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!

Advertisements

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.