I spend my time watching sexual violence. And other thoughts about #MeToo, Game of Thrones, and Harvey Weinstein.

My doorbell rang.

This was a bit odd, seeing that it was Thanksgiving evening, and I had an expected night alone in my town house. I wasn’t able to travel to see family that year.

I walked to the door, cautiously opening it, only to find my friend Latonya standing there. “Hey! Latonya, nice to see you!”

See looked slightly uncomfortable. “Hey Angela,” she said, forced cheerfully. “Can I come in?”

“Oh, for sure, absolutely, come on in.” I walked her to the living room, feeling like something was a bit off.

But I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable, so I tried to be welcoming. You see, I hadn’t see her in months, probably 7-8. We met on a Salvation Army outreach team to the homeless in downtown Greenville. She was strong, a powerful woman, and always ready to laugh. So I had missed seeing her and missed our friendship that had bonded.

We sat on the couch and she tried to chat, asking me about my Thanksgiving Day. We made casual talk.

In the bright light of the living room, that’s when I noticed the wounds.

Knife marks, specifically.

Pretty quickly she broke down and told me everything that was happening, where she had disappeared to the last several months.

She told me of the boyfriend, the good guy, the community Christian leader.

Then the isolation, the verbal abuse, the lying, the control.

And then the beatings with whatever object was most convenient: hangers, belts, fists.

The story kept coming, as if someone had released a bottled-up dam.

Controlling her to get whatever he wanted, abusing her at the slightest mistake, especially invisible rules that he made. Punishing including burning her skin with cigarettes, pouring scalding hot water on her, and endless punching.

Then she told me of the sexual abuse, the violence, the rape. And her doing whatever she could to appease him or “consent” so that he wouldn’t additionally hurt her.

She only knew her name as “bitch.” And it was hell living with him, though the control and manipulation made it seemingly impossible to leave.

But this time — this was the first time he had used the knife on her.

And she finally escaped. And only because she truly thought she would be killed. She was able to make a phone call to a friend who was able to pick her up and bring her to my house, as I was the only person she could think of to go to.

I sat in shock, the weight of the story depressing my entire being, as I gazed at wounds and bruising on a human being that I have never seen before in person.

Finally, after a long while of listening, watching, processing, I looked at her and said,

“Wow, that was such a great storyline.”


I was 25 that Thanksgiving. Since then I walked into, and perhaps even stumbled upon, the anti-sex trafficking movement. 5 years ago there wasn’t as much national buzz around human trafficking. In fact, I didn’t even know what that term meant. All I knew was that I wanted to support women in marginalized, risky situations.

Latonya (not her real name) was the first of 4 women that I have hosted in my home who have been able to escape terrible situations.

And the common factor? Sexual exploitation.

All of them in some shape or form had experienced sexual assault, discrimination, abuse, or violence. I wasn’t a social worker, so it wasn’t my job to talk about that in depth. But they often told me stories about their experiences, or I heard them due to proximity. I’ve been there in the hospital when the police came to write a report for the violence committed against them and had to hear all the nuanced details.

And it was heavy. It was confusing. It was painful.

As you try to process something like that with someone near you, it literally breaks your mind. And often what happens is what happened pretty quickly once Latonya came to live with me.

Her trauma became my trauma. Her symptoms became my symptoms.

And this is what we call vicarious trauma.

I was pretty alone during this period of my life and didn’t have much community, so the isolation made it that much worse. Plus, I didn’t know how to process it, or that I needed to process it. Good grief, I didn’t even know what the term trauma meant.

Since that time, I’ve attended many, many workshops and conferences on the subject of trafficking and sexual exploitation of adults and children. And at every single one the topic comes up loud and clear for all to glean:

You must take care of yourself and protect your mind and soul if you are in close proximity to disturbing or violent acts. 

Because if your mind, soul and body are not cared for, what’s to protect you from imploding?

Or worse yet, numbness?


Watching sexual violence in my free time

I spend a good amount of my free time watching sexual violence and human trafficking documentaries. Reading about it. Studying it. Being educated on it.

I know, I know, not exactly what your average young adult does in her free Friday evenings.

I do it because it makes me better informed to care for and understand someone who’s had to live in that world.

But sometimes it re-triggers something unhealthy in my mind or from my past — it could be a tone of voice, or an action, or an intention. Once that happens, the good of what my “education” is supposed to accomplish is outweighed by the bad effects. Because now my mind is overcome by the second-hand experience and it controls me, not I controlling it.

