The sights and sounds of Christmas were on vivid display as hundreds of people gathered with fascination to watch and listen to the presentation. The music was loud and jubilant, boldly declaring the birth of Jesus. The live nativity scene – complete with adorable angels and determined wise men – was comprised of excited children helping each other adjust their elaborate costumes and stick on beards that rivaled those of Duck Dynasty.
I wasn't at a megachurch or a school play or a shopping mall. It was the Sunday before Christmas, and I was in Asia's largest red light district, the notorious streets of Kamathipura in Mumbai, India.
This Christmas season I set out to explore how some of the poorest and most vulnerable in India approach the Advent, and how Jesus' birth is presented and celebrated by believers in seemingly unlikely environments in our world.
"At Christmas we have the unique opportunity to go all out with the love and hope of the Gospel," explained Tom Varghese of Bombay Teen Challenge, the group organizing the annual Christmas rally and parade in Kamathipura. "Other groups have their festivals, and this is our time to openly share what we believe."
In addition to being Asia's largest, Kamathipura is Mumbai's oldest red light district and one of the darkest places I have ever seen. The dusty roads and dingy parlors frame the faces of women and children trapped in a vicious cycle of prostitution and poverty. Amid this oppressive darkness, there are places of refuge and glimpses of light; for nearly 25 years, Bombay Teen Challenge has been working in the district to provide practical help for the women and children through their multi-faceted "Set Beautiful Free" initiative. BTC's efforts to stop sex slavery are incredible to witness, yet a short walk through the alleys of Kamathipura offer a stark reminder of the ongoing struggle to end this injustice.
As I stood back and watched the Christmas story presented through song and dance in the middle of the red light district, I pondered how the troubled trajectories of these women might intersect with the miracle of Bethlehem. I was reminded that Jesus himself was a direct descendant of Rahab, the prostitute from the Canaanite city of Jericho who would ultimately be known for her great faith and place in the lineage of our Lord. Just a week earlier, I had heard Pastor Prasoon Goel of Delhi Bible Fellowship preach a sermon on the significance of the genealogy from Matthew 1. "There is no attempt to cover up the unsavory or uncomfortable parts of Jesus' genealogy," he said. "Even the lineage of Christ demonstrates God's grace and mercy towards individuals and His ability to use anyone to fulfill His divine plan."
The women in the brothels of Kamathipura need to know that there is a God who loves them unconditionally, a God who can redeem their past, a God who came to earth in the form of a baby to break the chains of bondage and replace sin and shame with hope and joy. That's the message of Christmas.
Prior to visiting Mumbai in Maharashtra, I spent time in the villages of Gurgaon, Haryana with a local church that went Christmas caroling in the village communities as part of their mercy ministry outreach. These villages were some of the most primitive and remote places I had ever seen. As our group navigated the dark alleys and rocky terrain while singing Christmas carols and passing out treats, I loved watching the surprised expressions on faces of these villagers. "You have come to see us all the way out here?" one stunned villager exclaimed in the Hindi language with a mix of glee and perplexity.
In that moment, I was reminded that it was to ordinary shepherds huddled in a dark Judean field that the angels first announced the birth of Christ. These villagers – most of whom have no electricity or running water and many of whom comb through landfills to try and salvage what they can as a means of livelihood – need to know that even in the most remote places, God can reach them. That 2,000 years ago God had reached down from Heaven, and because of the incarnation, Christ-followers are called to reach the ends of the earth with His love and truth today. That's the mission of Christmas.
Earlier this month I also visited a large slum area, Kachchi Colony in the Khadar district of New Delhi, and it was one of the dirtiest places I have ever seen. It was a cold, rainy afternoon, and the rainfall made the muddy roads even messier and threatened the precarious makeshift houses. As I walked through the colony dodging cows and goats and puddles and trash heaps, I struggled to have a good attitude and for a split second I questioned whether this effort was worth it. The church group I was with – which has a weekly outreach in the area – set up a tent in the middle of the slum, and soon several dozen women and children gathered for the Christmas celebration. I watched as the volunteers sang and shared the Christmas story in Hindi and then gave out festive baskets filled with basic necessities to each family. The simplicity and delight with which these slum dwellers received the Christmas message and gifts is something I will never forget, and I was reminded of the Gospel's universal scope.
When I returned to the place I was staying that night – my clothes still damp, my boots muddy, and my body exhausted – a friend asked me where I had been. When I told her I been in the slums with a church group, she cringed. "I'm pretty sure God doesn't want you going to the slums," she said. "He does and he did," I responded. "The One I worship was born in a stable."
The precious people living in the most messy and remote and notorious places need to hear and see and feel the truth and compassion and kindness of the One we follow. They need to know that Jesus not only CAME for each one of them, he BECAME one of them. That's the miracle of Christmas.
In the oft-quoted Luke Chapter 2, the angel proclaims GOOD news of GREAT joy for ALL the people. This Christmas, let us not forget that "all the people" includes women in the brothels of Mumbai's infamous red light district and those trapped in sex slavery around our world. It includes men combing through landfills in the villages of Gurgaon, and all who wonder where they will get their next meal. It includes the children of New Delhi's slums who live in houses of cardboard and straw, and everyone looking for a place to call home.
The miracle of Christmas is that in a stable on a starry night in Bethlehem, God became man. Word became flesh. Eternity entered time. Jesus left Heaven and came to a dirty, chaotic, corrupt earth so that 33 years later he could die on a cross for all mankind and offer us the gift of eternal life. That's why Jesus is the Savior of the WORLD. And that's why the good news of His birth is a gift we must share with everyone along our path… no matter where in the world we happen to be this Christmas!