When You Realize You’ve Changed…

I’m procrastinating by adding to the Pages documents opened on the dock of my MacBook, each one filled with the last month’s random thoughts that I’ve picked up on this road of being a missionary in the Philippines.  Maybe I’ll finish this one before the work day ends and I head down the street to lead devotions at one of the houses.  Or maybe this is a thought that the Lord will continue in me before I post it and that’s okay, too.  But here’s how I start my blog posts.  Hope you’re enjoying it so far…. 😉

So on another, completely different note, my phone was stolen yesterday.  Yes that’s right, my sleek, rose gold, iPhone 6s that honestly helped me keep myself organized and on time to the many pencil marks in my schedule.  It’s also the thing that made me look and feel a little out of place when I sat next to a man on the jeepney with dirty feet and a weathered face, or the one holding my instagram feed when I looked up and spotted the thinnest man I have ever seen in my whole life.

The contrast of wealth and poverty here is so drastic that sometimes I feel like I’m choking on it in the same way I choke on the exhaust that pours into my lungs when sitting in Manila traffic.  It sits on my palate and I honestly struggle through such mixed emotions as I wrestle in my soul over how the one who has so much and the one who has so little can be literal neighbors and never share so much as a conversation.

I am guilty.  I don’t know the scale of poverty of my neighbors, though I see it on a daily basis. There are still some things about my life here as a missionary that keep a bit of my “first world bubble” in tact, like owning an iPhone, yet God keeps inserting push pins into that ever-thinning wall, and I feel my comfort zone being dissolved.  And when my phone was stolen, I felt another prick in the bubble.

For a solid 20 minutes after realizing my phone was missing, I shuffled through emotions of panic, frustration, and confusion as I tried to retrace my steps and recover an item that held so much of my life on it.

And then I felt deeply convicted.  I live amongst women who once had a hard time finding enough to eat.  It was then I chose not to cry about my predicament.

Later that afternoon, a friend loaned me her old phone, and I went to the mall to get a SIM card for it.  I spent some time browsing to see what my options were about getting a new phone, to remedy the current temporary fix.

Even deeper conviction set in as I looked at options, knowing God had blessed me with a larger-than-expected tax return and I was able to purchase an older model of a still brand new iPhone right there on the spot.

I’m still discerning if what I felt at the mall was conviction or shame, but the feeling plummeted itself deep into my soul.  How could I drop this much money on the same day my phone was stolen when so many people have to choose which kid to feed today?

I’m still waiting and praying and deciding on what to do about the phone, but I want to talk about what’s going on in my heart right now.

How do you know God has changed the terrain of your heart?  When the things that you once didn’t bat an eye at are now the things that bat you in the gut.

In a way, I’m glad my phone was stolen, and for a handful of reasons.  First, it gave me an option to choose joy during a frustrating circumstance.  Second, it allowed me to not be a slave to things while operating in a ministry (and in a faith) that promotes freedom. Third, it allowed me to realize that God has undeniably renovated my heart.

So yeah, it is really frustrating to have someone steal something that holds scores of precious pictures, notes that contain pieces of writing that I haven’t had time to develop yet, and all the schedules and to-do lists that kept me organized.  But on the other side of things, there is nothing frustrating about a day where I spent the morning organizing the donations that came from several of our supporters.  I was surrounded by watercolors and ibuprofen and clothes and I was overwhelmed at God’s goodness.  And there’s also nothing frustrating about serving in a ministry where miracles happen daily, dating someone who challenges me and cares for me so well, or simply having breath in my lungs and strong legs to carry me on my run this morning.  And aside from God’s many blessings, I need no other reason to praise Him other than the fact that “he saved my eyes from tears, my soul from death, my feet from stumbling.”  So I chose joy.  Because all of the things I listed outweigh a stolen iPhone.

I also work for an organization called Wipe Every Tear, that works to offer freedom to women and ladyboys victimized by the sex trade through means of education.  We offer options at tangible freedom as well as offer opportunities to experience Jesus, the one who sets us free from sin, death, and the shame of our pasts.  I’m free, body, soul, and spirit, because of Jesus. And as I sat on the window seat in one of our safe houses yesterday, I realized that it is possible to exchange one form of slavery for another. It is as possible for me to be a slave to material things as it is to be trapped by a bar owner.

“Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey?” Romans 6:16

Is my phone a greater source of joy for me than the One who supplied it?  Do I feel lost when I lose it?  Does it unwaveringly dictate the course of my day?  Does it dim my sight for the Kingdom?  These are all questions I must consider now before I simply go purchase a new phone.  Being raised in America, I realize now how much of my identity is in material things, and how much of those things I obey before I listen to the King of Kings.  I have profound qualms about operating in a ministry and professing a faith that promotes freedom while being wrapped around the finger of an inanimate object.

Finally, and most importantly, I thank God for this circumstance because it has given me room to discover that God has transformed my heart.  A year ago if this would have happened, I would have been much more crushed.  But in the very hour I lost my phone, I thought of others and the need in my community before I went out and made an expensive purchase.  I’m not saying this to toot my own horn because I still don’t know what kind of a phone I’m going to buy, and if I feel peace about getting a new iPhone, then I will get a new iPhone.  There’s no shame when the Lord blesses us.

