Rag Picker's Transformation: An 'Untouchable' Meets Christ
BANGALORE, India- - It's been said the most beautiful people are those who've known defeat, known suffering, known struggle and have found their way out of the depths.
Roopa Raju is one of them.
"I've had a difficult life since my childhood and experienced more horrible things than most people my age," Roopa said.
Rag Picker, Prostitute
At a young age Roopa was forced by her parents to join the ranks of India's so-called rag pickers: men, women and young children who rummage through filthy garbage heaps in the cities of India.
They look for anything that can be recycled and sold -- plastic, bottles, metal parts, pieces of glass, rotting discarded food.
"My day started at four in the morning and I picked trash for 10 to 12 hours," Roopa said.
On a good day, she'd earn about $2.
On the streets, where dogs were her only companion and millions of squirming maggots, flies, rats and crows her constant distraction, she'd compete with other rag pickers for a few scraps.
"When I got older my mother told me I wasn't bringing in enough money picking trash, so I was forced to sleep with men to get more money. I became a prostitute," she said.
With tears welling up in her eyes, Roopa described the rage she felt toward her parents.
"I thought of running away. I didn't trust my parents. How could they do such a thing to me?" she said. "I was angry. I wanted to kill them. I wanted something terrible to happen to them."
Roopa is a Dalit, a so-called 'untouchable'. Indian society labels Dalits lowest of the low. Impure. Less than human.
Almost all rag pickers are Dalits. And like her, many young girls end up as prostitutes or get caught in a web of human trafficking.
"When I think about it I begin to cry," Roopa said.
A Divine Transformation
But that's the past. Tonight's graduation night and Roopa is all smiles!
"The Roopa of old is not the Roopa you see today! I cannot begin to explain to you what God has done in my life today," she said.
She has God and Jeevaline Kumar to thank for her transformation and this momentous evening.
"We really look forward to this night because we see our women being liberated, being emancipated," Kumar said.
Kumar runs Tarika Women's Center, a Christian ministry that takes in, rehabilitates, and empowers scores of young women at risk.
Almost two years ago, Roopa came to the center looking for help. Here she got counseling, learned how to speak English, took sewing and computer classes, and eventually had her dignity restored.
She also met dozens of other young women like herself who had similar life experiences.
"What I like to personally communicate to them is that I would never ever give up on any one of those women no matter how many times they fall because I know it is a struggle for them," Kumar explained.
"They are used to a particular lifestyle. They are used to thinking in a particular way, so to bring about a change in their lives takes time," she said.
The Tarika Center is just one of a handful of Christian ministries operating here in India. They are trying desperately to rescue thousands of Dalit women from human trafficking and sexual bondage.
Realizing Her Worth
For many of these victims such ministries are a lifeline to a better future. Roopa said it was at the center she discovered with great delight her worth in God's eyes.
"I come from a Hindu background. I knew very little about Jesus Christ. When I came to Tarika I started reading the Bible and then understood what freedom really means and how much I mean to God," she said.
Kumar said that ultimately it's the Bible's view of them that brings lasting transformation.
"And that's something that they find so valuable," she said. "They can't believe it because all these years they've been told that they are lower than animals and here we are telling them that they are created in image of God. And that just hits them. That just blows them away."
On a recent Friday evening, Roopa joined 105 women on stage for a graduation ceremony honoring their completion of an 18-month course at Tarika.
Sitting in the audience that night were Roopa's mother and father. They told CBN News this was the proudest moment of their lives.
"The Tarika Center has done a great job. My daughter is a different person," Saraswathi, Roopa's mother, said.
"I feel bad for the things we did to her, but now I want her to study well and have a good future," her father, Raju, said.
An image of Roopa holding her father's hand speaks volumes of one life transformed by the power of the Gospel. She told CBN News she's forgiven her parents for forcing her into prostitution.
"Every night before I go to bed I thank God for Tarika Center," Roopa said. "I thank God for rescuing me from my past."
These days she works as a confident sales assistant in a large department store located on the most famous shopping street in this city -- the same street where she once picked trash. Now she earns enough money to support herself and her family.
Her real desire, though, is to minister to broken and abused young women.
"There are many people who took care of me and showed love to me," she said. "I want to do the same for others. That will make me happy!"
Testimonies like Roopa's inspired Kumar to join women from around the world in climbing Africa's Mt. Kilimanjaro. The goal: to raise awareness of human trafficking and the plight of India's Dalits. Next month she'll climb Pikes Peak in Colorado.
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*Originally published August 2012.