ISAIAH 58:6-9A

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

INTRODUCTION
In this new year, I hope that you are full of anticipation and hope—hope for renewal, hope for healing, a hope to sense God’s divine light, hope to experience God’s overwhelming presence.

At the start of every year, I ask the Lord to reveal to me a word which will be an anchor of hope throughout the year. I haven’t heard the word for this year yet, but last year’s word came very clearly—it was liberation.

I sensed God pushing me toward something greater—but, I first needed to be released. Released from bondage that I didn’t even know I was in.

This morning, I’d like to share how I have been a witness to God’s story of liberation that has been unfolding.

LIBERATION
When I visited you all in May, I told a story of a young woman named Claire in Kenya. A survivor of rape, gang rape, and prostitution. Last June, she gradated with her BA in communications and is now a staff member of our organization, Freely in Hope—we work together to equip survivors to lead in ending the cycle of sexual violence. She is the program designer and storyteller and trains survivors of violence to share their stories with dignity.

As I have observed her transformation these past six years, I began to reflect on what liberation could look like for me. Her very evident sense of physical and vocational liberation became a mirror to my own soul—I saw that I too was in need of freedom. Not in the physical sense, but in the spiritual realm to better understand God’s liberating power in my own life.

Though my work has been dedicated to liberation, I was not experiencing liberation personally. I was stuck.

Perhaps you, like me, are also longing to be freed—but are uncertain as to what we need to be freed from.

As I heard this word, “liberation,” at the start of the year, it seemed like a daunting task—like an impossible dream for myself.

This year, I began to understand that perhaps freedom is closer to us than we realized. Perhaps we are in need of freedom in places unknown to us now, but revealed to us through the image of our global community.

SICK STORY

Three years ago, the issues surrounding my global community were so massive that secondary post traumatic stress disorder escalated into physical illness. Throughout Kenya and Zambia, I was hearing story after story of trauma upon trauma that had affected the girls that I love most—drug rapes and gang rapes, witchcraft and substance abuse, unplanned pregnancies, unwanted abortions, and attempted suicides—I believed that the issues surrounding my community were reflections of my failed leadership.

And so I overworked myself as an attempt dispel the lie of unworthiness. If I could only work harder, if I could only see an end to this gross injustice, if I could only put these rapists in prison, if I could only save others,—then, will God notice me.

I had imprisoned myself in a web of impossible expectations that were based on my need to control.

The accumulation of 4 years filled with stories of unspeakable violence left me in Zambia—hospitalized with some dreadful, unnamed virus. It fractured my spirit more so than my body.

My body rejected everything including water but my spirit rejected my sense of worth.
My head was consumed with a relentless pain but my mind was tortured with thoughts of inadequacy.
I lost 15 pounds and thought that I lost my calling in the process.

I was in desperate need of healing—not just from physical pains, but from internal wounds of self-affliction. As I was feeling the weight of the oppression surrounding me I had also oppressed myself.

I over identfying with the lie of “I am what I do,” thinking that if I didn’t do enough or if I had failed in my doing, my worth was diminished. Though I tried hard to control all that I did in my work, physical illness was something that I could not control. In my illness, I could do nothing. Therefore, I thought, I am nothing.

When I was finally released from the hospital, I was put on these dreadful antibiotics that truly made me feel like nothing.

Lying in bed, unable to move, sweating in desert heat, nauseous and barely conscious, I was unable to rest from the anxiety and tormenting flashbacks from PTSD. My mind was filled with words and images I would rather not see or hear. It inhibited my ability to pray. Even when I did muster up strength to pray, I didn’t feel as if I was worthy of being heard.

I was desperately searching for some source of light, sense of hope, some word from God.

I read this scripture in Isaiah 58 and it says:
IF you free the oppressed, if you break the yokes of injustice, if you share your food and provide shelter for the poor, if you clothe the naked, THEN there will be light and healing.

As I was reading—I asked, When God? When will your light break forth and your healing quickly appear? When will you finally answer when I call? When will your presence manifest in the moments that I cry. When?