However, I do cherish that my lost phone allowed me space to be more present in conversations and relationships with others.  I am thankful for the blessing of having the capacity to possess a nice iPhone in the first place.  And I’m overwhelmed with joy at the fact that God has cultivated my heart-soil so much that I am able to look and act more like Jesus when difficult things happen.  Again, not saying this to brag, except to boast that Jesus has been working in my heart and life, and that I’m not the same person I was a year ago.

So here I am at the end of the first draft of this post!  Hooray!  Hannah might actually finish this one. 

I may go get a new iPhone in a few days.  Or I may allow the Lord to teach me some more through this if He desires.  Either way, God is moving mountains of materialism and selfishness in my heart and that’s where I’m purposing my mind to dwell.  I am now sitting in a room at one of our beautiful safe houses, listening to several of my newly liberated sisters laugh and talk over dinner, and I breathe in freshly falling rain as the rainy season rolls into Manila.  God is very, very good.

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Simple, Sweet Freedom

The other day, someone looked at a group of our girls for the first time and asked “are these all the girls you’ve saved?” 

My friend, Ebie, replied sweetly “Oh no.  We don’t save anyone, it’s all Jesus.”

It’s true, friends.  We don’t save a single soul.  Sure, we work for an organization that helps women and ladyboys leave the sex trade through the opportunity to pursue an education.  But freedom, rescue, salvation?  That’s all a deeper, greater, more miraculous story than any human can manufacture.

Working in this kind of a ministry is honestly pretty stylish right now.  We are on the edge of an anti-modern slavery movement that is tackling this dark issue through the lens and strength of the Christian faith.  We see regular, tangible results from our efforts to talk to girls about freedom, hope, and a future, and that makes it extremely tempting to jump on the bandwagon.

And I’m not saying that everyone who desires to partner with Wipe Every Tear is here simply because it’s sexy.  I’m saying that it’s a short step over the line between passion and pride.  I’ve definitely been guilty of confusing the two. But to think that we, the employees and volunteers of Wipe Every Tear, are responsible for any one of these girls’ freedom is well, pretty silly.

Think of the odds a girl faces by leaving the bar.  To start, it takes enormous courage to even believe that our programs are true.  I mean really, a college education, room and board, and all supplies and personal needs offered for free?  Livelihood opportunities to make extra money?  Child support for her two kids?  Seems way too good to be true.  Often, she believes she is going to get trafficked again, because the last offer that seemed like a dream turned into a nightmare.

When she daringly says yes to our programs, she agrees to the long-term commitment of pursuing a college degree.  The commitment is even lengthier if the has to finish high school first.  She has to go from the ability to live a lifestyle however and whenever she desires, and moves into a home filled with other girls with just as complicated of stories, and has to learn the systems in our houses.  She now can’t just coast in her coping mechanisms.  Walking in true freedom here means facing the dark memories that haunt her.

These obstacles such as fear of hardship, the lies of potential failure, and the incorrect interpretation of her God-given identity scream into her ears.  Silencing those voices is not a task for human ability.  We can operate in the power granted by the Holy Spirit inside of us, and that moves us to do astronomical things.  Nevertheless, it takes the love of the Father, the pursuit of the Savior, the kindness of the King to calm the storm that rages in her heart for her to first believe that freedom is an option.

So then she leaves the bar.  And it’s beautiful.  It’s like she jumped into a white abyss, a trifecta of fear, hope, and opportunity, and she’s free-falling with the sweet trust that Jesus will catch her.  And even if she doesn’t really know His name yet, it takes enormous faith for her to make that leap.  Her boldness inspires me, and she doesn’t even realize how incredibly brave she is.

The freedom that comes from her leaving the bar is a literal liberation.  What comes next is something that many don’t often get to witness.  It’s the emotional and spiritual jail break that occurs in these girls’ souls as they determine to walk in freedom day by day.

When I see our girls in the houses, they seem like the strangers I pass on the street.  They all have intricate, quiet lives.  None without hardship, but still, so normal.  I’d never guess that they were the ones that once worked in a bar.  Our houses are filled with music as their freedom translates into picking up a guitar for the first time.  Our walls are covered with their artwork, adorned with flowers and mindful phrases like “just love” and “you are beautiful.”  These colorful reminders shower truth on the girls when an argument breaks out in the house.  Things are so normal here, and sometimes it takes the intentional remembrance of what the Lord is doing through these simple things to realize how incredible this all is.

Like the other night, we took the girls to see a Bethel worship concert.  Fifty of our girls got dressed up, put on their makeup, and pulled out their favorite pairs of shoes.  They took scores of selfies and giggled incessantly as they waited in line to enter the concert arena.  It was beautiful, the miracle of their freedom disguised as a 20-year-old girl waiting for her favorite band to play.

