Have you ever wondered about your purpose in life? Depending on what you believe, this could be the biggest question you try to unravel, especially when you are younger.
Bec was no exception. “As a young Australian Christian I really struggled with the reality of the world. I would often raise questions about poverty, but it seemed like I was the only person asking these questions. I felt that there was something I needed to do.”
After years of wrestling this urge to help the poor, Bec came to the conclusion that some people are called to address these things, but most of us aren’t. “So basically, I just justified my life for the next 20 years.”
It wasn’t as though Bec and her husband, Paul didn’t try. “In our early 20’s we wanted to save the world, because you know, we were special.” Bec adds the final comment dryly, having a light-hearted joke on her younger self.
“We decided to travel, but the only place we could get a visa was London.” Bec, a hairdresser and Paul, an accountant, were determined not to work in their professions to fulfil their desire to “save the world”. But life caught up with them. “We needed money.”
Both obtained work in their fields, Bec working at high priced Charles Worthington in Covent Garden. “It was kind of opposite to saving the world. I think Charles now has an MBE.”
They came home deflated and thought that maybe the next step would be for Paul to go to Bible College, “because that’s what you do if you want to save the world” explains Bec. But after three months Paul decided to leave.
So, again we were deflated. Paul went into corporate finance and Bec went back to hairdressing in their hometown of Perth, Western Australia. “We just had to park our desire to serve God. We tried and tried and tried to engage this issue, but it just didn’t happen. So, we just said to God, please take away the pain we feel about poverty, because we just can’t handle it anymore.”
Fast forward to the verge of Bec’s 40th birthday. She owned three hairdressing stores. Paul was also doing well in his career. It was at this time that Bec attended a conference and heard two people speak about their work to release and empower women from sexual abuse in Kolkata.
This was a turning point for her. Their names were Kerry and Annie Hilton. “I remember thinking ‘I just want what they have’. You knew that these people were serious about following Jesus. They were not caught up in a world of fear or control of their financial status. These were the freest people that I had ever met.”
Bec had the opportunity to meet Annie the following year when she returned to Perth.
Suddenly, “saving the world” was back on the agenda for Bec and Paul. At first, they thought it would be to financially support “Freeset”, the business Kerry and Annie had commenced in Kolkata. But the challenge put to them was to become far more involved. “We just couldn’t get it out of our head that maybe God was finally calling us, after all these years, to India.”
But life has a habit of getting in the way. “At the time of Annie’s visit we were building a house. This was after years of trying to buy a block near our kids’ school and Paul’s workplace, and finally we got it. We had spent money on an architect, had signed a builder and yet, here was this opportunity to serve God in India. We felt sick.”
Just two days before the Prestart, when you choose items such as your tiles and paint colours, Paul contacted the builder and asked if they could cease. “We were prepared to go ahead if that was our obligation, but in the end, they let us out of the contract with a hefty fee.”
Bec and Paul spent a lot of time praying. “We asked friends to pray with us. We had lots of conversations with Kerry and Annie. There were a lot of unusual things that pointed to our going, even though we are not the sort of people who would normally say, ‘I think God is saying this to us.’”
Apart from not proceeding with the building of their new house, Bec and Paul had to dismantle other parts of their lives in Australia to prepare for their life in Kolkata. Thinking about this transitional period, Bec remarks “There was the transition of refusing to look at the reality of poverty and then letting go of that fear. Then there was the transition of shedding all our possessions. That was big. Not building the house was one thing, but releasing me from my business was an extremely long and painful journey.”
Bec could not sell her business for many reasons outside her control. “After two years of trying to sell, I realised I had to dismantle it, which is difficult because you have to deal with leases and employment obligations. It was very costly.”
Yet, at no point did she give up. “It kept getting harder and more costly. So, we decided after four years that if God had called us to serve the poor, even if I had two remaining stores open, we should go to India and I would run my business from there. I had some good managers and I figured Perth is close enough to India if I needed to fly back.”
They finally went to Kolkata. “It was the most amazing experience, even though it was flipping hard. It was hot and was very uncomfortable. We were living in the middle of the Red Light district. It’s a very confronting place. But our kids were amazing. They adapted so well and we believed the work was a great match to our skills. It was fantastic.”
But for multiple reasons running the business remotely was proving more difficult than expected. “When we realised the implications, we literally vomited for two days with worry. Finally, we made the decision that we needed to return home.”
The return was embarrassing, “we were heart-broken, devastated and confused. Coming back was definitely our lowest point. Bec then set to work further dismantling her business. This was an extremely costly exercise and set them back financially, but it meant that finally, after 5 years of trying, they were free to return to India.
But to return to India, they had to sell their home. Yet, another twist arose. “Around the time of the sale being finalised we were hit with a financial curve ball that we did not see coming.” This left them short of their needed funds to return to India.
“It just seemed ridiculous. We had sold our home and we couldn’t go back to India. We were on our knees because we had literally given everything we possibly could. It was very humbling.”
Various circumstances eventually led them to Sydney, which in hindsight Bec sees as blessing. “At the time we were so angry. This was the opposite of everything we wanted to do. But now I see that the move has been emotionally and spiritually healing for us.”
Bec is pleased that she experienced giving up the control of having material security in her life. “I had to look deeply into the face of the difficult questions surrounding poverty, asking God, what do you want me to do? I don’t regret that for a moment.”
She also observes that even though this experience has been difficult for her children, it has taught them that relating to God involves “a lot of back and forth. It’s not an event in a church service. It’s actually a relationship.”
She is also quick to point out her distaste for the attitude of people who believe that their children will learn much from their exposure to poverty. “This attitude is awful. It’s like we are saying, ‘what can the poor offer me?’ That’s why so often we engage in helping the poor, because it makes us feel good or it offers me something for my children. This is just another example of why we need to take a long, hard look at ourselves.”
Bec does see many benefits from their experiences, such as “never being more hungry to be in relationship with God than I was during that time. So I am grateful for it, even though it totally sucked.”
The other thing is finding joy despite difficult circumstances. “That was the thing that I realised after meeting women who had been the subject of injustice and abuse for many, many years. How is Jesus good for that girl in those circumstances? How can she know any joy? Yet somehow you can experience the joy of the Lord though you can’t explain it.”
Back to the question of purpose
What do we make of our purpose in life, especially when it can be so confusing? Bec’s final remarks are apt.
“I think that purpose can be an idol we worship. It is like me believing that I have a right to fulfilling work. That is a rich man’s perspective, isn’t it? So, in a way, ‘purpose‘ is a rich man’s perspective. I think my purpose is to serve the Lord, even if I’m laying bricks or labour seven days a week because I’m poor. I think we have turned it into something that is fulfilling for me rather than a reflection of our relationship with God. I don’t see too many people living in poverty running around thinking about their purpose in life.”
If you are interested in learning more about Freeset, click here.