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.

When my sister’s artwork unraveled me.

One of the most frequent activities we do at Wipe Every Tear is art therapy. It’s not anything official, we just put art supplies on the floor and our sisters express their hearts–the good, bad, and ugly–on the pieces of paper in front of them. Sometimes they create something simple and exquisite, sometimes it’s a watercolor piece that bleeds off the page, and sometimes girls just write. It gets messy, paint splattered everywhere, pencils strewn across the tile, everyone sprawled out, working on their projects.

The other night, a specific painting touched my heart.

Allow me to frame this for a moment.  Lately, I’ve been wrestling with so much shame. I mean, heavy shame, that feels like a crushing cement disc on my chest, stealing my thoughts and joy the longer it sits on me. I know I’m a missionary out here in the Philippines, but man, I struggle. I hurt. I wrestle. I fail. I cry. I sweat. Life isn’t one massive sunrise out here; often it’s a dark night. I’ve realized that there is a deep brokenness in my heart and that I need Jesus more than ever. I just never allowed myself to be stretched enough to recognize the ugly lurking in my heart.

With that said, accepting the Lord’s love and goodness for me has been a real challenge lately. Seems ironic, amidst me constantly reminding the ladies in our care that Jesus has eradicated their sin and shame and that they are no longer chained to their pasts. But when my soul is the sail amidst the tempest, its harder to navigate the way to the Cross.

Yet the love of Jesus has become more real to me here. I can’t even describe it, how much I feel at the true recognition not of just His forgiveness towards me, but how much He truly forgives, each and every day.  This concept of tidal-wave love is equally as overwhelming as my shame–and exponentially more, actually–but it’s weight is sweet and peaceful. Like finally crashing into bed at the end of a long day, no longer obligated to fight off sleep. It just comes, like an inescapable blanket, and washes over.

I sensed the touch of Jesus tonight, as we colored and painted. It was like He pulled the covers over me again, the blankets of his love and grace and mercy.

As we began our evening, one of my sisters started a drawing, barely managing to scribble one figure before she decided she didn’t like the way it looked, and wanted to draw something else. She crumpled the paper, and tossed it aside.

The sister seated to the right of me carefully picked up the page, flattened it out again, and began adding various colors to its center.

I watched as she would pick up her paper and allow each watery droplet of color to run along the crumpled lines, like a stream relocating its course at the first rain after the dry season.  Over and over, she repeated this gesture until every edge was adorned with color.

As she drew to a close with work, she crowned her piece with a red heart, drawn around the summit of paint.

The Lord spoke so deeply to me in that moment.

For all the times I’ve felt like a crumpled, used, discarded piece of paper, He’s picked me up, turned me over, and headed straight to work creating beauty from my plain and simple ugliness.

He doesn’t try too hard to straighten out my edges or cover up my scars. Instead He adds color and creates something out of their unique design. When He’s finished with me, my scars stand out more than they did before, but they constitute my story. They serve as my testimony of God making a masterpiece out of my rough edges and wounds.  My ugliness now has a purpose of letting others know what is waiting for them at the moment of their brokenness: love, patience, care, acceptance, healing, freedom, future, hope.

And the heart. The crowning beauty. The feature that ties this whole piece together and gives it the ultimate meaning.

Jesus’ love is what collects the pieces of my life, the discarded and the ugly, and uses His creative hand to work a miracle out of the chaos. The blood red of the heart reminds me of the only thing that will actually clean me and give me purpose. Only Jesus, only His sacrifice, only His life, can set me free and make me whole.

I truly was shaken (in a fantastic way) by this piece. I told my sister that she truly had allowed the Lord to speak through her artwork, and it was true. The Lord pierced my shame and anxiety that night with a simple, pure depiction of Jesus’ love.

Living here, doing ministry with Wipe Every Tear, and simply developing friendships with my sisters here is such a humbling experience.  I realize I am right alongside them on my own journey of healing and freedom.  Sure, we come from very different and distant corners of the earth, and we have varying sources of our wounds and points where we failed and fell short of God’s glory.  But now we are here, doing life together in the Philippines.  Merely watching the Lord speaking so personally to my sisters is what pierces the hardness in my own heart and conducts an Ezekiel 36:26 heart-transplant.  My stony, calloused heart is becoming clean and supple again by the lives of these women and by the sweet love of Jesus.

What a joy it is to know that God takes the crumpled, discarded, wasted pieces of my life and creates something beautiful.  That’s what He does with all of us.

