It’s not everyday that you hear such a raw and honest testimony that is Pranitha Timothy’s.
How does someone who once was expelled from college for being “sadistic, rude and hurtful” eventually become a subject matter expert to end domestic violence, child sexual abuse and sex trafficking, serving as a senior consultant at Justice & Hope, and on several global and national networks?
How does someone who “harboured a lot of bitterness and hatred towards God” come to attribute her courage in defending the rights of the oppressed to the life of Jesus Christ?
These questions and more were answered during a Q&A session with the woman herself at the recently concluded Courage Calls conference.
Despite being internationally renowned for her work (she has a biography written by a German author), Pranitha Timothy came across as humble and almost self-deprecating.
I feel like I needed to say that, because if anyone had the right to boast about being courageous during the conference, she could.
Her first case as a human rights defender involved waiting outside a police station for three days because they refused to look into her client’s predicament. Despite rules that do not allow women in the police stations past 6 pm, she waited anyway.
In November 2009, during a joint operation with the police and the designated officials, to enquire about and free bonded labourers, she was captured and locked up in a van by the “employers” along with 25 labourers who had been bonded for three generations.
She had made those visits even though she had been warned that these “employers” had killed people before and that the local police were in their pockets.
Oh, and did I mention that she is a survivor of two brain surgeries due to a tumour in her brain? As a consequence of those surgeries, she lost most of her voice; it was plain to see that it wasn’t easy for her to even speak in the first place.
And yet there she was sharing passionately and vulnerably in front of all of us. This woman was courageous indeed.
I was struck by her story, especially how the bulk of her responses consisted of her failings, her reliance on God and the support of family and friends.
A TROUBLED PAST
I believe her responses were as such because of the journey that she went through to get to where she is today.
Pranitha grew up in a tiny village in India. Born to parents who were missionary doctors, her bitterness towards God took root as she blamed Him for her having to grow up in such a remote place.
This bitterness grew when she was sent to study in a boarding school when she was Primary 6, since the level of education in the village was still quite low.
She recounted how she felt at the time: “I felt separated from my parents. Who is this God they serve that separates families?”
By the time she entered college, her bitterness towards God grown even more.
“I was thrown out of college for being sadistic and rude and for hurting others,” she revealed. “I wanted to be famous by being rebellious. I also got addicted to all the bad stuff a young woman could get addicted to.”
But it was through this low point in Pranitha’s life that her heart began to soften.
“Getting expelled really humbled me,” she admitted. “For the first time in my life, my heart started to melt and I prayed and asked God to get me out of this rut.
“I went back and apologised to my parents. I hated myself. I prayed to God: ‘If You’re true, you have to help me love at least one person’ — because I didn’t love anyone at the time.”
After praying that prayer, Pranitha immediately felt warmth and love swell in her heart.
She opened the Bible and turned to a random page. It was Ezekiel 36:26: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”
“At that point, my life was changed,” Pranitha recalled. “My heart was broken for all the pain and suffering around me. I accepted Christ and told Him that I wanted to follow Him.
“But it’s not like I eventually became a human rights defender out of the blue. It was a long journey that grew alongside my deeper understanding of Christ’s heart for the marginalised.”
After this spiritual turning point, Pranitha went on to pursue a Master’s degree in Social Work.
Her first job involved helping prisoners on death row get their children access to education. She got married soon after, and joined a team that pioneered the fight against bonded labour in India.
But after working for a couple of human rights organisations, she felt that the scope of their work was often too narrow.
This led her to start consulting with multiple organisations and networks.
Justice & Hope, which believes that “providing a long-term, holistic response for the survivors (of forced employment and human trafficking) in need of protection is effective in breaking the cycle of trafficking and child abuse” is one of them.
Justice & Hope is also unique in the NGO space because it believes that “those who are transformed are the greatest transformers”.
As such, the organisation states that it employs staff who have survived their circumstances, experienced transformation and equipped themselves academically to serve with expertise.
