Still Waiting

They call her Skinny.

Guatemalans are blunt and not entirely politically correct in their use of nicknames.

We’ve known her for five years.  On our first day visiting La Linea she sat on her little plastic chair next to her room and the public urinal that perfumed the air around her.  She looked so frail, so sad; and she refused every attempt we made to engage with her.

It took 18 months before she agreed to accept a cup of coffee from us.  A year and a half for that small victory and I danced for the rest of the day.  Success!  She said yes.

From that point on, our aim was to see if we could get her to smile.  That took a while, but not another 18 months.

Skinny finally visiting La Puerta

We asked for a little of her story.  How long had she been in this life?  She started stripping when she was 12 or 13.  Honestly, I will never get used to these throw away realities.  I played with dolls and listened to Abba when I was 12.  She removed her clothes for leering strangers.

Sometimes we’d ask if she wanted to leave.  She’d sneer.  Of course not!  As far as Skinny was concerned, it was an okay way to make money.  Everyone had to survive somehow; this was her way.  It didn’t bother her.  She didn’t care.  It was just a job.

On Mother’s Day almost two years ago, her sister was murdered.  A death likely arranged by someone we know.  Skinny’s sister was a tiny, vulnerable, destroyed child-woman.  Her children had been removed from her care, and she would sit huddled in the corner of La Puerta colouring with a force and focus that was heartbreaking to see.  But one day someone decided they’d had enough of her brokenness and a single bullet stopped everything.

After the murder, Skinny moved to another centre of exploitation in the capital.  Word was, she was the next to die if she stayed on La Linea.

We don’t work in that area yet.  We will.  We have plans, but the plans need people, so as yet it’s just a dream.  But we’ve visited.  It’s one of the most depraved and dangerous places in Guatemala City.  It’s filthy, loud, crowded, and filled with people who believe life has absolutely no value.  At the same time there are fighters.  Individuals struggling to make a living and provide for their families. Good people, brave people, all trying to survive in a festering open wound of human depravity.  There’s nowhere quite like it.

A year ago we found Skinny there.  She screamed when she saw us.  It was a sweet moment.  I still remember the years of refusals and the wall she put between us.  A year ago it was still okay to do what she’d been doing forever.  It was still a way to make money.  It was still worth it.

Yesterday we visited again.  We entered brothels and bars, handing out flyers for next week’s medical clinic.  We chatted with women of all ages.  Some were happy to talk, others were obviously afraid.  Why on earth would these giant gringos want to talk to them.  I sat with a few in a bar.  We laughed a lot and I was reminded again how much I love my job.

On the way back to our car, we turned a corner and there she was.  Skinny…frail and painted and beaming.  After kisses and hugs and more kisses there came a sudden flood of tears.  She misses her sister.  There is no justice in Guatemala.  She will never see her again.  Life is so hard without her.  She has no hope.  Apart from her sister’s funeral, she is someone who has never shown emotion.  She’s stoic.  She accepts her lot.

Sobbing, she beckoned me to a dark corner of the brothel.  She didn’t want the other girls to overhear what she was going to say.

I can’t stand it anymore.  I can’t continue in this life.  I hate it.  I hate it.  Please help me.  Please.  I can’t do this anymore.  This life is terrible.  Terrible.  Please.

Tears poured down her facing, peeling the cheap liner from her eyes.  She cried with a force that was devastating to see.  It was grief.  Grief for everything she had lost – everything she had endured.  But it was also hope.  Hope that there might be something else.  That there might be a way out.

We will talk again next week.  But this is huge.  HUGE!  She was never going to leave.  For Skinny, prostitution was a legitimate way to provide for her children and she thought we were kind, foolish gringos because we aren’t fans.

It took five years to get to this point.  Five years of refusals, anger, aggression and then reluctant acquiescence. Five years of pizza, and games, and jokes, and hugs.  Five years of waiting and being told, NO!

We are often asked what we do all day.  Honestly, it’s pretty boring.  Amazing things happen, but most of the time it’s quite mundane.  When we’re asked we usually say, “we wait.”  People laugh when we say that, unsure of what to do with such an answer.  But it’s true.  Most of our job is waiting.  We wait for the hug to change, for the hand squeeze to tighten, for tears to fill dark eyes, and for whispered questions of escape.

If you’re interested, we have no idea of our next step with her.  We’re heading back to Canada in about ten days and then we won’t be back until the summer.  Until then, we are going to try to figure out something for our precious Skinny.  She is the reason we do what we do.  She is the reason we walk through sewers.  She is a gift.

 

 

Still Walking

It’s been almost five years. We’ve walked these tracks and visited the rooms that trap hundreds of women so many times we can’t even begin to count. We’ve learned so much and changed so much. We’ve discovered depths of love we didn’t know we were capable of. We’ve lost dear friends to murder and have witnessed unimaginable suffering. BUT we’ve also seen extraordinary joy.

The women of La Linea have allowed us into their hearts and lives. We know their stories, their children, their dreams; and for many we are allowed the extraordinary privilege of being trusted with the knowledge of their real names. Most of the time we’ve done this alone, and that part has been really hard.

