The woman who inspired me to give away everything

Five years ago Bec Oates had four children, one husband and practically nothing else. The family had sold the block of land where they planned to build their dream home. They had sold most of their possessions. Bec had also sold her very successful hairdressing business in their home city of Perth.

They weren’t bankrupt, nor were they in debt. Instead, they had deliberately chosen to walk away from everything.

But things didn’t turn out quite as they planned, as Bec shares with Eternity from the Sydney office of international development organisation Baptist World Aid Australia (BWA), where she is now Director of Marketing and Communication.

However, that’s a story we’ll get to shortly. First, we need to start with what inspired the Oates family to let go of everything they owned.

A growing desire

At age 34, Bec’s hairdressing salon was ten years old and business was booming. She loved the creativity of the job and its relational nature, as she shared in-depth conversations with clients all day long. And yet, Bec – who grew up in a Christian household with her Baptist pastor father and hairdresser mother – couldn’t quench her desire to do something more to help those living in poverty.

“My husband and I both really wrestled with understanding poverty and, as Christians, what our response should be to that. And so we tried multiple times to engage with work related to that, but we kept hitting a dead end. So we ended up just staying in the trades and careers that we were in,” she explains.

But then in 2006, Bec set off on a one-week trip to Bangladesh to “explore the idea of doing hairdressing training there” in order to equip local women with an income-generating trade.

“On that trip, we went to a rural part of the north of Bangladesh to visit some local people. Not many foreigners go there and they didn’t speak English, so we had an interpreter,” Bec recalls.

“They showed us around their village and it was an incredible experience. When we left, one of the elders of that community shook my hand, which in itself was culturally important, I guess. He held my hand and rubbed it. And he said, ‘Remember me.’

“When I got in the car, I realised that he didn’t speak English,” Bec says. She pauses, unable to explain how this man could suddenly pronounce these two English words.

She continues: “I haven’t forgotten him. That was a pretty powerful moment.”

Bec was greatly impacted by the trip and so years later, when she came across a couple from New Zealand running a business in Kolkata, India, she was again struck by the need to go and serve the poor.

“Six months before that happened, we had bought a piece of land near the school where our kids went, that we’d actually tried to purchase a couple of times before.

“We finally got it and we had an architect design the dream home, with the perfect kitchen with the right outlook. But for whatever reason, we just started to feel like God was saying that we shouldn’t be building this house. We both ignored it at first, but … we just couldn’t sleep. And so my husband had to go to the builder and tell the truth. We had signed a contract, but he let us out of it – with a hefty fee.

“So then after we met this couple [who they heard speak at a conference], we started to think, is this why we’re not building a house?”

Meeting Meena

In 2014, the Oates family sold their block of land, along with all their furniture and other belongings. With the four kids in tow (now aged 6 to 14), they went to Kolkota. And this is where Bec met Meena – in Sonagachi, Asia’s largest red-light district, which is home to around 10,000 women trapped in prostitution.

Meena was one of the lucky ones, having gained employment in the micro-enterprise organisation which Bec had connected with back in Australia.

“Her story is one of incredible leadership and resilience,” Bec begins, when asked to share about the meeting.

“She lives in the red light area of Kolkata, because the business itself is about transforming that area. So they don’t pull people out; they change the lives of people in there, in terms of work and employment. And they’re trying to sort of “re-take” that area with healthy employment options.

“So I went there one night. It was steaming with rain, which happens in India because it’s very hot. The main street is just absolute chaos – cows and goats and children and buses with funny horns and trucks and shouting and people making dinner, squatting, and it’s just all happening on the street.

“In this one square mile, there’s 10,000 girls every night waiting to be chosen.” – Bec Oates

“There’s lots of big multi-storey buildings, built by the British. They’re beautiful buildings in one way, but also really run-down at the same time.

“And so we’re walking along the main street and we came to a corner where there was a bunch of men yelling and shouting. I didn’t know what they were saying, but it sounded full-on. And then I realised that they were selling girls …

“These beautiful young girls were lining up in their saris, shoulder to shoulder, along the side of the road – that’s what it’s called ‘the line’, where they line up every evening waiting for customers. And in this one square mile, there’s 10,000 girls every night waiting to be chosen.

“The horrible truth [for the girls] is that ‘If I do get chosen, I might eat, but then I’m chosen. But if I’m not chosen, I don’t eat’.

“I stood there thinking ‘What do I do? Do you look at someone when they’re ‘the line’ or do I turn away? Is that worse? This is awkward. This is so confronting. I feel like dry retching.’

“One of the girls could see that I was clearly struggling. So she came up to me and she comforted me. And that’s when I realised that I wasn’t bringing Jesus here, he was already here.

“She knew that I was coming to see Meena, because why else would this strange, Australian, white woman be walking through Sonagachi? So she patted my hand, as if [to say] ‘It’s OK.’

“Then she led me through the winding streets to meet Meena. There’s no electricity in the area because its poor.

“She led me up a multi-storey building to the very rooftop where Meena lives in a house that would probably be about one third the size of this room,” says Bec, indicating the ordinary-sized meeting room in which we sit at BWA.

“It was just big enough to fit her lying down. She invited me to sit and she made me a cup of chai in these little, clay cups.

‘So, if all these people are following Jesus and they know what’s happening, then where are his people? Why aren’t they here?’

“Through an interpreter, she was telling me a bit of her story. She’s from Bangladesh, but she found herself in Sonagachi with no way home. She didn’t even know where she was for many years. She’d been in living a life she didn’t choose there for 30 years before she met the founders of [this business]. Now, she is the one of the leaders of a business that screen-prints t-shirts and makes retail bags for the West, and employs over 250 women.”