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

An Apology From My Mind to My Body

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You know I don’t tell you “I love you” enough. Instead, I’ve terrified you of mirrors and compliments.

I’ve covered you up, done you up, and shut you up until you believed that you weren’t quite you without a mask.

I’ve lied to you

And I’ve listened more to the words of others

Before I took a good long look at you

And decided to love all of you.

I should’ve been the one reminding you that who you are is ok.

Instead I was your main assailant.

I was the one who most terrified you.

I was your worst enemy.

I should’ve treated you more

Valued you more

And said way more than I ever did.

And here’s why.

 

I cannot speak without you.

I need the mountains and valleys of your mouth

to form the sentences that I’ve never been equipped to convey.

I need your laugh, your cry, your scream.

I need you to say

“It will all be alright.”

 

I cannot walk without you.

I need your strong legs to carry me through the day

To take us to places we’ve never been

And venture into the great unknown

I need your steps so I can look back and shout

“Look at how far we’ve come!”

 

I cannot see without you

You help me to perceive and re-perceive

Oh, how many times I get it wrong

And I ask you again, just one more look

The sunsets would be colorless

The stars would lack their shine

I wouldn’t know the face of beauty

Without you

 

I cannot hear without you

Though I’ve covered you up time and time again,

I’m unstuffing these ears of yours

So that if you get the chance,

You can hear about the good things in this broken world

And maybe begin to heal

Without you, I cannot listen and cannot begin to understand.

 

I cannot reach without you

And oh, I love your arms

You never ceased to reach for those who needed you

Even when I tried to dissuade.

You pull the broken close

And hold up the sky

For those whose dreams simply must carry on below.

 

I can’t breathe without you.

I love the way you toss your hair.

When your eyelashes bat, the world swoons.

Your smile is my smile.

Your laugh is my laugh.

Your sob is mine too,

And my heart belongs to you.

 

And I love your heart.

It’s just so brave.

The reason we’ve made it this far

Is because it is so courageous.

It has braved my insults.

It has loved in spite of pain.

Though it has staggered under the weight of this world

It has never quite fallen.

It’s like a wave

Its compassion doesn’t relent

No matter who and what and how and how many

Try to dry its waters

The tide of you comes in

Just when we need it most

And you love, oh how you love.

 

You see,

I’m so sorry

I’ll probably never stop saying it

I must’ve prided myself in my intelligence so much

That I thought you away.

I am learning to be content

With your exactness–

Your exact perfection and imperfection.

You never failed me

You never quite gave up.

So thank you for carrying on,

When I was determined to beat you down.

I am sorry, my dear.

I am so, so sorry.

I love you, and I can’t do this life without you.

Renovation of Me

My life was like a run-down house when you found me—a paled shack, really.  My paint was peeling, revealing my aged soul.  The windows were dimmed by the dust and grime of weathering circumstances.  They fogged oustiders’ view of seeing who I really was, and what I could offer if only I was given a chance.  My grayed door barely hung on its hinges, made fragile by one-too-many slams to my heart, and useless in its job to prevent trespassers.  My roof was missing shingles as the winds of many years howled at me, threatening me with every breath. Inside, the once radiant furniture and wall-hangings were covered by filthy sheets of legalism.  These beautiful pieces once offered rest, peace, and joy.  But over time, they only took up space, slowly decaying with complacency.  Outside, the flowers browned and withered, planted in dry dirt.  Thistles and brambles climbed up the railings and walls, as if to menacingly drive away anyone who dared approach me.  There were cracks in my foundation, deep gashes in the cement caused by greed, lust, pride, shame, and bitterness.  These cracks caused me to simply exist as a staggering frame of a home.

This residency now resembled a ghost.  People used to enter the structure of me and leave refreshed, knowing that there was something about me, something that exuded a life and life abundant.  But over time, I had forgotten about upkeep.  I’d forgotten to clean, to polish, to renovate, remove, and replenish.  I’d neglected to consult the Grand Architect on how I should keep my space up-to-date and ready for use.  The result was messy, broken, and unlivable.

Finally, when I couldn’t take much more, I cried out to the Master Builder.  My words woke up my heart and filled it with the relish of newness, with the joy of coming transformation.

“God!”  I cried.  “I’ve had enough!  My life is in shambles; You once called me a resting place and now my life is ashes!  Make me new again!”

So He did.  He tore me down.  In times, it felt dangerous, but I never once felt harmed.  And in times, it was gentle.  But it was never sugar-coated.  Through His entire process of transforming my life, He did exactly what He needed to do with enough authority, determination, and intention to set me back up with strength.