Volunteers have come and gone while we’ve prayed and waited for some who are willing to be in it for the long haul. Most of all we’ve prayed that the church in Guatemala would step in to serve these women. Our most earnest hope has been to see women who once knew the horror of exploitation to return and tell their sisters that there is hope. Driving to La Puerta today I was again asking Shawn when this was ever going to happen. Five years is a long time to walk alone.

And then there was a knock on the door. We knew that three friends would be joining us today. We were wrong. Eleven women, four of them former prostitutes, spilled into La Puerta, filling the space with laughter and love. Some of these women are counted among those we’ve known for the full five years. And here they are, transformed, full of hope and desperate to love the women of La Linea.

If you’re wondering, of course I’m still crying. This is a short visit but it’s also a miracle. Today five years of tears and whispered, pleading prayers is worth it.

Ready to Roll

Destination El Trebol, Terminal, Cerrito, Chimal, Zona 7, Villa Nueva, or dozens and dozens of other sites (no exaggeration!) around Guatemala City where many thousands of prostitutes are being exploited every day.  We are so excited to finally roll out our new mobile ministry centre!!

Since the day some very kind missionary friends donated their school bus to us back in November 2016, it’s been a labour of love, and sometimes patient endurance, as we oversaw a metamorphosis that included three different body shops, a roof raise, many obstacles and learning experiences, countless hours, and, of course, the very generous support of our donors.  But we’re delighted with the result of the 30-month journey and the whole new possibilities ahead!

This mobile centre will help us get into new areas where women are “working” and reach out to them with a safe place to come and hang out with us and our other Tamar’s Hope volunteers.  Like with La Puerta, our fixed ministry centre, our goal is to use the space to extend relationship to sexually exploited women, share the hope of Jesus with them and help draw them towards healthy life alternatives.

We imagine girls playing games with us at the tables.  A heart to heart chat perhaps on the sofa.  A time to relax in a comfortable, secure environment.  A chance to learn about education and other resources.  I can already smell hot cinnamon rolls from the oven!

*note – we are still receiving donations for this project to cover the final $5000 of expenses*

Pig Skin and Possibility

It seemed a little conspicuous, even menacing.  The ruby-coloured vehicle with excess chrome, tinted windows and underbody lights seemed somewhat out of place for a small town like Sanarate.  As it circled the central park and crawled by us for a second time, the pimped-out pickup was hard to ignore.  But only once we stepped around another corner did our friend D turn to tell us the owner was one of the prestamistas whom she owed money.

Main Street Sanarate

Until two years ago, D was happily running her own little shop selling simple lunches and chicharrones (deep fried pig skin –  no, don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!).  But then business turned sour when her then boyfriend convinced her to move her eatery to a “better” location and borrow money on his behalf.  Sales were never the same and the fella was soon gone, leaving D with all the debt.  Even after liquidating the few assets she had from her kitchen, she still didn’t have enough to pay the rent she owed on the building.  At the time, borrowing even more seemed her only option to feed her hungry kids and keep the roof over their heads.

D and her kids in their humble two room house

For women of D’s socioeconomic standing, there’s no such thing as financing from banks or legal lending institutions.  In Guatemala, the poor, when desperate enough, can only find credit from the neighbourhood loan sharks – prestamistas – who are always way too happy to help!  Over the course of a few short months, D found herself impossibly indebted to not just one but FIVE prestamistas.

As wonderfully merry and generous these dudes can be when it comes to credit approval, they aren’t known to be quite as gracious with any defaults.  D had a friend once who tried to modify her repayment schedule.  Shortly after her body was found in a nearby river.  For D, turning again to prostitution to survive seemed at least better than the river.  She had been back on La Linea on and off for the past couple years.

“So how much do you still owe?” I had asked in an earlier conversation.

“Q4850.” She was precise.

Doing some quick math in my head, that was about $850 CDN.  I figured it could be worse.  “And how much are you paying in interest?”

“5%.”

Well hey again, it could be way worse!

“5% per day,” she expounded.

“Say what??!!”

Yup, some of these guys had been showing up at her door every single day to demand at least 5% plus a token of the principal.  When she was off “working” they’d still come to harass and threaten her young children.

the debt cards, now cancelled! one was titled “The Blessing” Investments!

Natalie and I were walking the streets of Sanarate with D last week, scoping out a suitable place to help her relaunch her chicharronería.  She had the know-how and previous experience, she had a workable business plan, she had the faith to trust God with the unknowns.  What she needed was a means of escape from yet another form of wicked exploitation, the moral support of friends, and some modest financial help.

That very day she secured some building space on a busy street.  So we made a business agreement with her then and there which included a grant to pay out the prestamistas and an interest-free loan for all her start-up costs.  In less than a week she had purchased everything to equip a small kitchen, arranged her meat suppliers, ordered signs, contracted a plumber to install a utility sink, and lit the deep fryer.  We returned to visit this week to find she’s already reaching 80% of her daily sales target!!

and she named it after Tamar’s Hope

D was beaming and almost skipping about the kitchen as she served us and many other customers.  The door to her room on La Linea is now firmly closed.  The door to Chicharronería Tamar is wide open.  And so is a whole new chapter of life for D, filled with hope, dignity, and gratitude to Jesus.