As I lamented in feeling imprisoned in pain that I had never before experienced, I remembered this quote from St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”
Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered for his stance on justice, takes this a step further by saying, “The glory of God is a poor person fully alive.”

And I remembered Clare.

And I remembered the countless times God had freed her—from self-hatred to an all embracing love, from drug addiction to sobriety, from the dangers of prostitution to the safety of community, from silencing her dreams to finishing a bachelors in communication, from hopeless despair to a powerful example of liberation.

The glory of God reveals his presence through the oppressed.

We see this time and time again where, true to Christ’s nature, liberation comes from the most unlikely places:
From feeding troughs and slave chains,
From the wilderness and from ghettos,
From the oppressed and the oppressors,
From Gentiles and Samaritans,
From the hands of murderers and the hearts of womanizers,
From women of royalty and women in prostitution.

There, as we become a witness to God’s work that uplifts the poor—perhaps we begin to see them in a different light. As liberators and saviors—saving us from the bondage that we didn’t even know we were in.

It is in these seemingly dark spaces that I myself have been freed—freed from the bonds of unworthiness and the yoke of expectations, freed from my need to control.

Freed from the fear of love and being transformed by that love.

IF we engage in the work of liberation, THEN, we experience manifestations of liberation.

It is in recognizing our need for freedom, Christ says: “Here am I”:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,
Here am I, for I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
Here am I, a stranger, a wanderer,
Here am I, your own flesh and blood,
Here am I, disguised as the least of these,
Here am I, chained to the yoke of oppression,
Here am I, unveiled as a version of yourself,
Here am I, the truth of injustice,
Here am I, to bring about liberation.

IF you set the oppressed free, THEN will I say, “Here am I.”

Amidst the suffering of the oppressed is how we will experience divine light and healing presence—this is the experience of God’s glory in the form of humanity.

ALMOST TRAFFICKED

It is here, that my healing quickly appeared—for even the healing of our bodies we cannot control.

After recovering from my illness, I went back to Kenya the following year with the intention to raise up the next generation of survivors to become leaders in Freely in Hope. We were asked to facilitate a program with women in prostitution in the village, and I brought Clare to speak.

She had such a groundbreaking experience with these women that she said, “We should do this internationally! I already have my passport.” I was surprised to hear this because passports don’t come often or easily for people living in the slums. She said that when she was working in the brothel, her pimp told her that instead of making $1 in Kenya per night, she would make $100 in America per night. With the promise of work in America, her pimp got her a passport and was waiting to get the visa.

But when the opportunity to go to college came up through Freely in Hope, she left the brothel for good. She moved out of her little cubicle, gathering all of her possessions, including her passport without the visa. I was stunned and said, “Do you know that you were almost trafficked?” Had she gotten her visa, she would have been trafficked. She asked, “What’s that?

After explaining to her what human trafficking is, we sat in silence. Both of us feeling so incredibly grateful to be free. For little did we know, that beyond our control, God was using Freely in Hope to prevent her from being trafficked.

The paradox is this—It is in these seemingly dark places that I’ve been a witness to light—from death to life, dreams are birthed and lives, reborn.

I have learned from their authentic voices that speak truth into dark places. It is the voices arising from places of oppression that provide a sense of hope for redemption, for liberation for me.

While I was working hard to heal their wounds I found that their courageous lives were actually healing mine. And in remembering her liberation, I am also freed from my ignorance and pride, selfishness and self-oppression, feelings of unworthiness, and my need to control.

This is what it looks like for light to break forth and healing to quickly appear.

Freedom came when I allowed God to take control.

Two months ago, Clare’s story of freedom collided with stories of bondage. We were co-teaching in Barcelona with Youth With a Mission—training artists and missionaries on using the power of art to heal survivors of sexual violence.

One night, our Spanish friend invited us to go to the streets and bring coffee and cookies to the women working.
We were scared—afraid that this experience might re-traumatize us. It was too close to home.

