It’s been almost a year and a half now since I began going on outreach to Asian massage parlors.
We were the first New Name route to start in the city of Chicago so this was breaking new ground. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but, knowing it was led of God, I plunged ahead in the way I only know how: full of ambiguity and a hope that eventually we figure this out.
It’s been a bit simpler, and a whole lot more complex, than I imagined. Simple in the fact that as a team we have no hidden agenda. We really do simply have conversations and develop relationships with the women in the spas. In fact, the whole agenda list is as follows:
We see you, we care about you, we are here for you. And, by the way, we aren’t going anywhere.
We’ve pretty consistently gone to 4 massage parlors in my neighborhood. And one in particular sits on my mind today.
Early last Spring I noticed “Grand Opening” signs for a massage parlor right around the corner from me. Whenever I would drive or bike towards Wrigleyville, I noticed the new spa. Even without going online to scope out reviews, I could tell it looked a little too similar. Neon signs, blinds in the windows, tacky massage stock images on the outside. I knew we needed to start going there for outreach.
So about 7 months ago we began visiting. Of all the spas we go to, this one has been the most odd and peculiar. In the few months we’ve gone, they have cycled through 3 sets of women. I’ll never forget one woman in particular who I felt I really connected with. Something about her was really. . . sad, yet beautiful. I hesitate to use “pitiful” because of course she is full of dignity.
When we first met her our 2nd time at that spa, everything about her was dissonant, confusing. She was probably early 30’s, thin, wearing odd clothes, too skimpy and mismatched for her countenance. Though slightly nervous, she quickly befriended us when she realized we were “safe,” especially having Cindy with us as an interpreter. How do I explain it? It was as if she was starving for acceptance and care.
She had recently arrived from China, perhaps only 3-4 months earlier. We found out about her 11 year old son and ailing parents. When we asked what she used to do for work in China, she hesitated then simply answered, “Nothing,” with a forced smile. Based off Cindy’s conversation with her, we came to understand that she came from a very poor village.
The more I looked at her, the more out of place she became. She had so much innocence about her; it was obvious she hadn’t been there long. We kept conversations light and superficial, talking about family and weather and travel. I walked out of there wondering if truly we were the only caring, interested conversation she’d had in a long time.
The next time we visited she was the only one in the front room, and I was overjoyed when we had an opportunity to talk more in-depth with her. Though our interpreter wasn’t with us, I had learned the power of translator apps while in China and India earlier that month. This was powerful because we kept our conversation quiet as we typed in the app and away from the ears of the security camera.
She believed that the only work she could do was massage (for those unsure of why this is a problem, Asian spas are often fronts of labor and sex trafficking), and she had to send money back to her very ill mother. We tried to communicate best we could that there are other ways to work here and that we could help if she needed. In fact, we could get her to immigration lawyers who would assist her in any way she needed, free of charge.
I again couldn’t help but notice how lost and out of place she looked, wearing this short dress and colored tights yet with body language that had almost a child-like presence. She kept smiling at us with her slightly crooked teeth and pretty eyes, even looking hopeful. She agreed to take my email address and we prayed with her before we left.
That was the last time I saw her.
New faces of uncertainty
We walked into this same spa the next month expecting to see the same women, but we were met with two unfamiliar faces, and they were immediately almost frightened of us as we walked in confidently and started chatting with them. It was a quick reminder to me that although our team is used to doing this all the time, it’s not normal at all for these women to have visitors that aren’t there as customers. It’s like, “Who the heck are these people and what do they want from us??”
After assuring them that we weren’t trying to sell anything or wanted to get information from them, they relaxed a little. We simply came to bring gifts and talk.
“Ok, ok, “ they said, with plenty of unconfidence.
I sat next to one girl, we’ll call her Sally. She hugged a pillow to her chest most of the time and didn’t engage. Whenever I looked at her she seemed far away, a tinge of sadness and fear. She really didn’t want to talk. The other woman opened up a little bit, especially since Cindy could communicate with her in her own language. We found out then that they had just arrived to this spa and didn’t know about the women who had been there previously.
We left knowing that was more or less a typical first encounter. A mixture of surprise, insecurity, fear and the most dreaded basic small talk conversation ever. But that’s the reality — it takes months of consistency and commitment before we gain any openness.