I’m super sensitive, and I’ll readily admit that now. In fact, I’m glad I’m sensitive and have grown less “strong”. I know what my body is telling me, and I’m aware of something being “too much” or pushing me to the point of vicarious trauma. The non-profit I volunteer with now requires Care Coaches for their volunteers due to the type of outreach we do. I often text my own mentor and friend when something triggers me into an unhealthy place.

So with this lifestyle, I’ve had to work hard to be aware of myself, my environment, and what’s happening in and around me. When is it crossing the line? Am I looking at something to learn or help, or is it in order to obtain? Is it love or is it lust? Is it fear or is it freedom?

So this is my life. Not for everyone, I’m sure! But I hope I also have a relatively normal life, one where Netflix binges happen at times and pop culture isn’t totally out in left field.

But what I haven’t been able to resolve is this conflicting tension I get when I watch TV shows and movies with violence, especially sexual violence.

Why does it make me feel torn? Why do I feel that my authenticity is in question?

I never really had a good answer.

Until last week. That’s when I realized I had to draw a line in the sand.


As I’m sure you can guess by now, after my friend shared her traumatic story of severe violence as I described above, I did not respond, “Wow, that was such a great storyline.”

Because that’s not what you do when you witness violence.

What’s the big deal about shows with sexual violence?

I was at a friend’s house last week, and somehow the topic came around to shows like This Is Us and The Handmaid’s Tale. I made a comment that I had only seen a few episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, and I was uneasy about my conclusion about it. That’s when my friend asked for my opinion, as someone who works with survivors of sexual exploitation, and what I thought about shows like Handmaid’s Tale and Law and Order: SVU.

I hesitated, because I didn’t quite have words to phrase it.

“I mean, I know what they’re trying to say, and trying to make a point about. It’s just that it’s….it’s….”

Then it dawned on me.

“It’s entertainment.”

Entertainment vs. Education

When I watch a documentary showing the story of a 12 year old Nepalese girl who was trafficked and sold for sex in a brothel across the border in India, I was not entertained. That was not the purpose of the film makers.

When I watched YouTube documentaries about the sex trade of minors and vulnerable women in Mombasa, I was not hoping to be entertained. That was not the purpose of my research.

After watching these shows or documentaries, I often need some sort of release or break. It’s just so heavy, heartbreaking, and wretched.

Here’s the problem: those scenes I watched in those YouTube videos, I recognized that those were the same in many of these other TV shows or movies. But something was different, something was off.

That’s when I realized that film makers and producers use sexual violence, often against women, as a form of entertainment.

Which is just another form of exploitation.

It’s the job of a film maker to tell the truth of the story. And most mainstream popular TV shows and movies are not telling you the truth of the story when it comes to sexual violence.

It shows enough to make you concede, “Well, that wasn’t right of that character to do that,” but it leaves out the weight of grossness of the act. In fact, it often makes you more interested, more desiring, and more aroused.

“But the show is showing what really did happen back in those days!”

Most arguments I’ve read in support of Game of Thrones is that this kind of violence and sexual violence really did happen and that was the norm of that time period.

That could be completely true.

But . . . actually, it’s not.

The film makers are telling a false story, one that you cannot see, one that is hidden and disguised. If they really did represent the heinousness of sexual violence, they would have problems finding viewers. It’s reality is overtly disturbing, and those of us that see it in the real world and online get therapy and healing care for ourselves. And we’re just the observers. We haven’t even discussed the injury done to the ones perpetrated against in this practice.

In the few scenes I’ve seen from Game of Thrones and The Handmaid’s Tale that depict actual sexually violent acts, they are not true narratives, they misrepresent the victim, and they are intended to cause arousal.

“But it’s such a good storyline!”

As illustrated in the opening story, it doesn’t matter how riveting a story is. If there is violence and crime against humanity that we watch with our own eyes, our reactions are typically, “Wow, that’s terrible,” and we instinctively move away, uncomfortably.

But film makers conveniently glide over the terribleness. They make violence more palatable, more reasonable, or desirable.

Which leads us to believe that we really aren’t all that bothered by this violence, which leads me to the next point…

“But this stuff doesn’t bother me. I can watch it and be totally fine.”

This argument concerns me the most. Because it’s basically admitting,

“I’m numb to this.”

You know who else we all now know is numb to sexual violence?

Harvey Weinstein.

Now, of course, I’m not saying that you’re Harvey. But perpetrators like him weren’t born; they were made. If you read his language and how he spoke to the women he used, it was clear this didn’t bother him. And not bothering gave him plenty of license.

For us, not being bothered does not equate to Super Man or Woman status, that only the strongest of us can handle the really bad stuff.

No, it actually means that you’ve been exposed for so long that the abnormality has become normality, and your brain is not reacting as it should due to this type of conditioning.

