I’ve been to a number of red-light districts in the past few years. My friend Kerry Hilton of Freeset led me through the largest sex district in Asia – Sonagacci, in Kolkata, India where 10,000 women stand shoulder to shoulder for sale. I’ve also spent time with students praying through Patpong and Soi Cowboy, a couple of the red-light districts in Bangkok where the women have numbers around their necks like Value Meal items to be ordered. But beyond the guys in those areas who push “menus” with pictures under your nose as you walked through, I’ve never actually been propositioned by any sex workers. That is until about two weeks ago in Vancouver, Canada.
A group of New Friars (women and men living among and serving the world's most vulnerable) had gathered, hosted by an organization called Servants, who has a community in the downtown eastside of Vancouver, an area known for homelessness, drug use, and prostitution. I was walking to one of the community houses at about midnight when I heard a shout from across the street.
“Hey!” A woman was running across the street toward me. There was no one else in sight. My discomfort began to rise so I kept walking without looking her way.
“Hey,” she said again as she caught up with me and started walking alongside my quickening gait.
“Hey. I’ll let you do something to me for two dollars.”
Out of nervousness I did not look directly at her, but nonetheless three of things were apparent. First, the girl was short, maybe five feet tall. Second, she was young, probably in her early twenties or late teens. And third, this young woman was developmentally disabled.
I regularly imagine myself responding to street encounters like this with heroic words that move people to into a transforming experience with Jesus, or acts of power that deliver people from oppressive forces. But all of the heroism drained from me.
“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” It was all I could say, so I kept walking.
“Come on, I hear money in your pocket. I’ll let you do something. I’ll let you do something for two dollars. Come on, I have a condom. What’s your name?”
The appeals rolled out of her mouth in pleading tones like a child at her parent’s heels begging for an ice cream cone. Her head was tilted awkwardly and she spoke with a mild speech impediment.
“I’m Scott. What’s your name?”
“Carol, you don’t want to do this.” I said.
“Come on Scott,” she pleaded. “Two dollars.”
“I’m sorry Carol. I’m not going to.”
Five more steps and it was clear to her that there was no hint of consideration in my voice.
“You’re not gonna do it, are you?” And before I could answer she ran back in the opposite direction and disappeared.
Carol pleading with me to abuse her for two dollars was a jarring event. I am still digesting its significance and asking how I might have responded in a way that could have been more redemptive.
I do believe that coming into right relationship with God is foundational to our healing and transformation, but I often find that street people understand the basics of the Gospel message and some have made sincere professions of faith. I would not be surprised to learn that Carol was a believer. The issues swirling about her are complex and numerous – drug addiction, alienation from family, self image and perception of others (see Mark Labberton's, The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor), education and marketable skills, to say nothing of the challenges of a developmentally disabled person when all those other things are in place.
What’s needed are communities of Jesus followers living in that neighborhood, like Servants or Salvation Army 614, who are holistically committed to their neighbors, like Carol, and willing to take the long road with her.
Maybe one redemptive thing I could do that moves beyond the heroic, one-off encounter, is to commit myself to my most vulnerable neighbors for five, ten or even twenty years, to spread a table of hospitality before those who cannot repay me, and to open our home to those unable to obtain affordable housing - all of this in the context of a life of faith and seeking first his Kingdom and it's righteousness.