The phenomenal part wasn’t the donation of the tickets, though it was an enormous blessing.  The miracle was that three hours earlier, Ebie drew on one of our girls’ eyebrows in preparation for the concert.  It was no big feat (though any woman will concur that the perfect eyebrow creation is a true work of art).  Yet in conversation with Ebie and her husband, Zac, later that evening, we talked about the subtle act of drawing on someone’s eyebrows.  Before Jesus rescued her, we still might have done her makeup, but perhaps in preparation for her next shift at the bar, not a worship concert.  And that’s what gives me chills.

It’s just doing life together.  I learn more from them than I feel I could ever teach.  Jesus does all the hard work; he speaks to the hearts and heals the minds. Personally, I am blessed by every opportunity that enters my hands to paint a girl’s nails, or go on a walk with her, or see her for the first time in her school uniform. 

These 65 incredible lives have unknowingly stolen my heart and I’ll never forget them.  They don’t know it, but they change me for the better every time I encounter them. We at Wipe Every Tear are absolutely not saviors.  Instead, Jesus uses ordinary humans and regular, every day tasks to do the impossible.  It’s simple, sweet freedom.

Here’s the equation:  Jesus brings the power, the grace, the freedom.

And we just love.

That’s Right, I Saw That…

In most ways, I’m getting fairly accustomed to the differences of lifestyle here in the Philippines, as opposed to my life in Boise.  For the most part, I’m starting to be okay with almost always being sweaty to some degree.  I am also now taking advantage of the moments when I’m caught in endless streams of Manila traffic as times to think, process, and pray.  I’m used to refrigerating every opened package of food, even nuts and uncooked pasta because ants are the real deal here.  And I actually have a rice cooker that I use willingly and regularly, sometimes even for breakfast.

But there are some experiences, some things I see and stories I hear, that I’ll probably never, ever get used to.  I’ll probably always find humor in the garbage men taking naps atop the mountain of trash loaded on the truck as it hauls down the road at 40 mph.  On a more serious note, I probably won’t ever get used to seeing filthy little kids on overpasses, asleep with a Jollibee cup in hand and 20 pesos inside.

During this last outreach trip to Angeles City, I had a conversation in a bar with one of the parents who attended the Parent Vision Trip through Adventure in Missions.  As my Filipina sister and I led our team through the slimy bars on Walking Street, there were multiple times throughout the night where I noticed the momma’s heart of one sweet lady on my team breaking over and over again.  Every time a girl rubbed her scantily clad skin to relieve herself from an overly air-conditioned stage, or teeter in her skyscraper stilettos, I swore this lady nearly jumped out of her seat to clothe her with the shawl on her back.  Every time a customer did something violating to the dancers, I thought I’d see a purse come slamming down on someone’s head.

But I didn’t.  And as we sat on the torn, pleather seats of the last bar we attended that evening, I fell into a conversation with this momma.  She asked me some pretty tough, thought-provoking questions.

How do you see this stuff so often and keep coming back?

How do you handle these experiences and sleep at night?

Truthfully, dwelling on the fact that a highly-paid dancer at one of these bars gets paid $5 for dancing on a stage all night in a bikini and stilettos while men harass and violate her really does make it hard for me to sleep comfortably in my safe bed.  And knowing that she can get forcibly plastered by men buying her drinks, where she receives the commission of a subway sandwich is even harder.  And the truth that someone can buy her for the night for the price of a jacket at the mall simply takes the cake.

How does one handle all the evil that happens on Walking Street?

Well I’ll be the first Jesus-loving, God-fearing, spirit-filled, Christian to say that at first, it makes my image of God look a little dark.  And I am not about to go into a theological debate over why bad things happen to good people because I don’t have that answer yet, and maybe never will.  I still know in the depths of my heart that if the God I love and know is true, then His heart is completely wrecked over His daughters’ oppression.  I don’t have to question His character.

And as we sit on those bar seats that have seen too much evil throughout the decades of Walking Street’s existence, I wonder if what I’m witnessing isn’t an accident.

We are Jesus’ hands and feet, right?  We as Christians, according to 1 Corinthians 12, are actually called the body of Christ.  If the purpose of our lives was to get saved and go to Heaven, then we might as well just die at the altar (sorry that’s a little dark), but I think you hear what I’m trying to convey.  Jesus loves us so much that He not only came to earth to die and save us, but to use His life as a model so that when He returned to the Father’s side, we could partner with Him, and embody the love of Christ as we do Kingdom Work.  In other words, perhaps we are the eyes that see evil, connected to the hands that reach out, connected to the legs that carry out Kingdom endeavors, connected to the head that gives practical gospel and direction (like helping bar girls go to school), which is connected to the heart.  And I mean, The Heart—The Father’s Heart. 

And that heart is so sweet on the broken.  Jesus’ heart is absolutely, 100% for every one of those girls’ chance at living and experiencing true freedom.  But for Jesus’ body to truly be aware of the task at hand, and for us to adopt the Father’s Heart for the broken, sometimes we have to see messed up things.  Sometimes we have to endure sleepless nights for people who hardly ever sleep soundly.  But how wonderful it is, that God chose me, a young, reserved, quirky, brunette, green-eyed, freckled, 20-year-old girl from Idaho to be His partner in doing Kingdom business.  And He is calling you, and you, and you, dear readers, to be His partners as well.