And I think this one scares me the most because I believe we all fall into this category in one stage or another. It’s normal in our culture. Which is why you are finding so many “Me too” friends coming out on social media.

Let me ask you: if one of those friends sat down and told you her story of harassment or assault, would you be totally fine with it? Would it not bother you at all?

Shows that depict sexual violence with intention to cause arousal are exploitative.

And when we watch, we participate in the exploitation.

This is where we draw a line in the sand:

If a scene of sexual violence is meant to cause arousal in the viewer, then it is abusive.

Both to all women in our culture, and to yourself.

What these shows teach us is that, yes, sexual violence is kinda bad . . . but more than that it sure is interesting, and we’d like to watch more.

Think about that. Really think about that.

If we’re so used to watching both physical and sexual violence in a place of pleasure and half-truths, then what will we do when we are confronted with it in real life? Will we think it’s “interesting?” Will we want to see more? Will we find it arousing?

Will we say to the victim sharing their experience, “Wow, that was such a great storyline“?

No. We don’t say those things in response to stories that include gross acts of dehumanization.

I put responsibility of lie-telling on the film makers, and the responsibility of participation on us.

Consider this: if a scene of sexual violence causes you to be aroused, then you need help.

It’s not because you’re bad. It’s because you’re broken.

And join the crowd.


I recently read the New Yorker article detailing the stories of the women who have come forward sharing their sexual abusive encounters with Harvey Weinstein over the past decades.

It was a long article. The stories had jarring details. It’s a trigger warning for any female who has experience some form of sexual assault, which I’m pretty sure after seeing the many “Me too” posts that it includes all of us women.

When I finished I felt my head was heavy and slightly spinning. It was almost exhausting. Part of me wanted to just lay there and process what I just heard. But because I’m more in tune to my mental and physical state now, I knew I needed a release. I had just spent a weekend in trauma-informed training, so the teaching was fresh in my memory.

So what did I do? I watched one of the stupidest episodes of Parks and Recreation I’ve ever seen and ate 2 dark chocolate peanut butter cups.

After that brief release I felt normal, the heaviness was gone and I was able to think more clearly. Yet even still, I’ll probably talk about it with my mentor at some point, just so that I don’t soak it up into my mental state.

Because, again, reading or watching violent, abusive acts should mess up your soul.

And it takes intentionality to care for it so that those effects do not damage you or those around you.

We were not made to observe evil casually. We were not made to take pleasure in other people’s pain.

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And Just Like That, She Bloomed

Earlier this summer I bought a hanging plant.

There were no blooms on it yet. Just a bunch of dirt it seemed, but the price was right and I thought for sure it held some promise.

So I hung it on my balcony in a prominent place.

And waited.

And watered.

And waited.

And watered.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

But for a long time, perhaps several weeks, nothing happened. I couldn’t figure it out — was I destroying it up with too much water, or was it a dud plant, or did it get too much sun exposure?

It seemed odd. And slightly disappointing.

Maybe . . . there wasn’t even a plant there after all.

But I kept up the process, nevertheless.

Because for some stubborn notion giving up is never an option. Especially when I dropped a whole two dollars for it.

And so continued the daily drudgery of watering, waiting, watching.

Eventually, I’m a little sad to say, I stopped expecting anything. I was sure then that if it ever did bloom, it would most likely be sad, pathetic flowers that made even itself cry.

From the externals, there was no hint of anything good coming out of this plant. Even when I poured water on the plant, it seemed to go straight through and drop out of the bottom. Did it even retain anything?

But then, a day before I left for Africa, I walked out the back door, as always each morning, and about fell over myself.

It was a massive, gorgeous, stunning display of the richest purple flowers. Covering the plant, overflowing the sides. And with purple, my favorite color.

It took my breath away, because I had been inwardly longing for so long, and it happened so suddenly. And the first thought that came to my mind was,

And just like *that*, it bloomed.

What immediately followed next was a prophetic message that went deeper and struck my soul as God whispered to me,

And just like *that*, she bloomed.

And I knew at that point my life would be completely different.

The seasons were changing. The past was behind. Breakthrough had arrived.

It was as if my life flashed before my eyes and I knew one hand was releasing the past, and the other was grabbing ahold of the future. I had been dry for so long. Now is was time to bloom.

And I thought on it all, on the a story behind this — this long, suffering, blooming process.

You see, for oh-so-many years I thought there was promise, I had so much hope

That this plant of mine would come alive,

Soaking and waiting, and watering and hoping.

Living on hope until the last drop gave out.

And it seemed as if water poured endlessly into the drought.

So disappointed in how it only seemed to die

Time and time and time again.

Dripping through, no soaking up,

Bleeding out, no living out.