While we were enjoying lunch together in D’s shop, one of the prestamistas circled by again, this time to offer some more credit should she need it.  “No thank you and get lost!” was her polite reply.

A LITTLE SPARK

Her family called her Chispita (little spark), but to us she was Yocelin.

The first time we met her, she sat huddled over a chair, her tongue pointed in concentration as she frantically coloured a sheet of paper.  What she produced with that fierce effort was heartbreaking – a toddler scrawl without definition or plan.  She wasn’t trying to draw a thing, just filling the page with a single colour.  I wondered if maybe it was the first time she’d ever held a crayon.  As the months passed and we got to know her a little better, I became certain that it had been.  Her’s  was a life without chances.  She hadn’t spent her childhood singing pre-school songs and watching Sesame Street.  For Yocelin, the simple act of holding a crayon was foreign and complicated, and she proudly displayed her scrawl to each of us at the end of a long colouring session.

We’ve known and loved Yocelin’s sister, another Y, for several year.  She was a challenge to win, refusing our offers of coffee and cookies with a determined shake of the head.  But when she finally accepted, after a year of gentle persuasion, we knew that something big had happened.  From that point on, Y became our firm friend and advocate.  Then, one day, she showed up with a whole pile of family in tow – her mother and a couple of her sisters wanted to colour as well!  And that was the first time we met Yocelin.

She had been a regular on La Linea for many years but was hidden in the back rooms where girls are rarely seen by non-customers.  But then tragedy struck.   One of Yocelin’s three tiny children died in her care and the others were removed by the state.  She was told she’d never get them back if she continued to work in prostitution, so for a while she left.  But for a girl with no education and no hope, it was inevitable that she’d end up back on La Linea.  For the most broken of these women, they have nowhere else to go, and know no other way of earning the money they need to survive.

She’d visit La Puerta with her sister.  “Yocelin, how old are you?”  She had no idea.  “Okay, sweetie, how about you tell us what month you were born in?”  We like to celebrate the ladies’ birthdays with a cake and a lot of fuss.  Celebrating the uncelebrated is a thing at Tamar’s Hope.  But she couldn’t even narrow down her birth to a particular month.  She wasn’t being difficult.  She had no idea.

How little do you matter, do you think, to yourself or to others, if you don’t even know when you were born?  It was a small indication of a desolate life.

At the end of 2017 Yocelin had another baby.  She was terrified the authorities would find out and remove her remaining child, but she managed to keep the secret pretty well, although, in reality, it would only be a matter of time.

On Friday last the staff of Tamar’s Hope celebrated the women of La Linea with a Mother’s Day party.  I missed all the fun, but I saw the photos and loved seeing the laughter on their faces as they played games and ate good food.  Our dear friend, Carolina, a former prostitute, returned to share her story with the ladies.  There is such power in a former working girl telling her sisters what it’s like to be free…and that freedom really is possible.  Yocelin sat beside Carolina as she spoke.

Yocelin listening to Carolina at the Mothers’ Day party

Like everyone else, Yocelin left with a full tummy and a gift.  Gifts are good, and it had been a good day.  She had been loved and told that she mattered by people who really meant it.  Sometimes, even in the life of a prostitute, good things happen.  They just don’t last very long.  A few hours later, as she stood outside a local pharmacy, a man approached her and fired a single shot through her heart.

She was only twenty years old, the mother of four, and she had known nothing but suffering and loss for her entire life.

Yesterday we sat with her family and friends as they wept over her coffin.  What do you say to a mother or a sister in a situation like this?  Actually, nothing.  Once again there are no words.  The simple box that held her broken body sat in La Puerta for a little while as her family wept and her co-workers passed through to pay their respects.  It was a bleak scene as we mourned a wasted life surrounded by others who live in daily dread of the same fate.

Her mother was just about the last to leave La Puerta, helpless with grief.  We all know it, but it bears saying again.  No mother, no parent, should ever have to walk behind her child’s coffin.

Our friends placed her coffin into their minivan (yes, really) and drove her to the cemetery.  The poor are buried in layers – like a wall of oversized shoe boxes covered in faded plastic flowers.  It’s a pitiful place.  The family gets to watch as their loved one’s coffin is bricked in and sealed with cement.  But it’s not over at that point.  If they fail to pay the annual fee, the authorities will remover her body and toss it into the garbage dump that adjoins the wall of tombs.  Death in Guatemala is a particularly brutal business.

So that’s it.  Yocelin, like so many of her working sisters, is gone.  She lived a life without joy or hope and we are left mourning one we couldn’t pull out of the misery of prostitution.

#becauseprostitutesmatter  #tamarshope

The T Word

“The women you work with…are any of them trafficked?”

We get asked this question a lot.  Way too often.

I just don’t like the T word.

The issue of human trafficking is horrifying, and all of a sudden, it’s getting a lot of media attention.  Imagine a trade in human lives, sold for exploitation.  It’s almost incomprehensibly evil.  What kind of person steals and sells a child, knowing that they face a life of slavery and abuse?  Who in the world would take the time to befriend a poor, uneducated woman only to lure her to a job that doesn’t exist and a life of sexual servitude?