“Meena took the risk of joining them as a startup business, to see if they could find a way to employ people [in Sonagachi] that was healthy. Meena is kind of a matriarch if you like, and she has stayed living in the red-light district to meet girls and build community, and tell them that there’s potentially other ways they can find employment.”

But it wasn’t just Meena’s life and work in Sonagachi that struck such a chord with Bec. It was the questions Meena put to her about the response of Western Christians to the plight of women in her city.

“She was very generous in talking with me,” Bec continues. “She asked me about myself, and she said, ‘Oh, you’re one of those Christians. A lot of Christians come here. They tell me about Jesus and they say that Jesus loves me.’

“She was asking about Christians around the world, saying ‘I’ve met a few, but how many of you are there?’ I was very happy to tell her that there’s sort of an army of people that follow Jesus around the world.

“And she said, ‘Well, people say Jesus loves me. And people say that Jesus is here in Sonagachi. And people come and they see, they know what’s going on here in Sonagachi. It’s well known to be one of the largest red-light districts in the world. It’s not a secret what’s happening there.

“So, if all these people are following Jesus and they know what’s happening, then where are his people? If they’re following him, why aren’t they here?’

“I didn’t have a very good answer,” Bec confesses. “Well, I did have an answer, but it wasn’t one I wanted to tell her – I was thinking ‘where have I been?’

“I knew that this was happening and I followed Jesus. But I’d been in the supermarket, enjoying an ergonomically-designed shopping trolley handle and having a mechanism in the back of my kitchen drawers to make sure they don’t bang when I shut them!

“I couldn’t tell her that. So we just had to cry. Mine were tears of repentance, really. We also prayed. It was raining at the time, and we prayed that God would bring down freedom like rain on Sonagachi and on his people around the world – that they would let go of whatever was stopping them from following him wherever he wanted them to be.”

The unexpected twist

“It was the best time we’d ever had,” says Bec about their family’s time in India. “We learned so much in that time of being there. We were only there for a couple of months, but it was incredible. When we were there, we felt like we were made for this.

“I mean, it was incredibly difficult because it was physically very demanding to live there – it’s pretty hot and uncomfortable and confronting, but we didn’t want to go back to Australia. We didn’t want to leave. But we ended up having to.”

Upon their return to Perth, Bec says they began planning for another, longer-term trip to India. And so two years later, in 2016, the family sold their last remaining financial tie to Australia – Bec’s hairdressing business. Then they prepared to return to India in January 2017.

“But about a month before we were due to leave, we got a knock-out punch to our plans,” says Bec, reluctant to divulge the details but simply stating this meant they couldn’t go.

The blow was devastating at first, but eventually Bec was able to view it pragmatically.

“We learnt, and I guess demonstrated to our kids, that following God is a relationship and it’s not a nicely-wrapped, everything-makes-sense thing. And really all we were saying is these women have a need and we’ve got a pair of hands, we can help.

“But having tried for five years and literally giving everything we could to it, we couldn’t do it. So we had to let it go at that point.”

Bec Oates Baptist World Aid

Bec Oates

And so, after giving up their dream – along with everything else – the Oates family found themselves a long way from where they hoped to be.

“We needed a job and there was one advertised in Sydney for my husband’s work … He didn’t expect him to get it, but then he did,” says Bec.

“So basically, instead of moving to India, we moved to Sydney, which is the opposite of where we thought we were going to be.”

When asked how she ended up at BWA (commonly known for its Ethical Fashion Guide), Bec shares: “I pounded the door down until they gave me a job, basically!

“I applied for three jobs. I said, ‘I know I look ridiculous on paper as I’m a hairdresser. But I know you do want me.’ So eventually they gave me a job.

Since then Bec has had eight roles in her two-and-a-half years at BWA, which, she says, “has been good because I could learn all different parts of the organisation.”

So what lessons has Bec taken from all these challenging and rather surprising life experiences?

“One thing I did learn through seeing the suffering and unfairness in other parts of our world, is that God doesn’t owe me an explanation,” she reflects, referring to their failed dream to move to India.

“I think my culture will tell me I’m entitled to a good life. I’m entitled to be healthy and happy and have a family and have resources. And when God doesn’t deliver that, then God, isn’t good. Whereas actually, life is hard and challenging, but in all of that, God is good.

“Even when there are girls trapped in a room for 20 years, he’s still good. So if that’s true, then we [in the West] might need to examine our thinking about God’s goodness in our culture.”

“I would encourage people to just ask God ‘what part do you want me to play in this story?’ – Bec Oates

The second lesson Bec learnt from women like Meena is what true resilience looks like – a lesson that informs her work at BWA, especially in relation to its projects to alleviate poverty in countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Cambodia.

“Their story is one of perseverance and beauty, actually,” she says.

This led her to reflect on what the Western church should be doing in response to the desperate situations many such women find themselves in as a result of poverty.

“I would encourage people to just ask God ‘what part do you want me to play in this story?’ I wouldn’t say that we need to or can restore their dignity. I would say they have dignity in spite of their circumstances, so it’s not about how to we restore that. It’s about how do we repent for choosing not to look at them or for the part that we may play in the realities of people’s suffering.

“As a global citizen, we contribute to the suffering of other people all the time. So repentance is really the starting point for the church in the West. But to see that as an act of freedom, not out of guilt.”

As for whether or not the Oates family will ever revisit their dream of living and serving people in India, Bec answers: “I don’t know. All I know is that I want to know as many Meenas as I can.”

Bec shared more women’s stories in an interview for International Women’s Day on the Baptist World Aid Facebook page.