Streetwise: showing genuine love to sex workers
Seventy four percent of women involved in sex work cite poverty or the need to pay household expenses or support their children, as a primary motivator for putting their lives at risk. It is also estimated that as many as 95% of women involved in prostitution have a drug or alcohol addiction. What can churches do to reach these women with God's love?
When two of us from Frontline Church in Liverpool first went out to meet some of the sex workers on the city streets, all of our pre-conceived ideas about them were blown out of the water. These are regular women that we probably queue up behind in the supermarket. Yes, most of them have a serious drug habit that they fund through sex work, while others do it to get rent money... but they are real people with families and loved ones.
Starting something new
We asked some of the women what their needs were and what we could do to help them. They were wary of us, as we expected, but it gave us our first taste of what life is like for them.
We started the Streetwise project as a trial for six months. We took two cars out each Saturday, with about six team members in each, with flasks of hot water, serving tea, coffee and hot chocolate from the car boots. We also gave out sandwiches, chocolate biscuits and decided that we wanted to give out condoms too. Our reason for deciding to do so is that we want to be primarily a mercy ministry, followed closely by an evangelistic ministry. We want the girls to know that we don’t judge them and that we care about their physical as well as spiritual health.
Learning from others
On one night out we came into contact with a secular organisation called Armistead who had been doing mobile outreach in the same area for many years. They became a wonderful help and support to us, especially in those early days. Based on their recommendations, we switched to only using one car each night, with a maximum of four team members at a time. We soon formed a very positive relationship, which is still going strong today. I think it’s important that churches don’t rule out working alongside secular organisations. We don’t have all the answers.
From trust to friendship
It probably took about a year for the women to trust us. They needed to see that we were reliable; that we didn’t judge or criticise but simply loved them. There is no shortcut to gaining that kind of trust, it just takes time.
Now all of the women recognise and trust us and we have very close relationships with some of them. Sometimes team members meet women for coffee; we visit them if they are in hospital, and have supported them when going to court if they’ve wanted us to be there.
Last year we held a Women’s Conference at Frontline and asked the delegates to bring new shoes and bags to give out to the women on the streets. We put a label on each one that said how we think the women are beautiful, precious and of great worth. The girls loved the gifts, but it was the labels that moved them to tears.
Here’s what some of the women have said about Streetwise:
'I’d been living on the streets for months. A warm drink, food and sitting in the van helped me get by every week. Streetwise were the ﬁrst people I wanted to tell when I got a place in a hostel - you and Armistead. Remember? I came running up to tell you and everyone cheered!'
'We always know you’ll be here and we can trust you. When you ﬁrst met us years ago we were living in a squat or on the streets and life was rubbish. Things have changed for us and life is loads better now. But part of that was through friends on Streetwise sticking by us. Jude [a Streetwise volunteer] even came with me when I had to go to court. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to go on my own. We’re slowly getting off the drugs, but you need people to believe you can do it.'
We desire to see these women loved and cared for and to see God break the powers of addiction in their lives and their hearts healed...it is only God who heals and restores and we want to be a part of that process.
The teams always pray before they go out on Friday and Saturday nights. We want to see the power and love of God displayed each week! But we only pray with the women if they ask us to, or if it comes up naturally in conversation. The women we meet know that we are Christians, so we leave it up to them if and when they want to ask us about our faith. We have had lots of opportunities to pray for them over the years... A few have come to church. One woman, who we supported through detox and rehab, is now on the church welcoming team.
We are only scratching the surface with Streetwise and are learning all the time. But it’s a journey that we love, with wonderful women whom it is an absolute privilege to serve.
(This material was first published on Bible Reflections in June 2011. It has been updated and cut down, and is used from New Wine Magazine with kind permission.)