'Light of Hope' makes all the difference
BANGLADESH (BP) -- In an apartment building just a few blocks from where Minara* is begging, a teenager in a neatly pressed pink-and-green uniform sits at a long, wooden table. Her thick braid of curly hair falls over her shoulder as she bends over a notebook, jotting down math problems. Her brow furrows in concentration as she erases what she just wrote and starts again.
Traffic and construction noises drift in through an open window, joining the chorus of voices from down the hall where a class is reciting Bangla phrases aloud -- but Rekha* stays focused on her task.
When the lessons end for the day, Rekha joins 13 other girls for lunch, their loud chatter punctuated with giggles and laughter. Afterward, the 17-year-old works with the younger girls as they learn to embroider handicrafts. This is a source of income that helps Rekha provide for her mother and two sisters at home.
Rekha's life once mirrored Minara's -- never having enough money, unsure of where her next meal would come from. Both girls live in similar, poverty-ridden slums in the same city. But that's where the similarities end. Rekha has hope for a better future.
The Light of Hope
Though Rekha has been attending the Light of Hope Learning Center since it started more than six years ago, she still gets emotional when she talks about her past.
"Before going to the Light of Hope Center, we are going through much hardship," she says, wiping tears from her cheeks. "We did not have food at our house. Some days I was starving due to having no food. My life was painful."
Four of Rekha's six siblings are married, which leaves Rekha and two remaining sisters at home with their mother. Rekha's father is separated from their family -- he was "not good for us."
"My dad tries to earn more money by gambling," Rekha says matter-of-factly. "He often came to my mother and my siblings in anger and with much shouting."
When he left for good, he stopped providing for his wife and children. To help earn income for her family, Rekha went to work as a housemaid instead of attending school. At age 11, she started going to the Light of Hope, her first opportunity to gain any education.
"When I started going to school every day [at the center], I could see that my life was going to be different," she says. "I realized that I got a new life. It made me truly happy."
Girls at the center are able to enjoy luxuries few have ever known -- taking a hot shower, brushing their teeth, putting on a clean school uniform and receiving two hot, nutritious meals each day. They also learn reading, writing, arithmetic, science, social science and English, as well as other skills like cleaning, cooking, health education and personal hygiene.
In addition, the girls acquire important job skills by learning to sew and embroider handicrafts; the center gives them a small income for their work.
Rekha is happy that she has the "opportunity to continue my study and the same time, I am working here and earning money for the family."
Rekha's mother, Sonhita,* however, still worries about her financial situation. Though Rekha makes about $50 a month, Sonhita says "it is very much difficult to manage house rent, water, food, electricity and traveling with such a small amount of money." Sonhita used to work as a housemaid but says she can't work now due to a tumor in her hand. Her daughters are the breadwinners for the family.
"Sometimes my mum gets hurt by thinking that her daughters are working and earning money to manage our family," Rekha explains. "On the other hand, my mum is very much happy that although my dad is still alive but he does not take care of us, we are able to provide all the things for our family."
Education, health care and life skills are just part of Rekha's transformation: "I have learnt one most important thing is that I knew the true God," she says. "I knew Jesus Christ and He has the power and authority to transform my heart and provide me salvation."
Rekha's family is Muslim, but she and her sister Dhurjati,* who also attends the center, have come to know Jesus -- which changes everything.
"I used to do many bad things like quarrel, stealing, lying, etc.," Rekha explains. "I came to know that is sin. Jesus came to the earth and forgave my sin and I came to Christ."
Today Rekha exudes a gentle, kind spirit. Though quiet and shy, she is quick to share a smile or a laugh. Her heart for teaching others how to have a better life has led her and several older Light of Hope girls to take leadership roles among their peers.
Besides teaching Bible study classes to younger girls, Rekha is enrolled in training that holds believers accountable to share the Gospel and reach out to their communities. Rekha dreams of one day being an educator so she can "teach the little children about Jesus Christ."
Despite these changes, she still struggles with a big issue -- telling her family that she is a follower of Jesus Christ.
"[My sister and I] are afraid of them because Christians are extreme minority," Rekha says. Her family may not let her and Dhurjati attend the center or continue their studies if they find out, she says.
Her fears are not unfounded. Many of the Light of Hope girls are forced to participate in their family's religion (Muslim or Hindu) when they're at home. In Bangladesh, those who believe in Jesus can face real persecution -- enduring social ridicule, being ostracized or kicked out of their homes, being beaten or even killed.
Regardless, Rekha tries to be a light to her family. When family members argue, she shares Bible stories that apply to their situations but doesn't reveal the stories are from God's Word. Rekha prays that one day she will be able to share her faith with her family -- and that they, too, will experience true transformation through Christ.
"Many believer that come to Christ backslide in their faith due to social and family pressure," Rekha says. "Pray for me that I would stand strong in my faith."
An example to follow
It's Wednesday afternoon, and the Light of Hope Learning Center is abuzz with activity -- 14 young girls are here for Bible study class while the older girls work on embroidery projects. Several of the girls' mothers and sisters are next door learning to sew.
Five little girls sit on the floor in a circle around Rekha, who is leading the Bible study. One of the girls is Minara. Rekha says a few lines of a Bible verse and the girls repeat them back to her. Rekha asks Minara to repeat the whole verse. Minara leans forward and earnestly recites the words, determined to memorize them correctly. Rekha smiles at her as she finishes the verse; Minara beams with pride.
There is little in Minara's life about which she can be proud. While Rekha earns a steady income for her family through a marketable skill, Minara remains stuck in poverty and must beg to live; often she goes to bed hungry. Rekha is surrounded by girls and women at the center who love her and encourage her; Minara is treated harshly as she begs from strangers.
And while Rekha has found unconditional love, peace and joy in Jesus, Minara knows Him in name only.
One day Minara's life might look like Rekha's -- if she is afforded that opportunity.
"I would like to request all of you to pray for me that I can go back again to the school for better education," Minara asks. "And also pray for our family financial crises, that God will provide for our every single need."
To get in touch with the Light of Hope Learning Center directors about how you or your church can get involved, email email@example.com.
Southern Baptist projects supporting Light of Hope include One Life's "One Girl's Shelter" project (onelifematters.org/projects), Global Hunger Relief (World Hunger Fund, worldhungerfund.com) and Baptist Global Response's Child and Youth Education Fund (baptistglobalresponse.com/projects/view/the_light_of_hope_center).
View "More precious than jewels -- begging for a better life," which features more Light of Hope photos, related video and audio, prayer requests and additional ways to get involved in this and related ministries, at commissionstories.com.
*Name changed. Laura Fielding is an IMB writer.