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Congregation discovers the cost of freedom

March 26, 2005

Elia Powers

There they stood, the indefatigable crew of church congregants,

floored by the immediate results of their efforts.

On that mid-February day in India, the cost of freedom was clear:

$8,000.

That's how much money the 17 travelers paid to rescue 11 Indian

women from their lives as prostitutes.

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"It shows you, for someone's life, it's pretty cheap to get their

freedom," said Jeff Keith, Newport-Mesa Christian Center assistant

pastor in charge of global outreach programs.

Keith said when the group originally booked the two-week trip to

the eastern part of the country, it intended to spend the majority of

the time working at an orphanage. That occupied some of the time

during the late January and early February venture, but tsunami

relief turned out to be a more pressing concern.

Toward the end of the two weeks, the travelers made a side trip to

the state of Andhra Pradesh to visit one of the country's many red

light districts.

Rock Harbor Church members had been there a few weeks earlier and

warned the Newport-Mesa Christian Center congregants of the dismal

conditions and hapless residents.

"It was total squalor," said Shannon Keith, Jeff's wife. "On one

side was a sewage irrigation system, on the other side were huts with

dirt floors. The river was polluted, and that's where people washed

their clothes."

Shannon Keith delivered a speech in front of a group of about 75

women who had been forced into prostitution, primarily for monetary

reasons.

She said many of them broke into tears when she told them they

were loved.

"Many of them had never heard that message before," Keith said.

Teaming up with Christian group Harvest India, the volunteers

bought food for the women and assisted in daily maintenance duties.

But church members wanted to go a step further.

So they arranged to meet with 11 women in the upstairs of a nearby

home to talk about the chance for freedom.

"We wanted to do things within the framework of their culture,"

Shannon Keith said. "We didn't want to be a quick fix and just make

ourselves feel better."

The congregants agreed to pay off some of the women's debt. For

others, they paid for dowries to allow them to be married.

Shannon Keith said the group was interested in ensuring the women

wouldn't have to return to prostitution once they left.

"We don't want them to be relying on charitable donations from now

until eternity," she said.

It was then that the congregants committed to financing a building

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