I have been reading a lot lately about well meaning people who travel locally or internationally to work with marginalized people. Over the last several years, I would say the average upper-middle class American has gained more awareness of the human trafficking crisis both domestically and internationally. Awareness is a good thing, but it isn’t THE thing. Awareness doesn’t create change. Awareness doesn’t bring freedom. Awareness doesn’t end the problem. Millions of people around the world have not only been aware of trafficking, but involved in it in some capacity, for quite some time.
When I moved to Orlando six years ago to pursue a Masters in Counseling and become a mental health therapist, I thought I wanted to work in the inner city with at-risk teens to help them carve out a life path other than sex, drugs, and violence. When one of my first clients walked into the office – a middle-aged female heroin addict who had been selling her body for money since childhood – the trajectory of my career path took a drastic turn. This woman really put me through the ringer. She screamed at me, hallucinated, showed up high, forced me to chase her out into the parking lot once, and called and left panicked messages on my voicemail. I was a graduate intern and I was already deeply entrenched in some very difficult work. But I felt like I was supposed to be there, and I wanted to understand her world better.
After spending three years working as a pastor, counselor, group leader, and teacher in the local jail, I learned and saw just how big and dark and bad this world is. No one grows up wanting to be an addict, convict, or prostitute. Many of the women I met over the course of three years had the same things in common: no parents, no education, no resources, and a complete lack of access to any form of life skills training or health care. When we go to victimized, at-risk, or marginalized men and women and say, “You need to make better choices”, it’s like going up to people in the ICU and saying, “You just need to be stronger.”
It’s one thing to be well-meaning Christians who reach out and say “let me help you”. It is quite another to join others in their world and say, “teach me what your world is like so I may love you better”. I learned the hard way that I know absolutely nothing about helping someone who has been trafficked, the trafficker, the scapegoat, or incarcerated. My passion and vision for my counseling practice is to provide high-quality, affordable mental and emotional health care for people who cannot afford traditional therapy, but I need to spend more time walking the streets rather than reading books and dreaming. When my husband, Tim, read this before posting he asked a very interesting question: “Babe, you write a lot about what people shouldn’t do. What SHOULD we do?”
Great question. Tim is right. I have become quite cynical over the last few years, and I can talk for hours about what I have done, or seen others do, incredibly wrong. I think what we SHOULD and CAN do starts with education. It starts with becoming aware, reading books, watching documentaries, and listening to the stories of others. But it can’t end there. At the end of the day, each of us needs to spend time in someone else’s shoes. We need to get out of our own comfort zones. We need to spend quality time with people who seem to be different than we are.
This is tricky, though. Just walking up to someone who seems different and saying, “Hey! Tell me about your life so I can learn how to have empathy” probably is not the most effective way to go about this. Walking in someone else’s shoes requires building a relationship, which requires a lot of time and energy. It requires becoming a student of someone else and letting someone else become a student of you at the same time. In this process, a friendship is created and must be nurtured in order to truly see what life is like for someone else.
This is what I set out to do with my friend Grace*. I met Grace in jail over a year ago, and we have stayed connected ever since. When she was released, she was sent home with no driver’s license, no money, and no transportation, so she moved in with a family member and got the only job a young woman can get with no education, no license, and no work experience. She dances several nights a week at various local strip clubs, and is saving the money like crazy. She picks up extra “work” on the side to make ends meet. Believe it or not, she is making some different and healthier choices this time around, but she is still in the same game she was in before because no one would give her a chance anywhere else.
After reconnecting, she wanted to know if she could come to church with me one day. I was ELATED because I wasn’t sure she would ever actually want to hang out. A lot of women get out of jail and contact me, saying they want to meet up, but they rarely show. I get stood up a lot, so I was pleasantly shocked when Grace told me where to meet her and that she wanted to follow through. She called me via FaceTime from a department store because she was not sure she had anything appropriate to wear for church. I “walked through the store with her” and helped her pick out a really cute outfit that I would wear in a heartbeat! When I arrived to pick her up, she looked beautiful. We hugged tightly, she hopped in the car, and we started the hour-long drive to church.
I learned all about what she had been doing lately, how her family is doing, and then she started telling me work stories. Grace told me that most of her “clients” are white, middle-aged, white-collar men who visit the clubs before they go home to their wives. She told me about the “no touching” rules that no one adheres to, even when it is strict policy. She told me about fights in the back rooms, work competition, who she can and cannot trust, and how she works really hard to maintain some level of integrity and dignity in completely dehumanizing work. We talked about books she has read, songs we both like, and her dreams of being a professional singer.
By the time we got to church, Grace was really nervous, wondering if people could “see it on her” – who she “really is” – and if she would fit in. She relaxed a little by the time the music started, and we both really enjoyed the service. I won’t go into her experience here, because it isn’t my place to share that, but I can tell you that I was so proud to have her sitting next to me. I am so glad she agreed to go. And I can’t wait until we hang out again.
On the way home, we talked a little more candidly about the ins and outs of Grace’s current profession. I cried. I told her some of my tears were for her – not because I am a naive white girl, but because things like “escort rating apps” exist and how girls are ranked. I cried because violence – gruesome, unnecessary violence – is a part of her every day life. I cried for the men who hire her and the women who try to fight her. I cried because gangs and strip clubs and prostitution still exist and because the “world’s oldest profession” is the quickest way for an unsupported, uneducated woman to make ends meet in this world.
I cried because every day women are killed for who and what they know, and no one knows it or does anything about it. I cried because most of us are either unaware or unwilling to change things.
And then Grace changed the song, made a joke about my crying, and we laughed for the rest of the car ride. I hugged her tightly, handed her some books I had been saving for her, made sure she was safe, and I proceeded to cry the whole way home.
I want to know more about her and learn about her world, but I also don’t want to hear anymore heartbreaking details because sometimes the truth is just so horrible. I am so sheltered. I am so protected. I have hard days and face hard things, but I never question if I am loved or wanted for something other than my body. I want Grace, and countless others, to have the same reality. I want the world to change. I want people to change.
So we will keep being friends. We will keep talking, and I will keep listening. And hopefully, prayerfully, I will act in a way that is both loving and fiercely effective in ending this mess we have all created.
I, for one, can’t wait to have another date with my friend who happens to work as a stripper.