It’s the stuff of nightmares.

And we all care about trafficking victims, don’t we?

We must care; look at the marches, the tee shirts, the foam cooler thingys you put on your can of Coke…those dandy slogans and cool emblems just ooze outrage and a determination to make a difference in society.  Step aside William Wilberforce, generation selfie has got this.

But the problem is the word.

The T word has become so cool. So trendy.  And dare I say it…so sexy?

We know when we’re about to be asked the question.  They sit a little straighter, head tilted with avaricious concern, and I swear I can see sweat beading on their brow.

“Are any of them trafficked?”

Deep breath.  Don’t be rude.

“Um, why do you ask?”

“Well, trafficking, it’s just so…so…awful.  Those poor women it happens to, it must be so terrible for them.  I just can’t imagine…”  and they drift off, their eyes misty with trite compassion.

One, two, three, one, two, three…

Let’s be clear here, lest anyone feel a creeping sense of outrage, trafficking is appalling.  I lie awake at night and fret about it.  Not every night.  I’m mostly very selfish.  But there are nights when the reality of trafficking haunts my thoughts and steals the hope of sleep.

But what’s with this grading of suffering?

Currently, human trafficking gets a 10/10 on the suffering social concern metre.  Ordinary, everyday sexually exploited women get a meagre 1/10.

Trafficking carries with it images of innocent women kidnapped and dragged to their fate as they kick and scream, fighting for freedom.

Prostitution is a lazy, sex-crazed addict who chooses the life because she chose addiction, or life on the streets.  It might be sad, but she’s pathetic.  And dirty.  Kinda nasty, actually.

If she didn’t want to do it, she wouldn’t be there.

Trafficking is about stolen innocence, victimization, and the willful destruction of lives for profit.

Prostitution is all about women who made a really bad choice and reap the consequences of their decisions.  Sucks to be them.

So, we’ll care about the trafficking victims, their lost innocence, and the injustice of their lives.  We’ll wear wristbands, funky shirts and selfie ourselves all over social media as we join a march and wave a banner.  We style our social concern and photograph our commitment as if posting a photo of our hipster passion will change a darn thing.  It won’t, but we looked awesome holding that glossy placard and our Instagram-ready good hair day.

But hookers need to get a grip and change their own lives.

Victims of trafficking are legitimate recipients of our mercy.  Prostitutes deserve our contempt.

Really?

“Make sure you tell them they need to repent,” we’re told, again, far too often.

That woman on the corner with the smudged makeup and the six-inch heels likely started in this world when she was about 13 years old.

She’s been beaten.

She’s been raped.

She’s been humiliated.

She’s been tortured.

She’s been robbed.

And one day, there’s a good chance she’ll be killed.

Her grandfather started abusing her when she was 2 years old.

Then her uncles joined in.

When she was 14 a friend or a relative or a stranger got her pregnant.  Her family threw her out.  She had nowhere to go and no way to provide for her child.

She already knows she’s worthless.  She’s heard it her whole life.

She already knows what she’s good for.  She’s heard all about that too.

She knows that no man will ever really love her.

She knows that there’s only one thing about her that has any value.

She has no education.

No home.

No hope.

And one day someone tells her where she can stand to earn money to do the thing that’s been done to her for as long as she can remember.

Why wouldn’t she?

It’s already been ruined.

Her body has been invaded.  Her sexuality shredded.  Men have stolen every part of her.

Why wouldn’t she sell what’s left?

She’s only 13 when she begins and for a while she still looks like a child.  Nice people wince when they see her.

“What did you do to get here?” they ask.

“Do? I was born a girl.”

But when she turns 18 there isn’t even the pretence of mercy.  The rapes don’t matter.  The abuse is irrelevant.  Was she trafficked?  No?  Well then let’s move on.  No kindness to show here.

Think I’m exaggerating?  I wish.

Sexual exploitation is horrific.  There is no grading system.  Some of the women we work with believed they were coming to a good job and a new life.  Others have been used in this way all of their lives.  Some are a complicated combination circumstances and stories.

All of them matter.

#becauseprostitutesmatter, no matter how they got there.

Would You Could You?

We just did a run of “20 DAYS OF WAYS TO SUPPORT TAMAR’S HOPE” over in our closed Tamar’s Hope Facebook group.  It was a series of posts of practical suggestions for our friends and partners who would like to be more involved with this ministry, even beyond making donations.

Here’s the skinny version for anyone else who wants to get in on the action with us…

DAY 1: PRAY

I know it’s almost cliché to say it, but we mean it! Seeking God’s will in this and surrendering it all to Him is foundational to everything we do with Tamar’s Hope.  Please pray for the WOMEN we serve, for NEXT STEPS in Tamar’s Hope growth, and how else God may be asking YOU to be involved.

DAY 2 – INVITE OTHERS TO THE FB GROUP

We know our vision for Tamar’s Hope is going to require a LOT more contributing partners and this is one of the main places we communicate with our donors and any “interest-ee.”

