Missionary Diary: why I took my family to a red-light district in India

Kerry H shares the lessons God taught him in serving the poor over his 20 years in India.

When I first heard of an opportunity to move to live among vulnerable people in a city in India, I had never been in a low-income country or seen poverty. A Kiwi pastor, I had been to Australia, but that was it. Yet when we encountered God’s incredible heart for the poor through Scripture, my wife Annie and I recognised that this was a strong agenda of God. I was prompted to ask what this meant for me and my family’s lives. How could we live out God’s agenda for those who are poor?

So, in the late 90s, after finishing theological college, we visited India with four kids aged four, five, ten and eleven in tow. A thought kept going around in my head: “You can’t bring your kids here!” Yet I felt God’s prompting: “Yeah, you can. Rely on me.”

When we finally landed, we knew nothing about the culture or the language. On our first night, after the kids settled into bed in our rented apartment, I went for a walk to meet our neighbours. I discovered that we had inadvertently moved into the city’s largest red-light district, and just down the road were women trapped in prostitution. These were the neighbours who God put around us.

Annie and I started to meet them, listen to their stories and go from there. We had lots of cups of tea. I was ignorant as anything, but these women took us by the hand and opened up their lives to us. They trusted us, which was an incredible thing.

“While the world says the poor need the rich, I learned that we need each other.” – Kerry H

I discovered God was already working in these people’s hearts and minds. Some of the women had already encountered Jesus. So together, we began to discover more of who he is. There’s something about the gospel that people in poverty understand, and I had a lot to learn from how they reflect God’s love and hospitality.

One of the most amazing gifts is sitting in a brothel room and having a cup of tea and a biscuit with a woman with nothing else to offer. It’s the best tea that I’ve ever tasted. While the world says the poor need the rich, I learned that we need each other.

A busy road in an Indian city. Photo by Varun Dubey on Unsplash

In the early days, when I heard painful stories of young girls being exploited, I would scream at God to click his fingers and make it go away. I’ve had to work through that and understand the consequence of human free will. But I also know that God is very much with these women. He’s in the pain, not standing separate from it all. Understanding the heart of God, who suffers and grieves with us, has been part of my journey.

Many of our neighbours had never been to school, couldn’t read or write, and experienced health challenges. Yet Annie and I could see how they yearned for a way out of the life they had been forced into. So we came up with an income-generating idea for the women to make and sell jute bags.

After a few weeks of training on pedal machines, we received our first order of 1000 bags from a shop in New Zealand. We made these bags again and again, working incredibly hard. Slowly but surely, this “business of freedom”, as they called it, intertwined with the gospel message of freedom.

Their community and religion had told them they were dirty and untouchable, but the gospel message is different. It speaks of Jesus’ love, and it really is good news.

Being reconciled to Jesus changes the whole trajectory of our lives, including how we relate to people in poverty.

One thing I love about being reconciled to Jesus is how it changes the whole trajectory of our lives, including how we relate to people in poverty. In Christ, we become ambassadors of reconciliation for a better world. We uphold generosity to those in need and everyone has a seat at the table, mutually sharing what we have, even if it means we have less.

After these experiences, I became keen to pass on my excitement to other Christians so they too can discover God’s heart and agenda for the poor. So, I became a Baptist World Aid Better World Ambassador, helping Christians engage with God’s work in vulnerable communities.

As followers of Jesus, this is not something we choose but have already been chosen for. Given that this is so central to the gospel, it’s a privilege to journey with others to discover what it means for them.

Now that our kids are adults, we can see that moving to India was the most amazing gift to them. They have worldviews that their experiences have shaped, and today, we have children and grandkids working in impoverished communities.

Kerry leads Baptist World Aid’s Better World Ambassador movement, where he helps Christians engage with God’s work in vulnerable communities.