That thought reawakened something in me as I sat next to that mom on that bar seat that night.  I had a new resolve to be more aware of what I see, and decide what I can contribute to the need I perceive around me.  No, I can’t feed every starving kid in Manila, as much as I wish I could.  But I can continue to fight for the 64 girls who call Wipe Every Tear home, and whenever the Lord allows me to see something that pricks my heart, I will fight for them too, even if it’s only 5 pesos in a Jollibee cup.

I am not responsible for what people do with my love, kindness, and generosity.

I am highly responsible for the heart that sits inside my chest, the cultivation of it, and the love, generosity, and kindness that can, should, and will pour out of it.

So I ask: what do you see today that’s broken?  Is it a starving child or an abused neighbor?  Is it the homeless in Manila or the homeless under the bridge near your grocery store?  Is it the trafficked girl or the burned-out, single mother?  Allow yourself to be more broken for the broken.  Adopt the Heart of the Father for your community.  Be very brave, and very kind. 

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith, but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you tells him, “Go in peace; stay warm and well fed,” but does not provide for his physical needs, what good is that? So too, faith by itself, if it is not complemented by action, is dead.”

– James 2:14-17

The Mathematics of Life in the Philippines

Well friends, it’s been five weeks since I landed in the Philippines, and so much has happened.  I haven’t spoken up as much about my experiences here in a blog format because honestly, I’m just spending this time learning myself and how to function in this new world full of Filipino sounds, sights, tastes, and all the emotions that come from working here with Wipe Every Tear.  There has been so much joy, and a decent amount of trying experiences if I’m being honest, and all of it has been so good.

At this point in time, I can say a few solid statements about life here so far.

I am finally getting used to the noise.  Compared to the quiet suburbs of Meridian, Idaho, our neighborhood is filled with sounds at almost every hour of the day.  From the crow of roosters (morning and evening), to the regular disturbance of the neighborhood dogs causing them all to chime in with barking and howling, to the rumble and clamor of the engines of trikes hauling down the street, all work together to create this Filipino symphony.  And it doesn’t really wake me up anymore, either.  It mostly makes me laugh and marvel and how different life can be, one place to another.

The food is wonderful.  Rice is served at nearly every meal, and I’m amazed at how I actually enjoy the consumption of it more and more.  At breakfast, rice is mixed with eggs and savory meat.  At lunch and dinner, it’s the substantial side dish to chicken, fish, or roasted vegetables.  It’s even made into a pudding or paste for dessert.  Despite the mass amount of this white grain, I’m not tired of it—at least not just yet.

The people are incredibly friendly.  Whenever we travel to the two safe houses that reside in a separate neighborhood, we take a trike (a motorcycle and cart vehicle).  Upon approaching the trike station at the end of our street, a couple of the drivers will jump up and proudly announce our destination to the rest of the street corner.  I’m not sure if they do it as a guessing game or because we are quite the scene of two tall American women trying to fit ourselves into a trike cart, but whatever the reason, it makes me laugh every time.  Nearly every person I’ve encountered here is extremely kind, hospitable, and welcoming of us into their culture.  Strangers have helped us learn the language, our cab drivers have helped us navigate to our own neighborhood, and the staff here at Wipe Every Tear has made this transition to Filipino life here so easy that I almost feel I’ve lived here quite a bit longer—that is until I begin fumbling over my limited Tagolog.

I am learning a lot about myself.  Not just things like how I handle the extermination and disposal of the all-too-menacing cockroach or how to order my exercise regiment around the warmer and cooler parts of the day.  I’m also discovering that I really enjoy teaching, as I spend time helping tutor the ladies in our care.  I never knew how much I’d love zumba until I was dancing right along with my new friends here.  I’ve uncovered fears, anxieties, and insecurities that I’ve tried to bury for years, and I’m finally learning how to deal with them, because well, it’s awfully hard to hide those kinds of things here.  I’m learning that true humility doesn’t come from denying my talents or accomplishments, but from celebrating the achievements and qualities of others at the same magnitude as I would celebrate my own.  I’m admitting to myself that it’s okay to be very vulnerable sometimes, and that transparency is one of the best and quickest ways to experience healing.  I’m navigating the emotions of missing my friends and family at home, and the adventure of a long-distance relationship.  I’m defining elements of my personality that I didn’t know were there, and realizing the unique way that I build friendships.  I’m deepening my relationship with the Father God each day as he teaches me about life and about myself.  I’m so thankful for this personal expedition of mapping out myself because to be honest, I didn’t realize that there was so much about me that I didn’t know.

I’m also discovering God in a new dimension.  It’s really hard to let the scenes of filthy children sleeping at bus stops and starving bellies protruding from skeleton figures not hit my heart.  With the world pitched in this kind of light, and the harshness of sin and chaos flooding the setting, it’s hard not to wonder, where is God in all of this?  But I am realizing that God is not in the origin of all this pain.  He is a good Father, who I’ve personally witnessed rescuing young women out of the darkness of modern-day slavery.  I may not have all the answers to why tragedies happen to these remarkable people, but I do know the goodness of God in my own life, and in the lives of the people around me.  Despite the sadness, our lives stand together as a choir of souls that praise the Lord regardless of what we witness or experience.  And everyone is on that journey to being a part of that chorus.  And it’s okay that some people don’t believe in all of this.  I know that I do, and that’s something I cling to when times get hard—and they’ve barely even touched true difficulty yet.

