Even with knowing God and knowing I am loved by others, I still choose to look for love elsewhere. I have been shown unimaginable grace in my own sin. How dare I fail to show these women the same grace?
By Celeste Chen
People often ask me how I decided that I wanted to work with women coming out of prostitution. It is a difficult question to answer because I never made the decision alone by myself. God used prayer to push me into the work He was already doing. Maybe it started by my mother praying Micah 6:8 for me regularly. Maybe the documentary I watched on human trafficking is what planted the seed. Maybe it was any number of things. All I can say is that God broke my heart over the women in prostitution. If that’s where He wanted me, I knew I had to pray for Him to open a door to that ministry. The day after I prayed for an open door, He gave me one, and I was privileged to join the work that He was doing on the streets of Honolulu.
I remember the first woman I tried to talk to on the streets. We had brought roses to give out as an excuse to start a conversation. The woman completely ignored us. Other women we met that night informed us that they were not supposed to be carrying anything while working, other than their small purse. Some said it was really sweet of us to bring the roses and thanked us for our thoughtfulness. Over time, we brought candy or notes instead of roses. Every interaction I had with women on the street left me amazed by their Image-bearing qualities coupled with their suffering and sin.
When I had conversations with women on the street, I began to notice what walking down the sidewalk was like for them. Most people ignored them entirely. Those who did not ignore them either had a crude remark or a desire to pay for their bodies. I began to wonder how I would feel about myself if that was my interaction with other people.
According to US Department of Justice, the average age of entry for an American girl into prostitution is between 12 and 14. I thought of myself at 15 and could not imagine being where these girls had been.
A few months into doing outreach, the ministry group decided to start praying every day for the girls, rather than just praying on the outreach days. It was after these prayer times began that God sent girls to us, mostly through police contacts, seeking help to start a new lifestyle. These girls were young, most were between 15 and 19 years old. According to US Department of Justice, the average age of entry for an American girl into prostitution is between 12 and 14. I thought of myself at 15 and could not imagine being where these girls had been.
While making pancakes, one 16 year old spilled some batter on the floor. She reacted anxiously, apologizing again and again and was visibly scared of what our reaction would be. We just wiped the spill off the floor and I think she was a little uncertain about why we weren’t upset about it. I wondered how people in her past must have reacted to her small mistakes. How would I feel if every one of my mistakes received an angry reaction from those around me?
It was a joy to watch some other teenage girls making quilts for each other. They celebrated every straight line that was sewn once they learned how to use the machines. They were able to see their hands making something beautiful, and I wondered whether they had experienced that before.
Some of the girls have more violent stories than others. Some women have been kidnapped, gang-raped and forced into dependence on drugs to work for a pimp. They have been kept by threats of violence, or actual violence. One woman’s jaw was broken by her pimp, and he then used her as an example for other women who were thinking about leaving him.
A story of violence is fairly easy to sympathize with, but God began to teach me compassion for the girls who may have been more “voluntary” as a prostitute. A typical story generally involves a young girl who leaves home to escape a bad situation there. She ends up on the street and a man comes along to “protect” her. He becomes her savior as he takes her off the streets. He says he loves her and assures her that she is the one he really loves (as he assures each girl in his “stable” of girls). He has her call him “daddy,” identifying himself as her father.
In a convoluted way, the pimp substitutes himself as God. A girl who has never seen what true love looks like could easily fall for such a counterfeit. Indeed, it would be simply terrifying for her to even consider the possibility that she is living in the counterfeit.
Essentially, the pimp makes himself god to this girl. Where God is the Shepherd, the pimp tells a girl where and how to walk. Where God is the great Provider, the pimp makes sure the girl feels provided for. She may not see the money she earns, but she sees the iPod he buys her and the expensive nail and hair jobs he gives her. Where God gives a new name to His followers, the pimp changes a girls’ name from Kayla to “Sugar” or from Mary to “Treasure.” Where God provides community through the church, the pimp provides community through the complicated “pimp and stable”–mentality of the streets. Where God declares that He is jealous for the exclusive worship of his people, the pimp claims all rights to the girl’s attention. If she so much as talks to another pimp (or makes eye contact with one), she is in trouble. In a disgusting and convoluted way, the pimp substitutes himself as God. A girl who has never seen what true love looks like could easily fall for such a counterfeit. Indeed, it would be simply terrifying for her to even consider the possibility that she is living in the counterfeit.
I’ve observed that a common denominator among women in the lifestyle is that they “don’t feel like they belong.” When I mentioned this observation to a woman at a residential home, she said that it described exactly how she felt on the street. A feeling of not belonging: how central that is to the human experience! She wants to be loved by the object of her affection. I think about this and I realize that these women are more like me than they are different.
Although most of the women on the street would not stop to talk, I did catch a glimpse of a few of the women’s hearts. I saw tears gushing. I saw fear and misery. I saw every emotion that I would imagine myself to feel in their shoes. And I realized that there is nothing in me that would keep me from making the same mistakes they did, except by God’s specific grace in my life. What if I did not know God and did not have a loving and supportive family? I would have had a false definition of love, and very quickly I would have bought a counterfeit version. Even with knowing God and knowing I am loved by others, I still choose to look for love elsewhere. I have been shown unimaginable grace in my own sin. How dare I fail to show these women the same grace?
