and smog. It’s surrounded by traffic and feces and garbage. It hurts.
I’ve been to a lot of materially poor places. I’ve met plenty of people who have literally nothing – no electricity, no water, no education. In Africa, I’ve spent countless days in huts built from mud and sticks. I’ve sat under countless tin roofs, thatch roofs, broken roofs. In the Philippines, I spent my days with people living on less than fifty cents a day – some of the poorest people on the entire planet.
I’ve seen poverty that is statistically “worse” than that in India. Many times, in fact.
But this feels all new.
I walk through the narrow streets, open sewage running inches from my feet, piles of feces dotting the road. Babies play naked, dark charcoal eyeliner rimming their infant eyes. Women hide behind brightly colored scarves, the sequins and patterns masking their bright smiles.
It hurts my heart to be here.
Because here, while they may have lights and cement floors and brick walls, so many are missing the one thing that matters more than almost anything else: hope.
In my interviews in India, I’ve heard women say that their community is focused on educating their sons, not their daughters. I’ve listened as they say, with complete honesty, that they don’t have any dreams for themselves – only for their children to get settled and have jobs.
It feels like so many have given up.
And yet each time I approach a home, one particular chorus runs through my mind:
“Take off your sandals, the place you are standing is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5)
With all the dirt and sewage and mess and brokenness, this place is holy. Set apart.
One of the greatest privileges of my life is that I am invited into so many peoples’ homes. I am welcomed into tiny rooms and narrow staircases. I am honored with the one chair in the room, or ushered to sit on the bed that shares the same space as the kitchen, which is also the living room. Or best of all, I get to sit, barefoot and cross-legged, on the floor alongside amazing women living unimaginable lives.
In India, when you enter a home, you remove your shoes. You walk barefoot.
And so, at each doorway, “Take off your sandals, the place you are standing is holy ground.”
No matter how remarkably absent he feels, God is in this place.
Because God is in every place.
And in these homes, God will show himself. He will say the words that he spoke to the Israelites in Egypt. The words that have rung true for thousands of years. The words that make it possible to deal with what I see each day in the broken, hidden places of the world:
“I have surely seen the affliction of my people…I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”
These homes – these tiny rooms filled with moms and babies and sewing machines and kitchen utensils – they are just buildings. They aren’t particularly special in and of themselves. But they are full of life. And life has potential. Life has a heartbeat. Life has a future. God sees the life. He sees the affliction and knows the sufferings. He is coming to deliver them, and us, and me.
And so I take off my shoes.
I step into the holy.
I sit, cross-legged and barefoot.
I listen to people share their stories. Their hard, painful, hopeless stories.
And I can’t fix them. I can’t fix their stories. I can’t make it better.
But I can smile. And acknowledge their life. Their humanity. Their personhood.
I can write their stories and share their stories and promise that they won’t be forgotten. I can ask them questions about their dreams. And even if they answer, “I don’t have any,” maybe that simple question is a spark to think about tomorrow, and the day after that.
For just a moment, I can be love. I can be hope. I can be another person – foreign and separate in so many ways – who just shows up. And while we don’t speak the same language or share the same beliefs or practice the same traditions, we are both people. We both have stories. And we both want to be acknowledged as such.
I can bare my feet and heart and humanity and feel this reality without a barrier, no matter how much it hurts.
And I can think of few things more holy than that.