Depression and fear my nearest friends,

A future blurred out by a pain that never ends.

But I failed to see the journey in full

Must pass through death on its way to life,

That the driest spell is a burial ground

For the bitter wounds of shame and lies.

Dripping through – pain, betrayal, unforgiveness

Bleeding out – lust, self-loathing, pride

Day after day, dry after dry, pouring after pouring

Not giving up, not giving in — just giving, strong and weak.

The process – oh so long

The change and promise – oh so slow.

Sometimes staring too long at a thing

Develops a loss of perspective,

A resentment towards the loss of time and investment.

But then it came — like a night time firework,

A bursting fall tree, a surprise party.

And I could hardly believe it,

I — the most shocked of all.

You see, just like *that*

She bloomed

The most radiant of colors, the brilliance of form

Just — absolutely radiating, a wedding day bride

She was hiding no longer, entering into public eye

So proud, so self-respectful, so free

Not a whisper, but shouting with blossoms

All may see, all may talk, all may wonder

But to her nothing matters

Because the shackles of drought are gone

The time of truth has come

And truth has never been so lovely, so becoming

I can never go back

Blooming has changed me forever.


I’m glad that nature tells us a story that reflects the hope of life and future. Even when life dies and we want the world around us to reflect the death we feel inside, somehow Spring always comes around. Nature keeps following it’s created course.

Death, seed, water, growth, bloom.

Around and around the circle it goes.

And similarly, we get the same path in life.

Seasons. Change. Motion.

And life wouldn’t really be all that wonderful if it were always Spring, right?

Those flowers that bloomed — they really meant something to me because I poured so much time and expectation into them. The waiting can be a painful experience, but it can also be more like the waiting and anticipation of watching the fuse burn towards an exploding firework. Perhaps we have a choice in how we wait.

Dryness and death and cold and bare only make Spring that much more brilliant and wonderful.

So hold on to your dry, bedraggled plant. Water it with your tears. Sleep with it by your side.

Because you never know when the blooming day is coming.

And it’s coming. Oh yes it is!

“Weren’t you afraid to travel to Africa?”

“It turns out that the more you watch TV, the more you believe that the world is dangerous. It turns out TV watchers believe that an astonishing 5% (!) of the population works in law enforcement. And it turns out that the more you watch TV the less optimistic you become. Cultivation theory helps us understand the enormous power that TV immersion has.” – Seth Godin

I took a trip to East Africa this summer

It wasn’t all that surprising, I guess, for those that know me. Last year I went to India and China, and you can often find me exploring big cities in America’s sea to shining sea, and taste-testing every ethnic restaurant that catches my fancy. My friend group in Chicago includes a wide range of color, culture, and country of origin.

And I love it.

I love it because there’s no structure or paternalism. There isn’t one side of giving, and one side of receiving. It’s mutual. It’s authentic.

It is always easy? Not really. Sometimes I’m embarrassed I forget basic things — like how to pronounce the name of my friend from Iran who I met for the 2nd or 3rd time, or have to ask my friend why African Americans never learned to swim, or ask the girl with Indian heritage if she was a vegetarian (yes, oh yes, that did happen).

It’s hard because you want to be a part of the group, to be included, but the lack of knowledge exposes the breach of integration and your often complete ignorance.

I’m used to it now, used to the tension and the vulnerability of outsider-ness.

I even lean into it all. You see, it was really through that bumpy path that I found a lot of meaningful relationships, understanding of how people relate to each other, and what’s actually most important in this world.

Which leads me to the topic at hand:

Why were Americans concerned for me when I traveled to Africa?

I mean, did you forget that I live in Chicago? The city ravaged by gun violence like that of a war-torn country?

But let’s talk about that as it illustrates a similar vein: people across the country are scared of Chicago . . . until they really get to know me. They see how interesting my life is, all the fun places I visit and bike by on a daily basis, the generous and smart friends I have, the ground-breaking anti-trafficking work the city is nationally known for, and the beautiful gems in parks all around the city.

And, wouldn’t you know it, by the end of our conversation it seems like the narrative in their mind has changed a bit. “Hm, maybe Chicago isn’t that bad . . . I think I want to visit someday.”

Amazing how getting to know someone is so completely transformative.

So how do people get scared of places like Chicago? like Africa?

At some point information was passed on. And it was communicated in a way that best benefited the sender of the information.

Because those in power get to tell the stories they way they want to.

If money and ratings are the top motivator, then the human instinct to tap into is obvious:

Fear.

It pays. And it pays well.

Biologically, our minds and bodies respond much more strongly to fear because fear helps motivate us to protect ourselves in dangerous situations. We are conditioned to react intensely, fight or flight. We literally stop thinking with any sense or logic. The current situation triggers the mind to do one thing at the expense of all others in order to keep ourselves alive.