DAY 3 – HELP FIND US A PLACE TO STAY IN CALGARY

We will be in western Canada from the end of May til the first week of August to raise more support for Tamar’s Hope.  We have places to lay our heads except for June 4-21 in Calgary.  If you know of a house-sitting opportunity or the like, we’d love to hear about it.

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best accommodation option so far

DAY 4 – ARRANGE FOR US TO SPEAK IN YOUR CHURCH

Our summer leave will be primarily about raising support for Tamar’s Hope. If you’re in western Canada we’d totally love to come speak at your church and share what we’re all about.  Would you talk that up with your pastor? Be it 10 minutes or an hour, we’d be all about it!

DAY 5 – MINISTRY BUS PROJECT

Our donated school bus awaits 2 or 3 handy folk to come fix it up into something awesome so we can use it as a mobile ministry centre to take to various red light districts of Guatemala City.  So far we’ve gutted it and raised the roof.  Now we want to retrofit it with a lounge, kitchen and bathroom. Who’s in for that kind of fun project?!

our dream for the ministry bus

DAY 6 – GARAGE SALE FUNDRAISERS

It’s spring.  That means it’s soon time for tree blossoms, NHL playoffs, and garage-saling. Yay!!  If you and your friends or neighbors want to sell all that stuff cluttering garages, then why yes, we’d happily accept the proceeds!

DAY 7 – VOLUNTEER LOCALLY

Supporting what we’re doing in Guatemala is great.  Getting involved in your own community is equally great.  My bet is there is a ministry or organization very near you that is reaching out to sex trade workers.  Find out what they’re doing.  Find out how you can be involved.

DAY 8 – VEHICLE TO BORROW FOR THE SUMMER

Update:  Got one.  Thanks!!

DAY 9 – SHARE THIS WEBSITE

Many have gone all out passing around our short video on fb. Thanks, that’s been awesome! Could you please do the same with this new website?  Point out people can subscribe and there’s a DONATE PAGE

DAY 10 – MAKE FRIENDS WITH PROSTITUTES IN YOUR OWN COMMUNITY

Yes, I guarantee you can find sex trade workers not far from wherever you live!  Go and greet.  Smile and ask them what they take in their coffee….And if you don’t know where they hang out, community services or your local police certainly will.  Ready, go!

DAY 11 – TALK US UP IN YOUR CHURCH GROUPS

Are you in a church home group? a service group? How ’bout showing our video the next time you meet and inviting others to get involved?

DAY 12 – COME TO GUATEMALA AS A MISSIONARY

Seriously!!  We believe God is leading us to serve lots more women than we’re capable of right now. Which means we’re gonna need lots more people. Which can only mean He’s inviting more to come join us! Is that you?  Is that someone you know?  We’re looking for volunteers who are willing to commit to a minimum 2 years.

DAY 13 – INVITE US TO YOUR GROUP

We’re gonna be in western Canada for the summer months and we’d LOVE to come speak to your church home group, business associates, family and friends…anyone who wants to hear about what we’re up to in Guatemala!!

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lots to tell!

DAY 14 – ORGANIZE A GROUP FUNDRAISER

After you’ve shown our video to your small group (Day 11), brainstorm ways you could raise money together.  Perhaps a garage sale (Day 6) isn’t really your thing but you have your own creative ideas!  Have fun!

DAY 15 – EDUCATE YOURSELF ABOUT THE SEX TRADE

A few choice resources just to get you started:
Children in the Game by Ross A. MacInnes (stories of how predators lure girls in)
Girls Like Us by Rachel Lloyd (a survivor story from the commercial sex industry)
Nefarious: Merchant of Souls (documentary film by Exodus Cry)

DAY 16 – SHOW OUR VIDEO AT YOUR CHURCH

Perhaps logistics will make it difficult to invite us to speak at your church this summer (Day 4), but what about asking your pastor if YOU could just say a few a words on our behalf and share the 6 min video?  Easy peasy!!

DAY 17 – HELP SPREAD THE WORD WE’LL BE IN CANADA THIS SUMMER

Yes, we’d love to come speak at your church (Day 4).  Yes, we’d love to speak with your small group (Day 13). And YES, we’d love to come share our stories and vision with any other group you know about! – other groups in your church, others groups in other churches, your co-workers, customers, rich uncle, anyone!

DAY 18 – REMEMBER IT’S A TEAM

The work of Tamar’s Hope is only possible because it’s a whole team thing. It takes donors, it takes pray-ers, and it takes some seriously awesome volunteer staff!  God has drawn a few of His most compassionate, fearless and sacrificial servants into our on-the-ground group of workers, now representing four different countries.  Remember them.  Pray for them.  Consider becoming one of them!

DAY 19 – SHARE YOUR IDEAS WITH US

Please give us your own creative ideas right here of how you and others could support Tamar’s Hope.  We’ll take all the help we can get!

DAY 20 – PRAY

Yeah, I know, that was Day 1 and we bookend it here too cuz this one’s as important as it gets.  Please pray for us, for our staff, for the women we are serving on La Linea, for the women who have left prostitution and are trying to rebuild their lives, for more financial resources to better serve these many women.

