You’d think she was a celebrity, the way I watched her from across the room. I tried to work up the nerve to speak to her but the taste of salt in the back of my throat gave me pause. I didn’t want to embarrass her and I didn’t want to cry. But I wanted her to know what seeing her in that place meant to me.
She was just like every other woman at the conference that weekend. They were the farthest from celebrities you could get. Many were known only to those inside their villages. They had come together to encourage each other, some of them the only followers of Christ in their home area. I heard their stories over the span of those few days, the depth of their hardships and the hope they clung to in the midst of them.
I watched her quietly as she listened to the speaker. Her eyes sometimes closed as she savored the Scripture being read. Other times she leaned forward in her seat. She would tuck her headscarf behind her ear and laugh. I strained to get the joke, my feeble Bangla skills failing me.
The first time I’d seen her face was on my computer screen. My husband and I were sitting in our bedroom over 8000 miles away from this place. We’d been planning for over a year to move to India to work for a non-profit focusing on education and economic development. We had visas in our passports that gave us permission to go. Our house was about to go on the market. I had already quit my job. And then the organization we were going to work for found themselves facing issues with obtaining the permissions to have foreign workers. We were left asking God, “what now?”
Another organization expressed interest in having us work with them. They were located in India’s tiny neighboring country, Bangladesh. We were especially moved by the idea of empowering vulnerable women with skills to provide for themselves and their families.
They sent us a video about the work they were doing with child brides who were suffering from medical issues that arose from pregnancies their too-young bodies couldn’t handle. Most were then divorced and ostracized from their families. Once the women received surgeries that allowed them physical healing, they attended tailoring classes that gave them a marketable skill.
We watched this woman in a remote area on the other side of the world talk about how her life had been changed by the program. When she was asked about her plans for the future, she laughed. She said her plans were just to make clothes for her family and have a good life, a simple life. A life that honored God.
We sat silently for a few minutes after hearing her story, afraid to say the words that marked the finality of what we knew would come next. This was it. We would be moving to Bangladesh.
Nearly two years after first watching that video, I was face to face with the woman whose story had been the tool God used to bring my family there. In my communications role, I got to attend some of the events across the country and this was my last chance to be out in the village. We already knew we were leaving to move back to the U.S. in a few months and it was a bittersweet decision. As many difficulties as life in South Asia brought with it, we loved this place and these people. Seeing her felt like it brought our whole story full circle.
The fragrance of ginger and garlic filled the air as the last of the women exited from lunch into the courtyard of the conference center. We gathered for a group picture before we all dispersed. After that would be rides in rickshaws, buses, trains, and boats—scattering us all into our various corners of the country.
I quickly decided to grab a Bangladeshi friend and asked if she would translate. I don’t remember what I said in those moments, something about how her story had changed our lives. I know for sure I couldn’t hold back the tears. I saw the confusion in her eyes turn to warmth, and then I remember being enveloped in the folds of her sari as she embraced me. I knew enough of the language to hear he say how much it meant to her and catch the words, “I love you, sister.”
A year has past and I am again looking at her face on my computer screen. I see her smile and I can still hear her musical laugh ringing in my ears. I flip through photos from that conference. I see images of her hands stringing together beads in a craft project we did.
I imagine her sitting at her sewing machine so far away from where I sit. I see those same hands pushing yards of fabric across the table, turning them into dresses for the ladies in her riverside community. She is the epitome of a woman of valor in my mind. She represents, for me, the battles women all over the world face. And the resourcefulness they have to muster to strengthen their own lives, their families, and their communities.
Not many people will hear her story and I’m certain we will never meet again in this life. But I tell her story here as a testament to what a simple, faithful life can mean. God weaved her life into my own for just a moment. But her story of strength changed my own family’s destiny forever. She’ll always stand in my mind as a reminder of how linked we all are, how utterly we belong to each other. What a beautiful tapestry we can become, women around the world. Rising together.