Are you afraid of the Boogie Monster?

We feed ourselves a constant flow of fear, which rarely depicts the reality of the world. We power up the computer and switch on the television, and then sit back for our daily dose of a hot cup of fear.

Television and internet articles bait us into fear, paralyzing fear. And we eat it up — it tastes so good, and so bad. All senses are heightened and triggered. Over time it becomes an addiction. Like a battered woman tied to her abusive husband, the trauma bonds entangle her in ways so deep it seems impossible to escape.

It’s hard to get used to normal when you’re always high on afraid.

I find it fascinating that so many people are afraid of something or someone they’ve never even seen or experienced. 

Like the Boogie Monster hiding under the bed. Your 6-year old self has never seen it or experienced it, but your older brother has fed you terrifying stories for months and now you live in it’s reality.

The invisible Boogie Monster now controls you. And it’s not even real.

Do you think Africa is the Boogie Monster?

When you talk about Africa as an American, are your illustrations and references all about war and killings and terrorism and violence?

And maybe that really is all you know about Africa. Not all of us get the opportunity to live next door to foreigners or travel internationally in a culturally engaging way. But at least preface your perspective by saying, “But you know, the only source I’ve gotten my information from is television, popular media, and American missionaries– I’ve never actually visited or talked to Africans about this. And I could be wrong, but this is my perspective from where I stand.”

Television and articles gives us the illusion that we experienced something firsthand . . . when in reality we really haven’t. Yes, I know research is good and important and it’s often combined with “eye witnesses.”

But seriously take the time to read sources that are African-led and narrated, and then make some personal relationships that are mutual.

If you can’t do any of those things, I understand. We’re all busy. But don’t control and direct the conversation. You are more than welcome to listen and observe.

Let’s be friends

I’ve been on my own journey through this fear mindset. At one point I really did believe what everyone was telling me on television and articles and platforms.

And then I traveled. And was positioned in a place of non-authority where all I could do was listen, observe, and serve.

And I was shocked by how still and quiet it was.

There was no lizard-brain, fear-controlled actions. It was peaceful, and enjoyable, and full of connection.

That’s when I realized that media outlets and popular speakers and religion can heartily take advantage of your ignorance to keep you tied up and coming back for more. More television, more clickbait, more crazy headlines, more one-sided stories.

That’s when I decided to learn this for myself, to see the real story as much as I could.

Are there dangerous, evil things happening around the world and in Africa?

Absolutely. I just wrote about the tragic and rampant problem of child sex trafficking in Mombasa, Kenya; I visited the brothel districts in India that are trapping girls and women for generations and it’s backed by both culture and police; I see Chicago’s gun death tolls continue to rise at record lengths.

Yes, we acknowledge the danger. Yet refuse to be controlled by it. Once we welcome fear, then we have no option but to obey it.

And once we obey fear, we can never impact our environments. Because it’s already impacting us.

So the greatest lesson here? It’s not just that we shouldn’t be afraid of places like Africa due to emotionally-triggered news. It’s also not simply just that we should expose ourselves to more people and relationships outside our own culture.

It’s that fear has got to go so that we can impact our cities, and countries, and the world.

Because I bet you never read a world-changer’s autobiography that concluded with, “And then I cozied up in my overstuffed chair, turned on the television, and posted articles about the unbelievably terrible things happening in the world.”


 

New friends I met during tea time in downtown Nairobi

Staff from Christ Hope International making chapati for lunch in Kampala, Uganda

Mothers of the some of the children at Christ’s Hope International sharing their stories in Mwanza, Tanzania

My new friend Lucy showing me around her family’s tea farm and property in Kenya

The vast, beautiful tea farms in Limuru, Kenya

Talking with women from the brothel districts in India

Hanging out with children at a daycare in Nairobi

Exploring the streets of Hong Kong

The Lost Girls of Mombasa

All of my senses became alert, suddenly.

I sat upright, peered in wonder, the type of wonder that makes you feel sick to your stomach. A sharp intake of breath, like you’ve been punched in the gut.

It was all too familiar. But not in the way one is familiar with something from experience. But more so from research, from documentaries, from second-hand experiences.

All the signs were there.

Older white male. Younger African female.

Abnormal outward affection.

Flirting minus the depth of relationship.

Male dressed average, female dressed lavishly and provocatively.

The location being international-based versus local-based.

Forgetting what client project I was currently working on, I stared at this couple across the cafe, watching his advances, her reactions. Like a train wreck, you want to look away, but you just can’t.

Then I noticed. . .