LA RAMBLAS
But Clare and I went and walked along La Rambla, Barcelona’s infamous shopping street. Amidst European shoppers passing by glowing window displays full of shiny objects, others were shopping in the darkness of back alleys. These alleys were full—not of fancy window displays—but of reality: of cigarette smoke, of the stench of urine in the streets, of little girls with Nokia cell phones, of men holding cash money with dirty hands.

Our Spanish friend told us that women on the streets are predominantly African and Chinese—locked in brothels next to her apartment, trafficked in shipping containers by the Chinese mafia, forced across borders from Nigeria to Spain before entering the U.S.

The trafficked women of La Rambla look exactly like us.

And in those dark alleys, the eyes of men stared at us as corpses, slowly brushing past our bodies, whispering profanities in our ears, invading our right to privacy. A man asked Clare, “Are you working?” She yelled back at him, “No!” And I pulled her close—I could feel her anger rising. Flashbacks of almost losing her once before overwhelmed me—for there were too many times that she didn’t know that she had the option to say, “no.” I held her even tighter to keep our arms from throwing punches.

In my anger and rage, I thought, how beautiful—that she can now say “no,” that she is stronger than he, that she can save herself, that she is confidently walking among places of gross abuse, that she is ready to fight back, that she is intentionally going back into the darkness to find her redemption.

A moment later, a little Nigerian girl walked up to us. She was barely 5 feet tall. Our friends offered her some hot coffee and Clare talked to her. She said she was 22, but she couldn’t be past 18.

I watched their interaction in awe. How beautiful it is that the one who once had no option is now giving her an option, that the one who could not recognize the power of her voice is now reminding her to listen to the inner voice within, that the one who didn’t know she was a warrior is now fighting for her freedom and safety, that the one who is now liberated is relentlessly liberating little girls around her.

And as I witnessed the beauty of this interaction, the little girl’s Nokia cellphone rang. She thanked us and with a look of empathy, Clare gave her a warm hug. The little girl walked down the street, met a man much older and taller than she, and entered into the brothel. The doors closed behind her. I looked at Clare and there was unspeakable pain in her eyes—her eyes retraced the steps of that little Nigerian girl that was once within arms reach but was now imprisoned in a place that Clare knew far too well. And I knew, what she was thinking—that the little Nigerian girl could have been her.

She was hugging another version of herself. Her name was Faith.

We met two more Nigerian women. Their laughter echoed throughout the streets—one named Blessing and the other Loveth. Their laughter was contagious and confusing—perhaps laughter was the only way to cope in such agony and despair. Perhaps laughter became our common language that spoke life beyond any warm words we could offer. After exchanging what semblance of happiness was left, Clare offered to pray for them—for their peace of mind, their safety, their children.

Before Clare could say Amen, a man came from behind and forcefully grabbed her arm to pull her out of our prayer circle of safety. Blessing yelled at him, “Don’t bother her, we are praying! God is not pleased! The fire of God is coming down!” Clare was saved, this time, by one who was not yet freed.

And again I thought, how beautiful—that the one still in bondage is able to defend her, that the one who has not yet had an option is the one giving the option to her, that the one without an advocate is advocating for her, that the one who has not yet recognized the power in her voice is speaking up for her, that the one named Blessing is blessing us with her presence, that the one who has not yet been liberated knows what liberation could look like for herself.

That night, we were saved, not by ourselves, but by God manifested through the voice of a woman in prostitution.

Our liberation is bound to each other.

For in communion with the least of these is where we experience the presence of God

In working together toward liberation, we are liberated together—there we realize that liberation is not just near, but it is here.

Where the spirit of the Lord is there is freedom.

PRAYER
Spirit of the living God,
At the start of this year, we are full of hope
hope for healing from pain,
hope to sense your divine light,
hope to experience your presence.

May we engage in the fasting you have chosen,
to loosen the chains of injustice,
to break the yoke of systemic oppression, never to be used again,
to share and to shelter,
to be present to those who need it most.

In doing so, may we experience your presence like never before
through the voices at the margins,
through the stories of the poor,
through relationship with liberators.

Free us as we free others.