Finally, I can say this one thing above all: the women, ladyboys, and children in Wipe Every Tear’s care are quite definitely some of the most incredible, brave, and inspiring people I have ever met and ever will meet in my entire life.  Whether we are doing something as lighthearted as zumba or eating ice cream, or something as nitty-gritty as opening the wounds of the past and beginning the process of true healing, all our activities and moments together are riddled with the love of Jesus.  I can’t get over the idea of what it must be like to have your life change so drastically on a dime.  One night, a girl may be fighting for her safety in a dark and slimy bar while trying to put food on the table.  The next night, she is experiencing the freedom of a safe house and the opportunity of an education with the rising of the sun.  She can learn guitar, paint, exercise, or pursue any other passion that once remained dormant in her as she simply survived each day.  Today, we read a chapter of a philosophy textbook together, and yet the magic of learning about human rights and heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. was almost tastable.  Watching these women, ladyboys, and children rise up out of the dust is one of my absolute favorite things in the world and I feel deeply honored to witness it.  This unique and divinely intentional assortment of human beings is going to change this planet with their kindness, intelligence, and courage.  How wonderful to be in this exact corner of the earth, during this specific time, participating in such an extraordinary story.

So yes, I would say that amounted to a few solid statements, and maybe a few more.  Life here isn’t exactly rainbows and fireworks in the sky—although Filipinos holiday celebrations very seriously here and will be lighting fireworks until a couple weeks after the New Year.  Instead, life here is the arithmetic of a lot of ordinary days full of sweat and simple joy added with a few sparkling moments of profound healing or meaningful conversations.  The sum equals this: in all my attempts to help build the futures of my friends, I realize that they are simultaneously and unknowingly changing my world.  Life here is absolutely beautiful, and I wouldn’t change a minute of it.

Thanksgiving in the Philippines!

I feel like today would be a good time for a post because well, it’s Thanksgiving, in the tropics, away from home, and it’s actually quite a feat to find a turkey around here!  But I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining.  Today is a different way of celebrating this holiday, and now more than ever, I have quite a list of things for which to be grateful.

This holiday, I will be spending it in Angeles City, with some fellow American (and Filipino) friends.  The girl who is hosting our Thanksgiving dinner is living there, working under one of our partner organizations, Bella Goose, a coffee roaster company that helps employ a few of our girls as a livelihood opportunity.  Angeles is also the place where Walking Street, a 1.5 mile stretch of road where 15,000 people are trafficked, is located.  On this Thanksgiving weekend, Lucy and I want to spend some time at Walking Street in the bars, hanging out with girls who don’t receive love very much.  It’s amazing how in the midst of a dirty, chaotic, and heartbreaking scene, Jesus makes a presence and deposits inextinguishable light wherever his followers choose to love and make him known.

So today, yes I am thankful for family, friends, my boyfriend, a roof over my head, clothes to wear, food to eat, education, etc.  I’m also undeniably grateful for the opportunity to pursue the God-dreams of my heart here in this season in the Philippines.  But above all else, I’m earnestly brought to my knees by the truth that in the Presence of Jesus, there is freedom, hope, joy, peace, love, and every other excellency we could dream of.  In the Presence, our fears are exterminated, and our shame melts away.  Our dreams get bigger, our futures get brighter, our compassion flowers into kind and thoughtful gestures, and even colors seem brighter.  The Presence is what makes dirty, evil bars seem like pockets of hope, because you when you realize that Jesus is not afraid of sin, it dawns on you that Jesus has been there the whole time.  He just needed His hands and feet to stop being afraid of the sin that He already conquered, and join in the fun of our true callings: to set the captives free!

I’m so thankful that Jesus has eradicated my own fear, shame, and sin.  I’ve had the opportunity to partake in moments of genuine freedom here in the Philippines, whether that be a girl making the choice to leave the bar scene, or experiencing emotional liberation from trauma.  Every time God touches a girl’s heart with his healing power, I feel that touch as well in my own heart.  To know that God cares about His kids and sends the intimacy of his Presence to care for us is something that I will always take to the top of the charts in my lists of things to be grateful for.  I cannot stop thinking about my own personal prisons where the Lord has set me free, and every day I have the choice to exercise the blessings of that ultimate emancipation proclamation that was Jesus on the cross.

So while this holiday looks extremely different for me this year, I am so happy for it.  Though most of the Philippines doesn’t celebrate this day as anything special, I’m overjoyed to take this extra opportunity to thank the Lord for His daily Presence in my life.  The more I walk with the Lord, the harder it is to live without him.  Happy Thanksgiving from the Philippines!