A second couple.

Then a third.

Then a fourth.

That’s when the shock hit me, making my heart freeze.

I had found myself sitting in a hub of sex buyers and prostitutes.

And I didn’t even know it. I had literally “stumbled upon” this standard European-type cafe in search of good wifi to do some work. But this international-comfortable spot seemed to also attract all tourists– including those who came to specifically take part of sex tourism in Mombasa.

You see, there’s a thing in sex tourism called the “Girlfriend Experience.” Buyers from around the world, especially from wealthy Western countries, come to tourist spots that have a supply of women and girls who are inexpensive for purchase.

Inexpensive, in that the girls and their families have been living in the cycle of poverty around that tourist city and have few options for income.

Inexpensive, in that she lives on $1 a day, so to charge even just $20 a night to cater to his sexual desires is highly profitable.

Purchase, in that he uses money to bribe consent, which, non-surprisingly, is not actually consent given that she wouldn’t ever have sex with him if he didn’t offer the money and if she didn’t desperately need it.

Purchase, in that she is no longer a living, breathing human, but is instead a usable, itemized object with a fluctuating valuation.

What I had researched before was just data and statistics. Now it was faces.

“Come to Mombasa! Not only can to enjoy the beauty of the beaches and the coast, but you can also buy yourself a girlfriend for the duration of your stay. Any age desired!”

Any age desired?

I saw adults that night in the cafe, but do they also buy girls?

You mean, little girls? Elementary age girls?

Really?


It was last year, sometime in May 2016.

I had attended a Compassion Experience event in Chicago near the west side. I had been sponsoring a 4 year old girl through Compassion for about 6 months at this time, and it seemed that this “Experience” event would allow me to see her world and understand the stories that these children have.

In the Experience you enter a series of rooms while listening to a tour on an iPod. It’s kind of a micro version of a walking tour in a museum. A child is telling you their story about life in poverty, a life marred by dependency, scarcity, and incapacity, where material and relational needs are at a loss.  Then you discover how they got into the Compassion program and how their lives have changed and developed as a result of that program.

It was fascinating and I definitely felt more connected to the work of Compassion and my own child.

Afterwards I talked with one of staff who was standing in front of wall of photographs — all children that needed to be sponsored. I knew my budget and that I probably couldn’t afford to sponsor another one at that time. But I looked a wall of girls from Kenya, and I noticed several “older” girls — girls over 12 years old. On certain cards there were notes that their home areas were at high risk of HIV and trafficking.

I knew that fact all too well. In Chicago itself the entry age of prostitution is 12 years old. Entry age. That means if you see an adult street prostitute outside, you can safely bet that she was exploited, trafficked, around the age of puberty. So I could only imagine how much worse the statistics were in developing countries.

As I left that day, those photos stuck in my mind. While biking downtown to a meeting a few days later, God brought it back to mind very clearly, and I started praying for those girls, the vulnerable ones.

Immediately after my meeting I received an email that was titled, “Sponsor an older child today,” and it had a picture of a girl from Kenya named Jane. I immediately knew she was special. In a moment of complete instinct and vulnerability, I replied to sponsor her.

I had no idea at the time, but, as you’ll find out, I’m so glad I did.


What’s going on in Mombasa?

She lives just north of Mombasa in a town called Mtwapa. I did some brief research on the area so I had some context in which to add to our letters. But I didn’t give it too much thought after that.

Except for 6 months later.

I follow a human trafficking forum where articles and research are posted from communities all over the world. I noticed that one in particular talked about Mombasa. Of course my interest was piqued, so I started reading.

And the shocking truths emerged.

“Almost a third of girls age 12 and younger in the Mombasa region were involved in prostitution.”

“Trace Kenya, a local nonprofit group that works with the United Nations to battle child trafficking, estimates there could be as many as 100,000 child sex workers in Mombasa.”

“Many come to the city in search of girls aged between 12 and 18. The industry has made Kenya one of the world’s hubs for child sex tourism.”

“Emily, a 16-year-old orphan, said she was forced into the business due to poverty and peer pressure. Her aunt encouraged her to engage in sex with white men to help pay family expenses. Emily is now infected with HIV.”

This deeply troubled me. And then I took note of Trace Kenya, and found that they were headquartered in a town north of Mombasa that they considered the main hot spot for child sex trafficking.

That town? Mtwapa. The same town Jane lived in.

My heart went to my throat. Though I research often, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. And she could easily be one of these statistics.

But it couldn’t be — that couldn’t happen to her, right? I mean, I know her name, her face, her hobbies, her favorite school subjects — she’s just a little girl, not a target for prostitution.