As I began to understand the problem, I had a growing conviction that I needed to understand the solution. Because the problem is so overwhelming and the evil so great, I trust that God must have an even more overwhelming and greater solution. I am convinced that Scripture speaks not only to the problem but it also provides the solution. Specifically, I wanted to understand how God’s story changes the story of women in prostitution.
Just days after I left Hawaii to move to Philadelphia, I heard a lecture by David Powlison which gave me hope and an affirmation that Scripture is exactly the place where I need to look in order to help women in prostitution. He told the story at the CCEF conference of a woman who was repeatedly raped and ended up living a promiscuous lifestyle as a form of self-protection. When she became a Christian, she told Powlison that she had “lived Psalm 59.” In facing the attacks of men, she had turned to the words of Scripture to make sense of her own situation. When the psalms say “Fierce men conspire against me,” (Ps. 59:3) and “they return at evening, snarling like dogs” (Ps. 59:6), Scripture provides meaningful words for a woman terrorized by life in the red light district. Perhaps then, Scripture does have the power to put even a prostitute’s experience into words – and more, to put hope in their hearts: “You are my strength, I watch for you; You, God, are my fortress, my God on whom I can rely” (Ps. 59:17).
God uses the image of prostitutes to show His own goodness and glory in both Ezekiel and Hosea. Through Rahab, He shows that belonging to God depends on faith producing action, not on a list of rules and regulations. Jesus showed kindness and gentleness to the women of questionable character that he encountered. I am continually amazed as I read Scripture with an eye for God’s heart towards prostitutes and other outcasts.
Most amazing of all, perhaps, is the solution that God provides. He sent His own Son to pay for the sins of the world; then to the church, He left the vital task of making that news known to every corner of the world.
Most amazing of all, perhaps, is the solution that God provides. He sent His own Son to pay for the sins of the world; then to the church, He left the vital task of making that news known to every corner of the world. In Acts we see God reaching out to those outside of the “clean” Jewish community. He calls an [unclean] Ethiopian eunuch, who asks how he can understand without an explanation. In the following chapters, God shows His followers that Gentiles, the “outcasts,” are to be brought into fellowship. Then God provides the solution for the lack of a teacher: He calls Paul to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Paul later writes about the necessity of sharing the Gospel: “How can they understand without a teacher?” The solution to the problem is Christ’s death and resurrection, but work is left for the church to do. We are to bring the Gospel in word and deed to all those who do not know it. We are to be the very body of Christ to reach the outcasts.
These women are not generally the women I would choose as my friends. Yet, they are all image-bearers and people who need to know what God has done.
Sometimes people applaud me for “stepping out in faith” and following Christ in hard areas. While I do long for God to use me, I do not think there is anything in me that makes me especially able to do this work. I ask God regularly whether He’s sure He chose the right person. I’m selfish and impatient; I fear failure and care too much about what people think of me. It was never easy for me to go talk to prostitutes on the streets. In fact I occasionally skipped outreach and events because I wanted my own schedule and my own life. Most of the women I talked to in the streets probably would not remember me because I was not particularly faithful or bold to meet with them. I still struggle at times with being a regular volunteer at the residential home for women leaving prostitution. These women are not generally the women I would choose as my friends. Yet, they are all image-bearers and people who need to know what God has done.
I write this article not simply to tell people what God has done, but in hopes that other people will follow God’s call to reach out to women who are sexually exploited commercially. Each local church should be creative in considering ways they can help. A good place to start is with prayer and repentance. Begin to see these women as being no different from you apart from God’s grace. Ask God what He wants you to do about this problem, which is just outside the doors of your church whether you choose to see it or not. Ask yourself how your church has failed the outcast, perhaps even setting up barriers to keep her outside the church’s borders. How does your church respond to people who may not look like a typical church-goer? Does your church welcome people to come as they are (as we all approach the cross) or is there some cleaning up expected before sinners are really welcome? Repent of the ways you have forsaken these vulnerable members of our communities. Repent of judgmentalism and pride which excuse our natural distance from this part of our world.
Some churches may not be called to an organized ministry to the sexually exploited, but all churches should be part of the larger call to change our culture. We live in a culture which glorifies pimps and degrades prostitutes. Challenge people when they talk this way.
Never stop at introspection. Pray for God to connect you to others who share a burden for the oppressed. It’s likely that other people are praying about this too. Move out to your communities and join a network that may already be ministering to women in prostitution. Look up safe houses in your area. There may not be a place for prostituted women, but Domestic Violence shelters may be able to tell you what is available in your area for these women. Most states have an anti-human trafficking task force. Get in touch with them. Talk to police officers or judges. They will know both where exploitation is happening and whether there are any effective existing resources. Some churches may not be called to an organized ministry to the sexually exploited, but all churches should be part of the larger call to change our culture. We live in a culture which glorifies pimps and degrades prostitutes. Challenge people when they talk this way. Watch a documentary like Very Young Girls to get a better understanding of the nature of this exploitation.
Our responsibility and our privilege is to walk with these women and show them the love of Christ. Will you join me in reaching out to people that the world has rejected? On my own, I would not have chosen such a work, nor would I be considered as someone “qualified” to help. But I know that God has called me to this right now. Like Jonah, I have tried to avoid God’s calling for me to go to places I have thought to be uncomfortable and to meet people I have thought to be undesirable. Yet by God’s grace, I hope every day to take one more step towards my Nineveh, and may you be encouraged to do the same.