One summer a group of young adults took a trip to St. Louis. We stayed at The Dream Center, a place that ministers to the inner city there. We were a naive, young, group of twenty-somethings who were ready to make a dent in the world – wanna be world changers.
We had no idea what was coming and what we would learn. Absolutely no idea.
In just a week’s time, we experienced life’s extremes. We hopped on a big bus and knocked on neighborhood doors, waking kids up and letting them know we’d be back to pick them up in a couple hours. Mostly they were kids without supervision, kids who needed the hour’s notice so they could get their siblings up and moving. Kids who we’d feed lunch so they could have at least one meal that day.
In that same week we climbed countless flights of tenement stairs – dark, dank, urine stenched hallways – to knock on more doors, offering kids a break from smoke filled space and empty rooms.
Some of the boys picked their way through abandoned warehouses, stepping over needles and roaches and passed out people to deliver meals to those suffering from crack addiction.
We bought barbeque in the parking lot of a strip club, meeting the girls as they went to and from work, getting to know their hearts and more about their lives.
We sat under the teaching of men and women who were in the trenches…doing this everyday – not just for a week’s vacation.
These beautiful souls gave us the strictest of admonitions.
“Don’t judge. You are walking into THEIR world. Stop expecting them to be like you. Don’t be shocked, don’t be shamed, don’t be stupid. Just love.”
We spent hours in prayer, preparing our hearts to meet those we would have the privilege of loving. We paced the floor, emptying ourselves of all our predetermined stereotypes, our American annoyances, our judgmental spirits. They prayed over us, we prayed over them. We wanted more of the Jesus who spent regular time with thieves and prostitutes. We wanted to be like Him.
When the time came, we loaded into a van, armed with bunches of red roses, and headed out into the darkness of the night.
The girls, those of us who would encounter our new friends? Our instructions were this,
“Give them the rose. Tell them Jesus loves them. That’s it. That’s all. Nothing more. You will not judge. You are no better. We are all the same under the blood of Jesus.”
There was no glamour on the streets. Just girls in large, white, t-shirts with sad eyes and hopeless countenances. The boys stayed in the van – their presence – the mere presence of them – could pose a threat.
I handed her a rose. Told her Jesus loved her. She smiled sadly and turned quickly to the car running in the background – just across the street – waiting to pay her five dollars to turn a trick. I will not forget her short scraggled hair, the long t-shirt, no pants, no shoes. I will not forget her demeanor, her shattered vision of who she was.
Our drivers, our teachers, they knew every girl. They saw them every week. Rain, shine, sleet, or snow, they never missed a meeting. Never missed an opportunity to love, to give the offer of freedom.
You see, there was a limo. It would pick girls up if they wanted out. It would rescue them from their Johns. It would take them to hope. Our drivers, our teachers, slowly built trust. Every week. After midnight. On the streets. It wasn’t a vacation for them. It was their life’s work.
One more stop for the night.
We pulled up to an old, abandoned motel. We poured out of the van like tourists at Disney. We were entering their world. We didn’t belong – and yet, we did.
The paint was cracked. All the wiring from former light fixtures was hanging lifeless from the walls.
Lining the halls, on both sides, sitting and standing and staring, were men.
Men with hungry eyes.
Men waiting for the next doorway to open so they could satisfy their basest longings.
We picked our way through the crowd – voyeurs in this macabre dance.Our drivers, our teachers, knocked on a door.
A young girl answered – you could hear a gruff voice in the room, calling her back.
Our teacher asked her, “Are you ready? To come with us?”
She smiled, her eyes darting back into the darkness.
“I have one more bill to pay,” she whispered, “then I will come.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. Swallowed the scream that threatened to erupt. I wanted to grab her hand and pull her through all the legs blocking the hallway, out into the fresh air of the night so she could breathe again.
The door closed.
We repeated this process, pressing and prodding our way through the overcrowding of the customers, the perpetrators, the pimps, the preying eyes.
When I finally pushed out into the night, free of the brothel, I realized.
That girl was me.
She was no different.
Maybe her trap, her darkness, her choices were different.
But she was stuck.
Stuck in her sin, her disobedience, her “just one more time and I’ll come”.
I saw it in her eyes.
Her longing for freedom, to break the chains, to give up control.
But she had the wrong master of her fate – the wrong master of her soul.
Under her short, tight, clothing, her soul was precious, just like mine.
One decision separated us from one another. The bridge of the cross.
We were sisters. Her beauty – I saw it. I had emptied myself of judgment and saw that we were no different. We were the same.
When we loaded up the church van to go home – the group of young adults forever changed by our one week vacation – we went back to our big screen televisions, our comfortable pews, and our overflowing refrigerators.
But something in me had shifted.
My sister, from the brothel, without ever knowing it, penetrated my heart. She showed me my betrayal is just the same as hers. My sin is no better. My choices no worse. My sweet sister and I, we are only covered by the grace we accept from the cross. And her life is just as precious as mine. Her soul just as beautiful. Her brokenness as valuable.
And if Jesus was friends with thieves and prostitutes, then I am blessed that He considers being friends with me.