WHERE HER STRENGTH COMES FROM
Remember her story about being captured? Not only was she captured, the very people she was trying to help also turned against her.
“They told me that by trying to free them, I brought death upon them,” she recalled. “They were crying and shouting at me. I cried.
“It was just like how the Israelites turned against Moses after he helped to liberate them from the Egyptians. They, too, cursed him and blamed him for the Egyptians coming after them after leaving Egypt.”
It’s impossible for me to do what I do without depending on Christ filling me with His love. His life was a life of love and compassion.
To make things worse, her daughter was only three years old at the time. It was a discouraging, difficult and dangerous period that made her ask God: “I know You’ve called me. But what about my daughter?’”
Not only did Pranitha have to deal with risk and trauma in her own life, the nature of her work meant that she also had to process the trauma of those she was trying to help.
“We work with children who are brutally raped, we hear their stories and it’s so painful,” she said. “We work with protection homes where some children stay for more than two years because we, and they, have no idea where their families are.”
Witnessing what she witnesses everyday, how in the world does she sustain her courage and faith?
Pranitha shared that it boils down to three things:
- The life of Jesus Christ
- Support from those around her
“Nothing else touched my heart more than Christ who Himself suffered. He was rejected, crucified and stripped of all His clothes,” said Pranitha. “He gives me the courage and strength to do what I do.”
She continued: “His mission, from Isaiah 61, was to proclaim the good news to the poor and bind up the brokenhearted. To proclaim freedom for captives and release prisoners from darkness.
“I realised that my neighbours in factories were basically slaves. They had no freedom to leave, and even if they could, no means to do so. They were in modern-day dungeons.”
“Jesus lifted up a woman who was considered a prostitute and called her greater than the disciples around Him,” said Pranitha. “He hung around and touched lepers. It’s impossible for me to do what I do without depending on Christ filling me with His love. His life was a life of love and compassion.”
As for prayer, she noted that whenever Jesus had the chance, He would take time off to pray.
Christ’s example is why she begins the day with prayer and enters court rooms, police stations and rescue operations with it too.
Every time I’m captured, I pray.
“Without prayer, we can’t face what we face everyday,” said Pranitha. I intentionally take a week off here and there to just rest and pray.
“Every time I’m captured, I pray. And I realise that if God could part the Red Sea and rescue Daniel from the lion’s den, is there anything too difficult for Him?
“And even if God doesn’t immediately deliver me after I pray, I would still trust Him.”
Finally, she credited those around her for their love and support.
“I met a man who is amazing, who understood my call before we got married. He knew that this was what I was dedicated to.”
Mentors with whom Pranitha can be vulnerable and honest are also of great importance to her. These mentors help by praying for her and spurring her on.
“My courage comes from prayer,” affirmed Pranitha. “And not even my own prayers. I know that even when I cannot pray, others are praying for me.”
HE WHO IS FORGIVEN MUCH…
With that last quote, I really understood what she meant when she said that she draws her courage from Christ and those around her.
One’s admission that they don’t even have the strength to pray is one of the most vulnerable things to say as a Christian doing ministry.
I believe Pranitha Timothy is the embodiment of a verse that I think we Christians in Singapore need to be reminded of more:
“Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” (Luke 7:47)
We live in an honour-shame culture. To admit one’s neediness and wretchedness is often seen as a sign of weakness, or worse, as a sign of one’s lack of faith.
But Pranitha Timothy’s story, and the life of Christ, tell us otherwise. Are you broken? Needy? Weak in spirit?
Then consider yourself a great candidate to do God’s work courageously as you look to Him and the Body of Christ for strength and inspiration.
For if whoever has been forgiven little loves little, then whoever has been forgiven much, loves much.
- What about Pranitha’s story stood out to you?
- Is there something you want to do for God — but lack courage for?
- Take a moment to bring that to God in prayer. If God could use Pranitha, God can use you too.