Open Up the Cages

While I was preparing to leave for the Philippines, I got this question a few times: what sparked your passion for fighting against sex trafficking?  Well to be honest, there are number of reasons, yet when I was amidst my preparations to come to the Philippines to live out that passion, I was reminded of a dream I had a few years ago that I believe foreshadowed this current chapter of my story.

The setting of my dream began at church, where I was attending a women’s conference.  I was standing at the entrance of the building, and the guest speaker came out to meet me underneath a big overhang that leads up to the door.  Attached to the ceiling of this overhang were half a dozen cages—rusty, black cages so filthy that even the air inside looked dank, polluted, and grim.  And inside these cages were young girls, nearly unidentifiable with weathered faces that had seen three or four lifetimes in the span of the years they had walked this earth.  Their figures were more shadow and less flesh.  Their eyes were sunken and terrified.

The women in these cages were exploited.  Their bodies were sold for sex.  They had no choice in the matter; they were victims to poverty, poor circumstance, and the ugly things that sin can cause one human to do to another human being.

I felt every muscle in my body tense up at the horror of the sight, and all I wanted to do was unsee.  Just then, the guest speaker of the conference approached me.  She pointed at the cages and said,

“These girls are trapped.  Are you going to help them?”

“Yes!—”

And then I awoke.  I am awake.

Years later I am waking up again.  Upon my first visit to the Philippines, I learned that my dream was real, and that the cages are more atrocious than I had expected.  During my first experience on Filipino soil, I discovered that these iron capsules are actually entrapping hotel rooms, massage parlors, or run-down bars.  Sometimes they are even disguised as shiny night clubs, and those are always the trickiest because everyone seems happy and full of life there.  But you can always tell by the air.  Something is not right about the atmosphere.  The oxygen is undeniably soiled my monstrous cruelty.  How can one breathe freely in a place where souls are stolen and bodies, human bodies, are bought and sold with pocket change?  With one inhale of that poison, I knew that I had to do something about it.

So here I am in the Philippines, not as a hero or an answer to human trafficking as a whole.  To be honest, I am just one ordinary girl from Boise, Idaho with brown hair, green eyes, and freckles on her nose.  I’m not especially talented by my own right.  I’m sure there are more passionate, gifted, experienced, and knowledgeable people in the world who could do this job a whole lot better than me, but it’s me God chose and sometimes I cannot make sense of it.  And I don’t say that as false modesty; I’m not searching for compliments, because whenever someone tells me how brave I am for moving halfway across the world to live in a developing nation and work for an organization that is on the front lines of fighting sex trafficking in the Philippines, well sure I’m flattered, but I don’t necessarily feel brave.

When I think about the word “brave,” I think of the girls in our care who used to once identify with their prisons and are now are identifying with hope!  With love!  With the relish of materializing dreams!  With the trust that Christ knows them and sees them as daughters!  They are free now, but they first had to have the courage to leave their cages.  Some people will ask why they didn’t just leave in the first place, or choose another profession and avoid the whole tragedy altogether.  What is so crucial to remember is that prisons don’t lock from the inside, and once the door is closed, it often takes another person to unlock it.  These women have been pushed into their jail cells by poverty and lies.  They are all victims in one way or another.  These girls were so broken that they believed that captivity was their only purpose.  So yes, for leaving and saying “no” to the enemy’s lies, these girls are very, very brave.

These women inspire me.  Many of them are so thrilled at the joy of freedom that they come back to the bars with us to tell their old coworkers, their friends, and their sisters that there is more.  They choose to spread the joy that they found instead of being continually victimized by their pasts.  There is freedom, hope, and a future available in the arms of Jesus.

I love these girls so much.  And I am thrilled that God chose me to join them in their fight to find restoration and achieve their dreams.  It was not my ability, my charisma, or even my religion that got me here.  It was my ‘yes’ to God’s call, and the vision that God gave me that broke my heart and reformed it to look more like the Father’s.  My passion for human trafficking was sparked by God’s perspective when I wasn’t even really looking for it and by his effort to pave every single step of the way.  However, she is what ultimately ignited the flame.  “She” personified is the dozens of women I know personally who have new lives of freedom because of Jesus and his work through Wipe Every Tear.  She is worth it.  She is the reason we do what we do.

And there’s nothing quite like the moment of walking up to that dirty cage, turning the key inside the wretched lock, and swinging the door wide open.  To reach in and sit with her for a while, to remind her of the sunlight, to tell her that her dreams can come true.  To take her by the hand and spend time with her in the moment that everything about her life starts to change.  To lead her out of the prison with a glorious sunrise on the horizon.  To watch the light return to her eyes at the sound of the word…

Freedom.

 

 

Learn more about Wipe Every Tear and how you can #refusetodonothing about sex trafficking at wipeeverytear.org.

Broken Beauty

sat down on a bunk bed that was scooted to the side of the living room where our team gathered. The sweltering Filipino heat and the scarcity of air-conditioning in nearly every structure defeated my legs. I told myself “I’ll only sit down for a minute.” It was day two of my time in the Philippines, and though it was considered winter and Christmas had just passed, I marveled at how two different geographies can have such opposite ideas of the cold.

