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.

Image may contain: sky, house, tree, cloud and outdoor

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!!

Image may contain: 5 people, people smiling, people sitting and night

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.

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, closeup

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.

Bruised, Broken and Breathing

We called her Lorena. It’s not her name, of course, but for the majority of the world’s sexually exploited women, a fake name is a first line of defense – separating their true selves from the lie of the life they are forced to live. In these recent blogs I’ve used her first initial as another, small, line of defense. From now on I can use her working name because she’s never going back. Her real name is private. Only she gets to decide who hears it.

(If you aren’t up to date on this story, maybe read the last couple of blogs, otherwise this will make no sense.)

The last time I wrote we were waiting for Lorena’s surgery to be scheduled. The major delay was our obligation to provide the hospital with three units of blood. Donors were hard to find. Family members agreed to donate if they were paid the going rate of Q200 (about $40 Canadian). But, in the end, even money didn’t help.

Every day Lorena’s son would travel to the hospital with potential donors in tow. And everyday the hospital refused most of the blood offered. On one particular day, of thirty-five donors (for multiple patients) who showed up, twenty-eight were rejected. All the while Lorena, and many like her, lay helpless and in agony as hours drifted into days and weeks.

I called around private blood banks. There are several here in the city. But they told me they aren’t allowed to supply blood for either of the capital’s two public hospitals.

“So sorry, Señora. We have lots of blood, but we aren’t allowed to sell it to you. They won’t take it from us.”

Odd.

Turns out, the hospital has it’s own little blood business. Every patient awaiting surgery must supply three units of blood. Doesn’t have to be their blood type. Just three units of the good stuff so that the hospital always has blood on hand for emergencies and the like. If patients’ families cannot provide the three units of blood, the hospital is willing and able to sell them as much blood as they require – for Q1000 per unit. That’s $200 Canadian dollars – per unit.

Yes, they are selling donated blood. And, yes, they are selling it at a vastly inflated price to the poorest people in the country. It’s astonishingly cruel, and one of the many reasons so many families choose to gather up their loved ones and take them home to die.

But for Lorena this didn’t have to happen. It took a long time, and help from missionary friends who were willing to donate, but blood was provided and, more than two weeks after the attack, her surgery finally happened.

Big sighs of relief all around.

Lorena was discharged into the hands of the police who had continued to guard her throughout her stay in the hospital. They took her to her son’s home. Loving Lorena has turned her family’s life upside down, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. They live in a tiny, two room, dirt-floor, tin shack. It’s about as poor and simple a place as you can imagine. Billi and his wife, Brenda, no longer have a bed because that’s where Lorena has to sleep. The rest of the family, two adults and three children, are stuffed into whatever corner they can find for themselves. It’s baking hot, dark, and dirty, but they are thrilled to have her there.

These few sheets of rusted tin are all that makes up Lorena’s new home

This visit was the first time Shawn has seen Lorena since the attack. He can’t believe she’s alive. Her jaw is still wired together, but she can mumble a few words. The bullet wounds are healing, and it’s just too incredible to look at the injuries on her face and the top of her head, and realize that she really should be dead. Her broken body is still badly bruised, and she doesn’t remember what happened. Maybe that’s a blessing.

It’s baking hot in this tiny tin room, but in true Latin style, Lorena is wrapped in a fleece blankie!

Lorena is aware that there has been an outbreak of violence since her attack. I mentioned in a previous blog that three men were murdered on La Linea in the days following her assault. We’ve learned that one of the men was the only witness to the original event. Perhaps the two men who died with him were shot because they were witnesses to his execution. That’s often how it happens. In Guatemala, if you see what you shouldn’t see, you really need to run. Why this man was still in the area is beyond me, but the baddies found him, and he is forever silent.

One of the two rooms that make up the family home

Now the process of healing begins. It’s going to be long, and difficult. Lorena cries day and night. Her family is distressed, confused, and frightened – bless ‘em. They have no idea what is happening to her, and it’s just so difficult to explain this kind of trauma. We’re hoping, in the future, once her wounds are healed, that we’ll be able to get her some counselling/psychological help. In all honesty, we’re just waiting to see what unfolds. The doctors still haven’t let anyone in on the secret of what needs to happen to her smashed jaw. Perhaps she’ll need more surgery. She may need physiotherapy in the future, too. At the moment she has lost feeling in one leg and her arm. She’s also lost hearing in one ear. It will be a while before we know if these issues are temporary or permanent.

For now, the police are gone. Lorena’s new home, they figure, is just too far for the baddies to travel. I hope that’s true.

The Stranger Beside You

Today I got to hold L’s hand and tell her that people all over the world, people she will never meet, care enough about her to pay for her surgery and pray for her recovery. Although she can barely move, she was able to nod her head and give my hand a good squeeze. In the midst of the tragedy and suffering of her situation, your response has been astounding. We are so grateful for your overwhelming kindness.

