It was seven o'clock on a Tuesday night and I was at church. There was a lot going on that evening so we met in a back classroom. We scooted in around a woodgrain plastic table in our too-little Sunday school chairs. Someone had brought brownies, which were quickly passed around. Unfortunately there was none of the usual chatter—"These are amazing . . . Oh, I really shouldn't . . . Maybe just this once"—to serve as an icebreaker.
The florescent lights and stark white walls only amplified the awkwardness. A dozen church ladies and four former prostitutes—this was not going to be your usual women's ministry gathering.
Along with several women from my church, I volunteer with New Friends New Life a non-profit that assists women in leaving the sex industry. Once a year, I also travel with a group to work with the House of Hope in Nicaragua, a ministry that helps women and girls escape prostitution. I asked Irie Session, who is on staff with New Friends New Life, if she and some of their program graduates would come talk with our Nicaragua team. I figured that we could use their help in learning the dos and don'ts of relating to former prostitutes.
But I never considered how it might feel for them—or frankly for us—as we sat together around a table in church. My plan had been to start by asking the women from New Friends New Life to tell us their stories. But before I could say anything, one woman, Debbie*, asked us, "Have any of you ever sold your body for money or been sexually abused?" Most of us shook our heads. She said, "Then you cannot tell them that they are wrong. It won't work." Debbie continued, "And when you walk right up and hug them, they are going to think that you want something." Another woman said, "Yeah, she's right. No hugging."
A dialogue began in my head that continued the rest of the evening. What were you thinking? I questioned myself, We have no idea what they've been through or what we're doing!
Because I didn't know what else to do, I stuck to my shaky plan. Karen* said she'd start. Karen told her story of how she began as a cocktail waitress, then a stripper, then had gotten into prostitution. Even though she wanted to get out of "the life," there seemed to be no other way to support her children. Karen looked at no one as she said the most amazing statement: "I was doing the best I could."