And now we come to last weekend, our Christmas outreach. Friday night we stuffed stockings with various gifts and candy for the women in the spas, and on Saturday Cindy and I headed out armed with these love bombs.
Because of travel, it had been two months since I had been to Sally’s spa. We had been praying frequently over this one because many sketchy details had surfaced in the few months we had been going compounded with information I found online. I wasn’t even sure if the same women would be there.
When we walked in, we were immediately welcome by Sally herself. And boy, was it a night and day difference!
She ushered us to the couch, sat on the other, and chatted away with us. At one point the conversation was so comfortable I felt like we could’ve stayed for hours, which, as you may surmise, is very unusual for our outreach. She seemed so young and cheery. It totally brightened my day to see her so comfortable with us.
We showed her the stocking and the gifts inside for her and her coworker. She was amazed.
“It’s incredible that you are so kind and give gifts to us. That’s so unusual.”
Give as you have been given.
I took a breath in, a breath out. In that moment the past year flashed before my eyes.
Just a week earlier over Thanksgiving I decided I needed to take time to write down all the ways I have gained in the previous year. Name all the gifts. I found that I get caught up with achieving the next goal or getting tied down with struggles that I forget what has even transpired in my life.
For me, moving to Chicago and the first few years here held mostly loss, it seemed. Or at least consistent inconsistency. It seemed like I could never get ahead and on some sort of stable footing in any part of my life. Though it was the least of my concerns, I didn’t have many possessions or home furnishings. I never had much money or a stable income. My community shifted constantly and my relationships seemed just as fluid. I was trying to dream but mostly it felt like I was just trying to survive. Add on to that emotional upheavals time after time and there you have the perfect storm.
But in the whirlwind of this past year I forgot about the gifts.
Actually around 67 to be exact. Yes, I counted.
And those aren’t just all minor ones, I might add. Some of them were dreams and prayers years in the making.
Like how I got to begin teaching entrepreneurship classes and connect women in the adult industry into this course.
Like how I traveled out of country to Hawaii, India and China.
Like how I was able to reach out to women and children in brothels in India.
Like how our outreach team went from 1 to 4 routes in the city in one year.
Like how I have a fully furnished home when one year ago it was pretty close to empty.
Like how I have money in my bank account and don’t have to agonize over every dollar I spend.
Like how I’ve been able to host 4 people in my home who needed a place to stay intermittently.
And many more. So many. Overwhelming many.
And I couldn’t believe how quickly I forgot. All of a sudden I look at my full life and it looks worlds away from my move 2 1/2 years ago.
But what I do know is that I didn’t create all of that. It was all given. It’s all been gifts, all of it.
I think God needed my self-sufficiency to be brought to the end of myself so that He could show up and stand out without me getting in the way.
Because now I know, and now you know, that this was a work of God Almighty alone.
Give as you have been given.
Shifting back to reality, I looked back at Sally, mulling over again what she had just said,“It’s incredible that you are so kind and give gifts to us”, knowing how bewildering it would be to take that credit.
I leaned in. “Sally, we give to you because we have been given so much. It’s just the overflow of our hearts. God has been so good to us.”
Nothing about that was cliché. It made a lump form in my throat in a surge of overwhelmed gratitude.
Sometimes I wonder if this is the only way to give, when my “enough” has run out and his abundance can pour in.
“Sally, have you ever read the Bible?”
She shook her head. “No, I never have.”
“If you want, we can show you more about God and how much he’s given to us.”
Cindy reached over and showed her how to download a Chinese/English Bible app, walking her through how it works.
What can I give him, poor as I am?
Dwelling over that day, I think, “All we gave her was just a stocking!” Seriously, it was so simple. Nothing earth shattering or even majorly sacrificial.
Maybe generosity is more about the heart and less about the gift.
Intuitively, we all know and feel the difference. Even at Christmas.
There’s the standard gifts. And then there’s heart gifts.
Normally those are unexplainable and kinda uncomfortable. Those make us feel vulnerable because they come from a place of genuine, unconditional love.
“I require nothing from you as you receive this gift. I love you because I love you because I love you because I love you.”
Christmas schools us in this, that a Child in a manger is the gift that never stops giving. He has the most joy because he’s always given the most love. And that, my friends, is the best and only example to follow.
At least, that’s what Christmas means to me.