A few weeks before my thirtieth birthday, I became part of a small community: four small streets in the infamous sector of the city of Amsterdam. I would walk the streets of this neighborhood known for legalized prostitution and drugs for the next ten years. It was here in this environment where God gave me daily tutorials of discovering who he is and who he isn't. I was way over my head those first few months, drowning in insecurity but at the same time happy. It was strange that as I was removed from my comfortable Canadian lifestyle and placed into an unknown culture, it felt like new life was breathed into my soul. My six months of volunteering with Youth with a Mission have turned into almost a decade as a full-time missionary.
Welcome to the neighborhood
I arrived in the city expecting to be a blessing to the women working in prostitution. But I was clueless when I started. I had never worked with prostitutes before. I was only moving on the call of God and his Word. It went against my natural instincts to work in an area where I was confronted with other women in such a state of emotional, spiritual, and physical brokenness. It was a place that seemed to confirm my fears about men, humanity, and myself. But living in that insecure place made me desperate for God, and I realized rather quickly that there was no way I was going to be able to do it through my own strength.
If you walk into the neighborhood, the first street is wall-to-wall women standing in their glass prisons. If you keep walking, then you run into the live sex show. If you turn down another street, you come to the section of windows where women from Africa and South America slowly lose hope in a work they despise. Across the canal on the opposite side of the street stand Dutch and Eastern European women on display. Dispersed among all of this are porn shops, bars, and more sex shows. But on these very streets over the years I have also encountered tremendous kindness, goodness, and generosity from those whom you would least expect it.
Facing the men
I arrived in Amsterdam with a history of broken relationships, so my image of men was not exactly ideal. It was disturbing to see thousands of tourists—men from around the globe strolling through the streets—whose main purpose was to either purchase one of the women or to bully one of their friends to be another link in a chain of abuse. Year after year, watching drunken men gawking and ogling the women did nothing to bolster my idea of men. My heart still grieves whenever I hear men say degrading things as they saunter by the women, window-shopping for the cheapest one or the one with the largest breasts. They seem to think that the thin sheet of glass that separates the women from the outside world is soundproof.
It is literally every woman's worst nightmare to have to listen to a running commentary all day long about your physical worth, your flaws, your perceived blemishes and seeming imperfections. Although the other side of the story is that this neighborhood is often full of men who are desperately lonely, wanting to connect in the only way they know how. They are looking for what is good in what is counterfeit.
Facing tough questions
I knew God had called me to reach out to the women, but over time I was forced to also think about the men roaming the neighborhood. I needed to reconcile myself to the fact that God loves them too. As a theory, it's one thing—but it's a lot harder to truly embrace when spending week after week ministering to women who don't believe that there could possibly be a God who loves them because if he did, then why didn't he save them from all these evil and cruel men?
These are times when it is hard to come up with a comforting answer to painful questions like these. I could say God gives us all free will, he doesn't want us to be robots, we live in a broken world, and so on. But if I am honest, there are moments when I wish that God would forfeit his decision to give us free will. That he would stop us from making dreadful decisions and that he would prevent other people from making decisions that will cause us years of unspeakable pain and suffering.
But the Lord doesn't do that. He is faithful to the boundaries that he has set up in his Word. Sin has consequences, both for us and sometimes for the lives of generations to come. I've learned over these years in Amsterdam that I cannot adjust my theology to fit my pain or disappointment. I need his unfathomable grace to truly be able to love the men in the neighborhood. It is soul-wrenching to get down on your knees to pray for cruel abusive men and ask the Lord to save them so that they, too, might know his divine forgiveness and love. He is a God who reaches out to the abused and also to the abusers.
In its environment of permissiveness, people touring the Red Light District don't expect to be confronted. People seem to move through the area like they are invisible. They have license to do things in Amsterdam that they would never do in their home country. Over the years, there have been moments when I felt I needed to confront a man or a group of men. They are usually shocked when someone calls them out and forces them to stop and think for a moment about what they are doing and the person they have become. Mostly they become silent, they listen, and occasionally I've had the opportunity to speak words of life to them. I admit it was not always done with abounding love, grace, and compassion in my heart. But God has had nothing but broken people to work with since the beginning so he is able to use us in our weakness.
Through reaching out to the women and men in the area, I have been confronted with my fear and my prejudices. These four small streets have provided daily lessons—real-life tutorials like an episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood made for adults, where the characters involved were slightly rougher around the edges. I realized I could be judgmental. I wondered how these people could make these choices, and then I remembered that I, too, had a history of making bad decisions. I judged them for their weakness in their addiction. But I, too, have known addiction. I carried an invisible burden; instead of walking the streets looking for cocaine, my addiction resulted in the increase of my pant size. I am no stranger to fear, pain, or dependency. I am intimate with my insecurity and misplaced anger. I know what it's like to survive, to breathe in and out in spite of pain, desperation, and sadness.
God has given me a deep love for the ladies in the windows, and I feel tremendous gratitude that the Lord called the most fearful woman in Canada to partner with him in what he was doing in the Red Light District in Amsterdam. It feels a bit unfair because I came to serve God and the neighborhood, but over the years I discovered that God has used this time to serve me. He has used working in such a dysfunctional environment to bring me to greater maturity. He is the ultimate multitasker. He wastes no opportunity. He knows what each individual needs to bring her into a more intimate relationship with him. He knew I needed Amsterdam and the challenges and blessings of working in such a beautiful, diverse, and complicated city.
Kimberley Gehring is a missionary in Amsterdam, Netherlands. She has also worked in China teaching leaders communication skills and has worked with women who had been in a cult.