After Saturday’s attack, L was taken to one of Guatemala City’s two major public hospitals. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: this place is a vision of the most hellish suffering. It’s filthy, overcrowded, and reeking with despair. This is the same hospital where, just a couple of years ago, our Jaqueline and her mama were waiting for an appointment when a grenade was thrown in through the main door, and they watched in horror as frightened strangers died around them. People would rather die than go to this hospital. For many, it’s often a better option.

Three times a week, visitors are allowed a scant ninety minutes of access. Men and women must form separate lines and enter by separate doors. The lines are long and miserable as everyone bakes in the afternoon sun. Visitors have travelled from all over the country for the chance to see their loved ones. Outpatients fill the entryway, exposing colostomy bags, weeping sores, and fresh wounds. They’re pleading for help and gore goes a long way to convince the waiting crowds that they should dip into their pockets. Screeching vendors, selling everything from toilet paper to adult diapers to soap and sponges, compete with the voices of the pleading poor. Bags and bodies are searched, and children turned away. There’s a fear that the young will bring disease to the sick.

Hundreds stand in line waiting for their chance to visit their sick loved-ones

Once inside, the divided sexes are thrown together in a chaotic search for their patient. The press of people is terrifying. Everyone is frightened. Everyone is intimidated. The only signs demand months of back pay owed to the doctors and nurses, or advise visitors and patients alike that they must not pay for any services provided. Garbage and blood compete for floor space. It’s a place of staggering misery.

We found our sweet friend. Three days after her assault, where she was raped and shot seven times, and two days post surgery where her arm was pieced together with temporary pins, – she had received no pain medication and no i.v. fluids. Her jaw, let me remind you, has been pulverized by a bullet. Her teeth are wired together to keep everything in place. Obviously she couldn’t speak, but her eyes and her desperate whimpers told us everything. She was in agony.

Zack went in search of a doctor. He was gone for a long time. No one, it turned out, had the authority to prescribe her anything for the pain. There’s only one doctor who can do that…and he was busy. So she lay there, helpless.

The family had been given a prescription for the surgical plate that she must have inserted to repair her ruined arm. The doctor had told them it would cost about a thousand dollars. He may as well have told them they needed a ladder to the moon. This hospital is filled with people whose only hope for help or healing is way beyond their grasp. Patient’s families beg in the hallways as their loved ones slip further towards death for the want of a few hundred dollars.

We told L’s family that we would try to get help. When we showed up today with the receipt for the surgical plate (which, it turns out, cost more than twice what we’d originally been told), L’s son burst into tears. You have done an amazing thing in paying for this for her. I know she’ll have a lot more expenses, but this is a huge part of her recovery process. I can’t overstate how grateful we are.

Yesterday, three days post surgery, she had still not received any pain medication. She still had no i.v. fluids. She was still hissing at the pain. Since visitors aren’t allowed in on a Wednesday, I spent the day trying to coach her family via phone messages. Frightened, uneducated, marginalized people are too overwhelmed to fight for themselves. They don’t know their rights, and they don’t know they’re allowed to insist. A friend joined me in the coaching effort, encouraging the family to fight for L. When they finally managed to speak to her doctor, he told them he had other patients to see and walked away.

L. came from La Linea. No, I can’t prove deliberate discrimination, but I’m pretty sure it is there.

Finally, last night, they caved and gave her a single dose of pain medication, and L. was able to sleep after so many days of suffering.

Zack and I spent the day buying the plate for L’s arm. Yes, the entire day. And this is another part of the process that makes it impossible for the poor to get the help they need. We had to make multiple, complicated phone calls, stand in endless lines, find enough cash to pay for the plate (because why would a medical equipment company take a credit card?), wait for an hour to pay for the plate in a bank, drive deposit slips and medical forms from one end of the city to another, park in sketchy places, and deliver piles of photocopied pages into the hands of bemused medical staff. I’m exhausted, and yet I had money, education, a telephone, Google maps, and a vehicle on my side. The poor have none of these things. No wonder the families of the sick so often pick them up and carry them back home to die. The alternative is just too complicated and beyond their reach.

So, thanks to many of you, we were able to prove to the hospital that L’s plate has been purchased. Now we wait for them to schedule her surgery. They do surgeries on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They can’t tell us if she’ll even make next week’s list.

I’m speechless.

Now we wait. L. has had one more dose of pain meds. That’s two doses since her first surgery. The other patients in L’s room have been moved, and a police officer has taken their place. I asked why she was there.

“Oh, we have to guard her twenty-four hours a day now,” said the nice lady, beaming.

“So, she’s in danger?”

“Yes. She’s in a lot of danger. She lived, and that wasn’t supposed to happen. We have to stay with her now. They are probably going to come for her.”

I’m really going to try not to write a novel every time I post an update. But , once again, I apologize for my lengthy rant.

Thank you for caring for the stranger beside you. I know that many of you are likely thinking you have done too little. But you have loved a woman who represents the most despised, the most rejected members of this society. This matters to her and to her friends. You have done a very good thing.

This is far from over.