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please God! thank you God!

 

Speechless

Just over a year ago C. decided that she just couldn’t stand to be on La Linea for another moment.  On a Saturday afternoon at the end of January, she walked away from 16 years of prostitution without even bothering to unlock the door of her little room.

It was the start of an amazing journey.

In the (almost) three years that we’ve been working with this particular group of exploited women, we’ve seen lots of them leave.  The process is different for each one.  But it’s always full of challenges and reasons to return to the life and the source of income that they know is waiting for them when they get desperate enough.

C’s challenges have been many.  From a violent son to a sick mother and dependent family members who have no employment, she has no choice but to be the source of income for a lot of people…and that is a huge pressure.

We recently got to visit with her for the first time in a long while.  We’ve been in contact, but her work schedule has meant that we couldn’t get to see her.  A few weeks ago she had emergency gallbladder surgery.  Now she’s stuck at home, unable to work.  We grabbed the chance to visit with her, sit with her, and listen to more of her story.

9 days post op and doing great!

A freind has allowed C. to sell food at her tomato stall in the city’s central market.  Don’t think a few tomatoes for a salad – think crates of tomatoes for a shop.  C. sells food to the other stall holders.  This is how her day goes…

She gets up at 1am and starts to prepare the food she plans to sell.  On Monday it’s a beef stew, Tuesday a chicken dish…and so it goes.  At 3am her friend, the tomato lady, shows up to give her a ride to the market.  C. doesn’t really need to get there that early, but she goes with her friend so that she can save the money of having to transport all of her food and dishes every day.  She has to take everything with her.  Absolutely everything – even the water she’ll need to rinse dishes or dilute soup because there are no amenities available in the market.  So when her friend arrives, C. loads up her vehicle with plastic tubs of stew and soup, buckets of coffee and hot chocolate and all the dishes, utensils and odd bits that a person with a food concession might need.  It’s a mountain of stuff.

Although she has no real place to prepare or serve her food, C’s friend has loaned her a small plastic table to use as a workbench and C. has found a place to hide her counter-top gas burner and the propane tank.  At 4am she serves coffee and bread to people setting up for the day.  Does it make a profit?  Actually, not really, she says, but it kills the time until people want to buy breakfast, and I can’t just sit there doing nothing.  Once the market is hopping, around 6am, she gets her breakfast orders and cooks the meals.  Because of the lack of space and her very limited finances, she can only make and sell 25 meals.  They are very popular and she sells out every day.  On a good day she makes $15 profit.

At 11am she is done serving and selling food.  If she had more space she’d sell lunches, too.  Right now, that’s a dream.  But she fills her time by selling snacks and drinks to the non-lunch crowd.  Her friend doesn’t leave until 2pm, and C. can’t afford to drag her stuff home on the bus.  When she gets home she allows herself 3 hours of sleep.  At 6pm she gets up and starts preparing the food for the next day.  She has to shop and prepare on a daily basis because she doesn’t have anywhere to store food for longer.

Late at night she grabs another couple of hours of sleep, then it all starts again.  She’s been doing this for almost a year.  Making just enough money to pay the rent for her simple house and take care of her family.  It’s barely enough to keep body and soul together.

The emergency gallbladder surgery was a pain!  She was in the worst hospital.  She said it is a terrible place and she saw a lot of terrible things.  I’m sure she did.  We’ve spent a lot of time there.  It’s hellish.

C’s gallstone souvenir

But now she can’t work for the next couple of months.  She isn’t allowed to lift anything and her work involves an awful lot of lifting.  She has rent she can’t pay, a water bill she can’t pay, and a light bill she can’t pay.  But she’s smiling.

“I am SO blessed,” she said.  “Most of the patients have to stay in the hospital for at least a month.  The nurses are so mean and everyone catches diseases because it’s dirty there.  I got out in a couple of days.  The doctors were amazed.  But I know I’m blessed.”

Sometimes, she says, she struggles with temptation.  I assumed she’s feeling the temptation to return to La Linea where she knows there is rent money just waiting to be earned.  No.  She struggles with the temptation to take a nap.  Mercy!

Her dream is to open a little restaurant in that central market.  If she could rent a place – $200 US per month, she wouldn’t have to transport her stuff every day, she’d be able to prepare and sell more food, and she might be able to employ some help.  It’s not such a fancy dream, is it?  Her other passion is for sewing.  She wants to learn to make wedding dresses and quinceañera dresses.  Again, not such a big dream, particularly since she can take the classes on weekends.  But, right now, those dreams are out of her reach.  Rent is due on Friday, and she doesn’t have it.

I honestly wish you could meet her.  She doesn’t complain.  She doesn’t feel sorry for herself.  She works as hard as anyone I have ever known.  The cards are heavily stacked against her, but she’s still smiling, still declaring that she is blessed.

We know a lot – really a LOT of amazing women.  C. is one of the most amazing of all.

She leaves us speechless…every single time.

Broken Silence

Hi! How are you? It’s been a while, right?

