Last week, I went downtown to an area where “hotel” is code for “brothel,” and policemen watch men solicit women on the street without caring.
HD partners with an organization that works in two particular blocks – an organization that is mostly one woman. Olivia (not her real name) has been working and praying in these streets for two and a half years. She offers daily programs to prostitutes and gives away baby formula, diapers, and food. She takes women to the hospital when they have been beaten severely or contracted an STD. She knows and is known by all the prostitutes, pimps, and madams in the area. She has been trained by Scotland Yard, and she continually impressed me by confidently going wherever she wanted, cooing, “Oh, I just love the girls and I want to help them however I can!” in a sing-songy helpless little girl voice before getting in the car and growling to us, “I wanted to punch him in the face!”
Why was I experiencing this?
Dina has started going downtown with Olivia weekly so that she can get to know the women on the street. She told the rest of our staff that we would each join her at least once so that we could see where our participants are coming from. The first to participate, I can whole-heartedly affirm that this was a wonderful idea. Although nothing unexpected happened, it was still such a shock to my system to realize that this was REAL LIFE to these men and women. Their everyday experience was walking the streets, propositioning and being propositioned, wondering if someone was going to bash your head against the wall, and dodging the woman with the stick.
I didn’t feel scared, mostly because I trusted Olivia entirely. She did a wonderful job of calmly but carefully directing us. After buying us sodas from a bar that fronts for a brothel (Dina and I trailed behind her sipping through straws like little kids, which I think was the point), Olivia said, “This way. Please get in the car. Immediately.” After we were circling the block in her car, she asked, “Did you see the woman with the stick?” “No,” we both admitted, which was the first of many instances where Olivia impressed me with the apparent hundred eyes she has (“Did you see three different men try to break into my trunk to get our bags?” “No, I didn’t see that either.”).
Anyway, the woman with the stick is possessed by a legion of demons, Olivia said, and she doesn’t say that lightly. Everyone is terrified of the woman with the stick, and she’s been known to smash windows and heads indiscriminately. While my first reaction is to avoid her completely, Olivia shared her dream with us. “I know that someday I am going to confront her, and I am going to free her from her demons in the name of Jesus. I have a vision of her someday working as my right-hand woman, and that is how the people here will know the power of God to heal lives. But now is not the right time. I wait.”
This woman, I’m telling you.
We also went upstairs in a brothel, Olivia shooshing us in the elevator because there were hidden microphones. We knocked on a door and promised the woman who answered that someone would return tomorrow with diapers and milk for her two babies. While we waited for the elevator, a man from Iran came out to ask for milk for his baby, and then another man came and stared at us. Later, Olivia told us that the first man probably was a refugee, but the second man was one of the highest-up traffickers in the area, checking us out to see if we were a threat.
We went directly from there to park by a seemingly abandoned building. The time changed to 10:00 and we started praying. Why? Because both the hallway visit and this stakeout were what Olivia called “Silent Support.” In both places she knew there were rooms that were completely locked, keeping women trapped inside for months at a time. She goes into the hallways and talks loudly so that those women will know there is some kind of normalcy just outside their door, that there is someone offering help, that there is a tiny sliver of hope. Similarly, she parks by a building that is far from abandoned, because she knows women inside stare at her car through the windows they are not allowed to open and know that someone is praying for them at 10:00 once a week.
How does this go on, you might be asking? Where are the police? Well, one was sitting inside the brothel/bar, and he demands €200 from every prostitute he sees who want to avoid being arrested. The other was on the street corner, eyeing me up.
That was another thing, this pervasive sense of commodification. I avoid eye contact in the best of times, but there? Men unapologetically looked at me like I was a piece of meat, and I felt that if I stood still for very long they would offer me cash. It hurt, to be evaluated as a commodity rather than valued as a human, and I could only imagine how days and weeks of this would add up to you seeing yourself the same way.
What else? There’s so much! We met a woman named “G” who had just arrived from Nigeria. It was her first night on the streets, and she looked petrified. We also met “I” who two weeks ago expressed interest in coming to HD. She’d gone missing right after, and this was the first time Olivia had seen her in ten days. We bought her some snacks and asked if she still wanted to come. But she was only semi-conscious on some kind of drug, and she kept saying, “I’m not ready, I’m not ready.” We prayed for her and let her leave. She was immediately approached by a sixty-year-old man.
So much happened in just two hours, and Olivia made sure that we didn’t experience the really scary aspects of life downtown. She made sure we left by 11:00, because it was then that a different set of pimps took over, ones who all carried guns. As we sat in her car waiting for Argyris to pick us up, we heard someone scream, and Olivia said, “I saw in the rearview mirror. A woman was walking down the street and a man just shoved her head-first into a wall.” This kind of casual violence, that was apparently both expected and accepted, was hard to imagine. I knew now why our training included a section on how women in safe houses have to learn to adapt to an entirely different culture from what they are used to.
What else is there to say? Well, at the end of it all, Olivia turned to me and said, “You have it. You could work here.”
“I DON’T have it,” I insisted.
“You do. You may not know it, but I see it in you.”
We talked a little more, and I explained that my heart is in long-term relationships, in going deep with women and building something enduring. The uncertainty of work downtown, of not knowing if the woman you met last week would be there this week, would totally drain me. Olivia nodded, and said, “It is important to have people passionate about every step of the process.” Which was nice to hear, because I don’t feel called even slightly to do what she does. But I DO want to cultivate a spirit that abhors evil, that doesn’t blame victims when they act badly out of fear or survival, that offers a smile and a hug to people who are used to being touched aggressively.
I don’t know if I’ll go downtown again. But I’m so grateful I had this opportunity to see a world that so many people live in while the privileged majority blindly get coffee or go site-seeing just blocks away. I hope I don’t forget it.