Yet I knew, when poverty and sex tourism collide, the most vulnerable of our communities will always lose.

Who are those?

Our children, our girls.


While visiting East Africa last month, I was able to find some time to visit Mombasa for a few days. I spent an entire day with Jane and her friends at the Compassion center in Mtwapa. Since I wanted to be centrally located, I got a hotel in Mtwapa as well. Obviously, I already knew the research before going, so I wanted to observe as much as I could, but I figured it would be from a safe distance as this wasn’t a dedicated “human trafficking research trip”.

View of Mtwapa from my hotel room

My time with Jane and her friends was about as fun and joyous as I could’ve imagined. Though they were all coming from families of poverty, they didn’t have a poverty spirit. Instead, there was a spirit of abundance and fullness and honor.

That’s how you know a poverty-alleviating organization is succeeding. When those they serve are relationally restored to understanding their identity and gifting as an individual, as a creation of God.

I visiting her home and spent time with her mother and siblings. I loved interacting with them, being welcomed into their home, meeting the community.

But, almost unwanted, the thoughts stirred in the back of my mind: “Are any of these the girls of Mtwapa part of that statistic? One of the 100,000? At nights do pimps come to recruit them to sell to nearby tourists? Are there seriously no other options?”

Too many questions, and none that I wanted to deal with as I held hands with the children as they led me singing through the dirt streets between the homes.


The “Hot Spot” Cafe

It was that very evening that I was in the cafe doing work for my clients when I noticed my disturbing surroundings. This was a nice mall in the Mtwapa/Mombasa area, and apparently one that attracted foreigners. I went there the following night as well, and the same exact scenario repeated itself. I sighed. This is “normal.”

It was quite a helpless feeling to sit on the sidelines and observe the objectification of these women, knowing very well the trauma they live through each day they are in this industry. Seriously — imagine experiencing sexual harassment in a vile form at work (which most of us women have experienced). It causes trauma and many women have to go through therapy after just one experience. It’s such a big deal that our government created laws against it to protect us.

Now imagine that’s your job. Your job is to experience sexual harassment and assault and abuse every single day. And pretend that you want to be there. Because if you didn’t you wouldn’t have any means of survival, you wouldn’t be able to feed your family, you wouldn’t be able to pay for a roof over your head.

Since I was typically in the cafe for several hours, I saw couples come and go, and would often try to catch the eyes of the women as they walked past me. I felt like the only thing I could offer was a smile, a gesture of kindness, a show of non-judgment, a look of solidarity.

But I was never able to. I recall one woman in specific, in her high heels and fancy clothes, a time that most women may feel like shining and standing out, yet for her was a walk of shame. She never looked up, only stared at the ground as she passed by. It was such an absence of joy.

Prostitution, trafficking, selling of bodies — it all steals the soul, sucks the life out, and leaves behind the shell of a person.

This is not what the Image of God was made for.

Each of us was uniquely crafted before birth with a specific purpose, gifting, calling, and destiny. And above all, we were made to love and be loved.

Anything less then that is not meant to be. Using another person, especially in an explicitly sexual way, distorts and destroys the Image of God on that person.

We were made for so much more.

And not just for the American girls like myself who got to attend private school her entire life, graduate from college, and find consistent employment. The same respect and honor is due in parallel form to girls like Jane, who may not externally have the same earthly privileges and wealth. But the Image of God is just as strong in her.

Both Image of God bearers, both deserving of honor and opportunity

There is no place to choose which women we get to use, and which ones we don’t.

We’re all equal. We’re all valuable.


Is there an answer?

Is there? That’s the question. I sat there that night really unsure of what I’m supposed to do with this new, personal experience and information.

As I’ve been mulling it over, there are a few practical suggestions I can make.

Sponsor a child in poverty

I’ve met some amazing organizations like Compassion and Christ’s Hope International. I’ve seen first hand how these models work. And you just never know how much impact that $36 a month will have, that you may literally be saving a little girl from sexual exploitation. Is there a promise that every child sponsored won’t end up falling into the snare of exploitation? No, which is why prayer and encouragement are so vital. Those consistent positive voices of advocates in their lives are often lifelines of hope to keep them on the paths of hope and purpose.

Support your local anti-trafficking organization

The awareness of this problem is much stronger now than it used to be, and most cities in America have some sort of chapter or organization that deal with human trafficking in one form or another. Just Google it and be open to serving (and learning!) however necessary. If you need any recommendations of where to start, let me know in the comments and I’ll share any contacts or connections I may have.