You know when people post vague, cryptic messages on FB – the kind that make you think all kinds of drama is going on…they can’t say anything, but they want to make sure you know something serious is going down? Yeah, those posts. I’m not a fan. Since I tend to favour a more straightforward approach to life, I’d rather people say it or not say it. Dancing around the shadowy world of hints and implications is just plain old annoying.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I spend far too much of my life eating my words.

Okay, I didn’t post anything cryptic. No hints were dropped and no rumours of sinister doings made their way into the ether. My version of cryptic is just to shut up.

And it worked, because I haven’t said diddly for many, many months.

Last time I wrote, way back in September, we were grieving the loss of one of our dearest ladies. Many of you wrote words of tremendous compassion – but I don’t think I replied to the majority because those darn tears make it hard to type.

But bad stuff kept happening. Really bad. And we found ourselves in a situation that meant we had to remain silent. So now I’ve become one of those obnoxiously cryptic hinting types. And I don’t want to be that person. So, can I just say this…we have been very busy. Life on La Linea has been all consuming. We have many moments of joy, we have rare glimmers of celebration, and we have more than our fair share of grief.

It’s okay. Great things are happening. But I hope you’ll forgive me when I tell you that the last several months will always remain a secret. We live in that kind of a world, and now we make decisions that truly do have life and death ramifications.

So, how about we pretend like we’ve all been busy chatting, and let’s just pick up where we left off?

Yes they’re doing Christmas crafts. I know I’m behind!

Back in September I was able to visit Calgary to help Zack, our oldest, settle into university. I’m so grateful for those couple of weeks. Wow but he’s a long, long way from home.

While I was there I was invited to share with a lovely church group. Just the sweetest, most engaged group of people who welcomed a stranger as though she was a friend. One question I was asked has really stuck with me. “Are there any stories of hope?” Ah yes. Good point. When I get the opportunity to share with people the reality of sexual exploitation, it can be easy to forget to give time to the stories of joy.

The brief answer is, yes, we have seen many stories of hope. Some, (yikes this is becoming a theme), I can’t tell you in detail because such detail would help identify the women involved. Yep, for real, people read this blog and go looking. But I’m going to try to tell a few stories that don’t expose our beloved ladies but might allow you to see the good things that are happening.

“G” always wanted to go to school, but her commitment to her family and her determination to escape sexual exploitation meant she wasn’t willing to spend her hard earned money on herself. Thanks to the help of those who fund our work, we were able to enrol her in an intensive high school program. She graduated as the class valedictorian. We cried a lot. Now she’s in intensive training (I can’t say what) that will hopefully lead to a really good job. She’s so close. SO CLOSE to getting out. I can hardly stand it. Yes, she’s still in the life, but wow she has worked so incredibly hard to get out.

“B,” beautiful and gracious, always kept us at something of a distance. She lost her oldest child to a tragic accident a year ago, and it seemed that everything in life was stacked against her. One day she came to visit La Puerta (our drop-in centre) and she poured out her heart. We listened to the heartbreak of an abused, devastated life, and there was nothing to say in response. Just before Christmas she showed up at our door. “I’m leaving on Wednesday,” she whispered in my ear. It was such a shocking announcement. But she did. She really left. And now we get to visit her as often as possible to walk her through the process of escape.

Entering prostitution is easy. Escaping is a nightmare. I am in awed admiration of every woman who has managed to get out and stay out. B. is well on her way, but the battle is hard. She still has to feed her children, pay their school fees, and pay her rent. But she’s trying. She amazes me.

Some of our loves enjoying a really good meal!

Of course, sad stories continue. During our Christmas break, “A,” the oldest worker on La Linea, died. The general consensus is that she was eighty-two years old. She’d been in prostitution since she was a child. In her tiny ramshackle room, her bed was covered in stuffed animals. She loved toys. She would hold my hands and tell me stories – her frail voice shaking as she struggled for every breath. We think she had emphysema. It was a horrible end to a devastated life.

In the midst of all of this we continue to have hope. So much hope. We are excited at the things that are happening – especially at how this work is growing. We’re constantly searching for more people to be involved. More on that later, but for now you can join our Facebook group,

That’s where we keep you updated on the daily happenings with the ladies of La Linea. It’s a closed group to protect the women we love. Please join.

Prostitutes matter. They really do.

Losing Sulay

“Darling.  Someone just killed Sulay!!!”

It was 4.30pm last Thursday – and I was happily strolling through the luxury of a bookstore in Calgary.

And even now, I can’t think about it without crying.

How is it, do you think, that it can be so easy to end a life; to blot out all of the laughter and joy and friendship with a single bullet?

Very easy, it turns out.

She was the loudest, most alive woman on La Linea.  Everyone knew her – she was impossible to ignore.  With her disfigured blind eye and broken, rotten teeth, she made her presence a dominating force wherever she went.  The first time my friend Lia met her, Sulay, in typical fashion, looked her up and down and announced, “You are very pretty!  BUT…I am the prettiest one here!”  They she howled her unforgettable laugh and threw her arms around me in a hug.

“Isn’t that right, Natalita?  I’m the prettiest!”

Yes, sweetheart, you were the prettiest.

