Everything was different about this church; the heat, the sounds, and the smells. Natalie was driven along the streets that belonged to the pimps of the district in India. She was visiting a project in the middle of the brothel district, which the church had set up to provide a safe place for children of the sex workers, many of whom were enslaved. The project leaders hoped that, by accessing some education, these kids would have a route out of the area and be able to live a different life.
One thing that Natalie couldn’t get her head around was the fact that, after a lifetime of forced prostitution and abuse, many of the women would go on to become the ‘mamas’ that run the brothels. After being trafficked at a young age, forced to be a sex slave to hundreds of men, to live at the cruel hands of the pimps and mamas, how could they go on to do the same to other young, innocent girls? How could they inflict the same pain and abuse on others when they knew the devastating consequences?
Then it clicked.
The women became the mamas because they had no choice. They could never go home. The shame would be too great. To return to their village after what had been done to them was unthinkable. Their families would neither welcome nor accept them ever again. When they were perceived to be too old for prostitution, there seemed no other path for them, but to take on a position of influence within a brothel.
Shame is so powerful that it can cause you to subject others to the very things you have been forced to endure. Shame can rob us of choices, leaving us feeling compelled to follow a path that seems inescapable.
The Shameful Past of Jesus, the Shame Destroyer
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. These five women are listed in Jesus’ genealogy. A prostitute, an incestuous encounter, and a teen pregnancy out of wedlock. Jesus chooses to place himself in a family tree with many disgraced women. Matthew is preaching the scandalous gospel of the mercy of God made available to us through the person of Jesus – Immanuel – God with us.
Despite the filth of sin, shame, incest, rape, and even murder, God doesn’t cast us out but shows us mercy and acceptance – even honour, actively choosing to associate himself closely.
Jesus is the way, the truth and life, and the means by which the shame cycle is broken. We can be set free from our shame, including where any of us feels forced to inflict shame on others in an attempt to hide our own.
Breaking Strongholds of Shame in the Middle East
In our small church plant of around twenty people, we all come with our own stories and pain. As the gospel transforms us, we learn to respond to one another with grace, forgiveness, and mercy – even when we hurt one another.
Our prayer is to breed a culture of grace that challenges the under-the-surface cultural strongholds that make it tempting for those new believers to attack another when they feel exposed, or are reminded of their shameful pasts.
As the family of Christ in the Middle East, there are ways in which we can bridge the gaps and honour one another.
In times of conflict, an intermediary person brings a challenge to another brother or sister instead of doing it directly to protect their honour.
It means putting a box for offerings at the back of the church instead of passing it around in the meeting, so those who can’t give aren’t embarrassed.
It means passing on a bag of children’s clothes to the needy family, saying, ‘Do you know anyone who could use these?’ instead of directly saying, ‘These are for you.’
It’s quickly and wordlessly handing your bank card to the waiter when someone else’s card gets declined at lunch.
It is confessing our sin together and eating and drinking the sacred cup that represents our restored purity and dignity in the blood of Christ in our weekly home groups.
It’s calling the brother who is quiet in our small groups WhatsApp chat instead of repeatedly publicly messaging. He may be feeling embarrassed and ashamed that his circumstances won’t allow him to attend to group that week.
Rachel Wilson touched on ‘mirroring’ as an essential tool to help offer dignity and honour to those we are serving in any capacity. Power imbalances in relationships can occur both in projects in the UK and in the Middle Eastern church.
A friend who used to work for social services shared her story with me. When her family required social work support a few years later, the tables had turned. Instead of being the intervening professional, her home was under watchful and judging eyes. She felt shame that she could not keep her child as safe as she would want without outside support.
My friend has experienced firsthand how a skilled social worker is able to swiftly disarm and reassure with their words, even by offering forward some of their own limitations, mistakes and mishaps as a parent.
Mirroring also means, where possible, ensuring that our teams reflect the demographic of those we’re trying to reach.
In my church here, in the Middle East, my male team leader brings female team members to have that pastoral chat with any young women over Zoom.
Let’s aim to build truly diverse teams (that take into account ethnicity, gender, age, accent, class, life experience and beyond) in our projects and churches.
Is There Something Wrong with Me?
In another honest example from Natalie’s life, she explains how she attended an Adult Community Education cookery course when she was in her mid-thirties. When chopping an onion for the first time, the chef told her it was the best onion chopping he’d ever seen for a beginner! She was so happy about it – to the point that she even asked herself why such a seemingly unimportant event evoked such pride in her.
She later realised it was because she had felt shame at being unable to cook.
When churches run courses to help people learn basic skills, it is often the case that the paralysing effect of shame like this means those who need it most, don’t come.
This year in the Middle East, our church will start the CAP Money Course to help local people gain a greater understanding of how to manage finances. We are considering carefully how we invite people in a way that is honourable and dignifying.
If people are in debt, they may know where exactly every penny is spent because they have to, or they may have never learned how to manage money. Those who don’t know how to budget may feel like Natalie did when she learned to chop an onion: ‘There’s something wrong with me because I don’t know how to do something everyone else does.’
Whether you’re in the UK or the Middle East, perhaps take a moment today to consider how you steward your vocabulary, appearance, volunteers, and event invitations to eliminate shame, and evoke esteem and honour in those you’re serving?
“No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame” (Psalm 25:3)
Isabella Hope is regular contributor for the Unreached Network. She is a Brit living in the Middle East working out what justice and mercy in the church look like both at home and abroad. This post first appeared for Jubilee Plus: https://jubilee-plus.org/blog/1118/shame-free-part-two/