Our team listened to Coach Kenny as he talked about the girls living in the safe house. Most of the Filipina girls took the tour of their own home with us, beaming with pride over their adorable DIY decorations (which really impressed me, as these precious ornaments adorned the home with beauty and intricacy that radiates from the girls themselves). As beads of sweat assumed formation along my hairline, I remember feeling a soft presence at my shoulder. I looked to find one of the girls resting her head on me, assuming the intimacy of friendship before I had the chance to ask her for her name. We exchanged that small detail as she proceeded to speak one short sentence that broke me. “I can’t wait to be happy again.”

These gorgeous girls. You walk in the doors of their homes and the sense of dignity and elegance that they carry is a mark of their freedom. They accept you with warm hugs or shy giggles and they play with your hair as if running their fingers through new, spring grass. They are goofy and spunky and witty and intelligent, and you never would guess that they had a life any different. But their battles don’t simply end at the bar. They fight daily to remember the worth that they have in Christ Jesus and that He is madly in love with every stitch and seam of their expertly woven existence.

In the Philippines, I worked with an organization called Wipe Every Tear. Being a part of their remarkable team is a true honor because I can see tangible evidence of their influence in the Philippines.  Wipe Every Tear is a non-profit organization started out of Boise, Idaho by a man named Kenny Sacht, or more endearingly known as “Coach.”  A journey that started in 2012 has produced the fruit of a fully functioning organization which cares for close to 80 girls in 5 homes in the Philippines and Thailand.  Once a girl is received into WET’s care, they receive aid in finishing their education, whether that be graduating from high school first before pursuing a degree, or finishing up any amount of higher education a girl received prior to entering the bar scene.  These girls are received into a supportive, non-judgmental environment where they are fed three meals a day and are provided an allowance to help fund their transportation or even send home to their families.  Any of the girls’ medical needs are met as they enter the homes, and some even receive orthodontic care. Some have been permitted to bring their precious children to live in the home with them.  Worship, prayer, and devotion time is offered daily to the girls, and nearly all of them find a relationship with Christ to be the most comfort and peace they can find as they rehabilitate into their life outside of the sex trade.  The purpose of all this is to give these girls a chance at their dreams and the opportunity to work hard to achieve them.  As I write this, one girl in particular has recently turned in her thesis to graduate from college, an opportunity that would have been impossible without God moving through Wipe Every Tear’s work.  Coach’s motivation for beginning this ministry wasn’t out of a desire to do something fulfilling or “good” for the world, but rather, out of his true love and brokenness for these girls enslaved in Filipino bars.

Something that Coach engrains in his volunteers and employees is a proper vocabulary.  He never allows the girls we interact with to be identified as “prostitutes,” “whores,” or any other derogative term that puts a restrictive label on them.  He sees them as God’s daughters who are ensnared in the ropes of injustice, and he implores all who are on his team to adopt that mindset.  And after interacting with these beautiful sisters, it is impossible to perceive them as less than my friends who are unconditionally loved by Christ and covered by His unfathomable and endless grace.  They may work or have worked in a bar, but they deserve just as much of a chance at life as I do, and that’s why what Wipe Every Tear does is so important.  Though entering a Filipino bar is tiring and terrifying, when I remember that a girl’s life could change with one conversation, it all becomes worth it.

The first time I ventured down Walking Street, the red light district of Angeles City, I quaked like a daisy in the wind. My freckled nose and green eyes met face after face of deep brown eyes and radiant smiles. But their eyes didn’t smile. They tugged on my arms, pleading me to come in to their bar and “join the fun,” but I almost felt as if they were begging me to lead them out.

My team of Americans and Filipinas sat down in the first bar we could decide on, a scummy place in the corner of an alley pooled with freshly fallen rain. You could still smell the cigarette smoke through the Filipino storm. We took our seats as Taylor Swift screamed through a grainy sound system, and I paused to take in my surroundings. Girls who appeared younger than me wore almost nothing on their bodies. Some of them eyed potential customers while most avoided eye contact with anyone, seeming all too ready for their shift to end, as if morning couldn’t come quickly enough. I tried to appear as if I was having a good time in attempt to shake off any suspicion of my intent for being there, but I was ready for my plastered smile to crumble off my face at any minute.

Bar after bar, we took our seats and scouted for any girl who looked desperate for a way out.  The girls would most often be corralled on a stage or dance floor, wearing hardly anything except maybe a bikini, short shorts, tape, and of course a number or name tag that clearly was used to say “I am just a number.”  With the air-conditioning on full blast, the girls would rub their bare arms to warm themselves as they danced half-heartedly in their stilettos. Once we determined what girl we wanted to talk to, we would tell the waitress or mama-san, and she would shine her laser on the girl’s stomach, the girl’s command to come down.  It was as if that tiny light was a leash made out of the strongest chains.  It tattooed this label on the girls of being merely a piece of property.  The terrified girl would do her best the march off the stage with pride, all the while trying to hide her darting eyes which seem to beg “please, don’t pick me.”  She would sit down, tell us her name, and we would order her something to drink.  We would always tell her that she didn’t have to order alcohol.  Though some girls still resorted to a beer, others gratefully requested juice or even chocolate milk.  Most of the time, the girls aren’t allowed to eat while they work so that they will be weaker and more intoxicated for their customers.