Plank by plank, brick by brick, my old and shameful frame came tumbling.  He ripped my life from its broken foundation.  He filled my cracks and mounted His work upon the characteristics of Himself.  My once deteriorating structure was now composed of love, kindness, patience, gentleness, goodness, peace, joy, and self-control.  He formed me with his blueprints, and determined where each piece should go.  My home began to grow, my life gained height, depth and breadth.  My walls were made of Him, my floors, made of Him, my ceiling, yes, made of Him.

He smashed out the old windows, and installed panes that were clear as a desert sky at midnight.  Those who passed by could see the transformation happening.  Windows once darkened by painful and shameful experiences now offered light and hope.  They gleamed like bright flames despite how cold the weather was around me.  They offered the evidence that something miraculous was happening within the place where they once claimed “nothing good will come from that life.”

He installed a new door, attached fresh hinges on its frame, and polished the handle.  No longer was it a testimony of hurt and loneliness, but of strength and protection.  It stood bright in pigment, washed by the crimson that came from the Cross, and welcomed those seeking refuge inside.  At the same time, it remained as a barrier of conviction, shouting a firm “no” to those people and things that threatened the genuineness of my soul and the atmosphere of this home.

Once the structure was replenished, He wasted no time in refreshing the insides.  He tossed off the sheets of religion from my furniture, and polished up the filthy and worn pieces of my life.  With each new chair, He added to my calling.  Every wall hanging and picture frame served as memories and reminders of how my life had added to His Kingdom.  There wasn’t a scent or trace of phony legalism or heavy burdens.  I asked Him, “why are you so generous in adding to my life?  Isn’t the renovation enough?  Why have you furnished my life with your goodness?  Why have you adorned my home with the dreams of my heart?”

He replied so beautifully that it brought me to my knees.  “Your life is a home in my Kingdom.  I will not only transform you and make you a place for me and my people, but I will equip you to draw others in to me.  Your life will be a place to find rest, hope, and love.  Others will know that when they come to you, they find me always inhabiting this space.  I am generous in my renovations because I care.  I care about you, and I care about those around you.  I am passionate about making you a place of praise.  I desire you to be built on a healthy foundation, with renewed joy and enthusiasm, and the fullness of an abundant life.  I don’t simply change what’s wrong about you.  I am never stingy in my plans.”

“Oh, my dear Jesus,” I said simply. “What else could you possibly add now?  You’ve done it all.  You’ve broken me down and built me back up.  You’ve strengthened me, perfected me, and unraveled me all at once.  You’ve put purpose back into me.  You’ve put life in my walls.  You’ve brightened me to my core.  What more could I ask?”

And then he added color.  Splashes of paint!  Bright lines of trim!  Flowers of red, blue, and purple hung along the railings and in the yard, luscious, verdant grass covered the soil.  Sprawling trees gave shade and life, while the sunshine poured its light down as it traveled through each day’s sky.  From the top, down and from the inside, out, vibrancy filled me and covered me and sprung forth from me.  The grayness of me was washed away and the dirt was scrubbed off.  All that could be seen was adorned by the abundance of the Master Builder, the once who makes beautiful things from dust.

Now when people come here, I am happy.  My life used to turn people away, and now it’s a place that attracts individuals with a spectrum of stories.  They will ask me, “how did you get your house to look this way?”  I just smile and say, “you know, it wasn’t always like this.  But thank God for coming along and remodeling my life.  Do you want to meet Him?  He lives here now.  He couldn’t stay away from His work.  He never leaves a job undone, and He never lets His plans go to waste.  And He never leaves the ones He loves.”

Yes, he really does live here.  He inhabits the space of my life.  I need him for the upkeep.  He continually fills the cracks in my foundation, and adds photos to the walls of all the things we do together.  And He’s more hospitable than me.  Whenever I want to keep His creation to myself, He invites someone new inside, and soon I realize how silly I am.  And each person who stumbles upon this place becomes a pleasure as I watch Him remodel their places and spaces with newness and color.  What’s more, I want Him.  I want Him to be part of everything I do now.  He keeps my life full with joy, humor, and expectancy.

I could go on and on, I really could.  But I’ll just say this one thing: let Him in.  Sometimes the transformation is painful, especially when He breaks down your life and cleans it.  But He never leaves you that way.  He always brings His unique purpose to your space and makes it something radiant.  So let Him in, let Him in, let Him in.  Give Him permission him wreck you, build you, and adorn you with all that is good.  Allow Him to bring abundance into your life and I promise, you’ll never want Him to leave.

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.