Like all of the women on La Linea, Sulay, from Nicaragua, had had a horribly difficult life.  She never told me how she lost her sight in that eye, and I never asked.  But I wondered if a man had done that to her; if that was yet another mark of the abuse she had endured.

She would have turned 37 in October.  We were already planning to celebrate.  Not enough for her, the standard birthday cake we make for all the other girls.  Sulay had to be taken out for lunch.  Okay.  We can do that, love.  But now, of course, we can’t.

She had three little girls.  The oldest, only 12, worried her because she didn’t really care about studying.  Sulay was frantic that she would understand that education was the only way out of poverty and abuse.  She adored her girls and we’d often talk about the struggle to mother well.

“Sometimes she makes me so angry, Natalita.  I want to yell.  But yelling is bad for children, isn’t it?  It hurts them.  So I try to show her how much I love her.  I try to love her into changing her heart, but I’m afraid for her.  Afraid that she will rebel and lose everything.”

In reality she was afraid that her oldest would turn out just as she had done.  That she’d rebel, leave, and make every bad and destructive choice.  So she battled to convince her to live life well.

I know when someone dies, people always have gushingly lovely things to say about them.  It makes me wonder if the rotten people ever die.  Maybe nobody eulogizes them.  But Sulay truly was an extraordinary woman.  She was one of the first ladies of La Linea that we ever met, and while others took months, even years, to open their hearts to us, Sulay threw her arms open from the earliest days.  She would laugh, tell jokes, and celebrate the smallest things.

Sulay holding court in La Puerta! When she talked, we listened =)

Before we had La Puerta, Shawn and I would walk up and down the line, handing out coffee and snacks and chatting with the ladies.  It was hard work, but the hours and years we spent doing that have paid off with amazing relationships.  But, of all the friends we’ve made, Sulay was the only one who would call out to me while “servicing” a client!  Can you imagine?  No, you really can’t.

“Corazón!” she’d yell.  “I can hear you.  I want to talk to you so you have to come back.”

“Um, okay…”

“No, really, Corazón.  I’ll be done in ten minutes.  Come back.  We have to chat.”

And we’d come back.  Of course we would.  Nobody could say no to Sulay.

During the last couple of months it was obvious that something was really bothering her.  When Lorena was attacked, it was Sulay who hurried to La Puerta to tell me what had happened.  She was devastated by the attack.

When Zack and I showed up at the public hospital to visit Lorena for the first time, Sulay waited for us at the entrance.  She was so heartbreakingly delighted to meet Zack.  She threw her arms around him, thrilled to be allowed to know one of our kids (to her it meant we trusted her).  He liked her.  She made him laugh with her hurried babble and her humour.  From that point on she’d brag to the other ladies that she’d met my boy.  “So tall and handsome,” she’d say.  “He looks just like Natalita.”  (He doesn’t!)

She was one of three ladies from the line who visited Lorena with us that day.  When she saw her broken friend she doubled up in pain and horror.  It was so much worse than she had imagined.  Once she calmed herself, Sulay stroked Lorena’s face, whispered words of comfort, and gently covered her broken, naked body with a thin sheet – determined to give her friend dignity.  She wanted to celebrate Lorena’s birthday – then only days away – and promised her a party and steak.  She meant it.

During these past months, when we were alone, she’d tell me that things were very bad.  She kept saying that she had to tell me something, but she never did.  I couldn’t force the words from her, but I encouraged her, every time I saw her, that she could tell me anything.  I knew she wanted to, but she was just too scared.

The last time I saw her she was laughing.  A team was visiting and working in La Puerta.  Our friend Scarleth, a former sex worker, was working with us, too.  On that last day, Scarleth shared the story of her life and her escape from prostitution.  Sulay sat right in front of her, leaning forward and drinking in every word.  As she left that day she was laughing and joking – as usual.  She put her arms around me and said, “Ah, Natalita,  I love you so much.  I feel like you’re my mother.  Will you just adopt me so that you can be my mama forever?”  Then she howled with laughter and told her friends what she’d said.  She found herself hilarious!

And that, for me at least, was the last time.

On the September 14, around 4pm in the afternoon, a man on a motorcycle pulled out a gun and shot her between the eyes.  It was likely over before she hit the ground.  One of our friends ran to La Puerta yelling for Shawn.  But there was nothing anyone could do.

I will regret forever that I wasn’t there.  I wish, more than anything, that I could have held her hand as she slipped out of this world.  But she lay there in the dirt, alone and broken, and that can never be undone.

That day was the beginning of an agonizing week.  She wasn’t the only woman shot that day.  Our friend Telma lies in hospital gravely ill.  Since then, there has been more violence.  But this is enough for now, right?

But I want to say this one thing.  I know that when you hear us say that we love the ladies of La Linea, that it likely sounds like platitudes.  Like it’s the kind of thing that people in our line of work are supposed to say.  But we mean it when we say we love them.  They matter.  They matter to God.  They matter to us.

Losing Sulay is one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced.  She was my friend.  I looked forward to seeing her every time I showed up on La Linea.  She was unforgettably glorious  – a true delight.

We will miss her forever.