When we would talk to the girls, we would invite them to our Christmas party held at the church down the road where we would have the chance to love them, celebrate them, and offer them a way out.  We would ask them about their lives back home and about their families. Nearly every girl was from the province, or the poor countryside, and a member of a family with more brothers and sisters than there was enough food on the table to nourish them regularly. College was a distant dream forgotten about as they woke up to the harsh reality that without an education, life at a bar was the only shot at a job. So many of the girls were providing for their families at home, or even working to feed the children they’d had on their own.

We would also talk about their dreams. This is the part that really got me. I take my career for granted.  I am treated well, receive paid time off, have solid friendships with my coworkers and superiors, and my physical and mental safety is always a priority in my workplace.  I strive to do my best at my job here in America, and it pays off. These girls want to travel, heal the sick, serve others, or work in the technical field, but without getting out of the bar, working hard only drives them deeper into their prison.  Without an education, they have to dream from inside the jail cell of the sex trade.

After four, taxing nights in the bars of screaming over loud music and breathing in clouds of smoke, your voice is shot.  Your mind is stretched in every way.  You try to come up with more creative ways to invite the girls to our gatherings to talk about Wipe Every Tear and the freedom that this organization brings.  You scavenge your mind for the perfect questions to ask the girls and the perfect responses to every heartbreaking response and story you hear.  You suppress the agonizing, burning urge to scream at their customers—most of whom are middle aged to elderly white men from first-world countries—that use the red light district as a twisted tourist attraction.  You try to stifle the daunting fact that you are one person, trying to fight for justice in an ocean of atrocity and you wonder if the sex-trade will ever reach extinction.  You struggle to remember that God is using your life in these moments to talk about freedom, even if only to a few girls.  You choke down tears at least 50 percent of the time you swallow.  Your heart feels like it’s been trampled.  And yet at the end of your time in the bars for the day, when you come back to the hotel in the early hours of the morning, you sit back to reflect and think Wow.  I have it so good.

Bar outreach is quite possibly, one of the most heart-wrenching experiences I have ever lived.  Visiting my sisters in the bars was also one of the most exhilarating, remarkable, and life-changing things I’ve ever had the privilege of doing.  Not only that, but I was inspired by the girls who have been rescued already.  These young women who have every right to shut the painful memories of the bars out of their minds instead vigorously led us through the dark pockets of Walking Street, urgently telling their friends and previous coworkers about their miraculous freedom.  Their paintbrush of emotions holds every color, from rage at the customers, to sadness at the sight of injustice and ugly memories, to joy when an imprisoned girl catches the fire of hope in her eyes.  These strong Filipinas fight through it all to tell anyone they can that it’s okay to have hope again.

In the midst of darkness that breeds on Walking Street, there were countless times where I experienced Jesus’ atmosphere-altering presence.  On the third night in the bars, a few members of our team remembered that a young lady in one of the bars had just celebrated a birthday, and they pooled their Filipino pesos together to buy her a delicious cake to bring to her at work.  A bar that once felt like a human zoo where tangible evil put a heavy, metallic taste on your tongue, now hosted a party that celebrated these gorgeous, intelligent, and remarkable women.  We danced and laughed in a war zone.  We talked about dreams and drank chocolate milk, and repeatedly proclaimed the beauty of these sisters in the midst of their brokenness.  Coach said to walk into every bar knowing that Jesus was walking with us, but when I entered the bar that night, I knew Jesus was already there.  He had been working in that bar just as long as every single girl that was imprisoned there.  He had been holding their hands before they knew His name.  He was the real host of the celebration that night, and He was the one that determined their worth before another man ever dared to lay a hand on God’s precious daughters.

That’s why I went to the Philippines. The sex trade is real, it’s hard, and in the Philippines, it screams in your face. It’s un-ignorable to me. I walked down a street the stretch of barely a mile, surrounded by thousands of girls my age trapped by poverty, trickery, and the false idea that their worth is defined by selfish men.  I want to prove to girls that they are much more than an object for someone’s pleasure, but I know that I am not the hero of these girls’ stories, and I never will be.  In perspective, I am just one person and I am not capable of talking to every girl trapped on Walking Street.  But Christ, the real hero, is infinitely capable.  He can touch and break the hearts of those who can make a difference, and open their eyes to the harsh reality of human trafficking.  He revealed to me that these girls’ circumstances have never once tainted their value.  And with that, I pray that these few thoughts and experiences compel you to open your eyes to what God is doing in the Philippines.  He is making beauty from ashes, and showing His daughters that they will be joyful once again.  He does that in every story—in mine, in yours.  Has Christ set you free?  Has he exchanged your pain for joy?  Are the tears that once streaked your face only a memory?  Have your prison doors been flung open by the love and redemptive power of Jesus?  Has your life been changed at the moment of your encounter with the Savior?  Then make your story known; speak up for those who don’t have a voice and fight for the oppressed.  It’s time to live the story of broken beauty that marks the human life.  It’s time for the injustice of human trafficking to become extinct.