Learn and share and pray

As you can see, those 100,000 girls in Mtwapa may not be as high in demand if it weren’t for the sex tourism from the wealthy Westerners that visit. Guess where those men came from? Probably your country, probably America. We need to admit that we are part of the problem of little girls being exploited in Mombasa because we endorse and celebrate the sexualization of women here in America. That creates the “demand,” the need for women to fulfill sexual desires on-demand.

We have to deal with the issue of “demand,” that until our culture mindset changes and our men stop viewing certain kinds of women and girls as objects for sexual gratification (prostitution, strip clubs, pornography, rape), then the problem will never go away. It’s both a local and international issue. But although we are all apart of the problem (yes, us all), we can also be apart of the solution. That solution will not come without humility, brokenness, and weighty amounts of prayer.

Keep praying, keep learning, keep sharing, keep repenting, keep forgiving, keep honoring . . . repeat, repeat, repeat.

Compassion is a currency that must be cashed.

I’d prefer something a little more explainable.

You know, a story that aligns just right, it makes complete sense to just about every listener, and one would respond simply, “Well, that certainly sounds reasonable.”

Reasonable. Explainable. Correct.

None of those words really describe the path of my life, much less this Ride for Hope I’m doing in a week in East Africa.

You see, I’d prefer to tell you a story about how it all came together in a really clean, factual manner. And most of all, that I wouldn’t have to share my vulnerability.

The compassion. The joy. The heart break. The love.

Those words, the feelings? Ah, so very un-reason-able.

It may sound odd now looking back, but I felt so exposed about it all, I really didn’t want to talk about it. But I mean, c’mon, how can one hide the fact that you’re going to be biking 600 miles around Lake Victoria in East Africa and you have to raise $12,000 in the process?

Seems like at some point the truth had to come out.

The truth? The why?

There was a riot in my heart.

And I gave in. I let myself feel. And feel it all.

A story from Christ’s Hope International

David from Christ’s Hope was sharing at a local networking event about the work being done to support orphans affected by AIDS in sub-Sahara Africa. To be clear, not the first time I’ve heard of this kind of courageous non-profit work. But he leaned in deeper and shared a moving story that had happened recently through one of the CarePoint centers.

They needed to find a home for a young girl that had lost both of her parents. In their model, they don’t place them in orphanages, but instead put the children in relatives’ homes to support them from there.

Problem was, the only living relative of this girl was a prostitute.

A prostitute.

A word I’m familiar with. A people that I know. A term that could better be described as, “one who is used up sexually due to her need and loss.”

Her power stripped away, there is only the bait of money that keeps her in the business. There’s no consent; only a survival bribe.

But it never truly pays off. Sure, bills may be paid, but the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual debt is carved deeper and deeper into her soul.

This was not who she was made to be.

Then to add more burden, she now has a child under her roof. Not only may this demand significant extra energy and resources, but the girl herself is now extra vulnerable to the sex industry due to proximity. A potential for disaster.

Can I explain to you how much hope is not present in this situation? When you are a prostitute, that is your life, and the way out seems nearly impossible. We see it all the time at New Name. Which is why we don’t measure results, but instead focus on love. The opposition is real, and the way is hard.

Which is why the next part of the story gripped my heart.

This little girl began attending the CarePoint Center through the non-profit. There she found care for her body, mind, and soul. She grew and developed, and even begin taking her child-like faith with her into all parts of her life.

Including at home. And including into the thoughts and heart of her aunt.

Because when you find peace and joy and love, you can’t hide it. It just overflows.

Over time, day by day, word by word, this aunt heard the story of Jesus and the power of the cross from the lips of child. And there was hope — finally, hope — in that.

Hope that Someone accepted her, saw her, loved her, embraced her.

And he loves her because he loves her because he loves her.

When you live a life of constant misuse, it’s hard to believe that someone would actually love you without you doing anything to for it. It’s free, so very free. So unbelievable. It simply must be miraculous.

This is the part of the story that I want to see in detail someday. The moment that Jesus completely breaks her chains that have bound her to prostitution and set her free. It instantly brought to mind the song Alabaster Box, when CeCe Winans sings about Mary, a former prostitute, breaking her whole life and alabastor box at the feet of Jesus, and testifying to others,

“You weren’t there the night he found me, you did not feel what I felt when he wrapped his loving arms around me. You don’t know the cost of the oil in my alabaster box.”

It was that moment in the story I felt all the emotions at once.

A riot in the soul.

Tears came down my eyes without thought, the weight and miracle of it all was so heavy. We pray for years for some of our women to break out of the life. And now look how God used the testimonial of a little orphaned girl.

Though in reality, she is not little, and not orphaned. She is a daughter of the most high King! And in that place is power, unimaginable power.

That moment of intense inner feeling was immediately followed by, “And we are organizing the Ride for Hope around Lake Victoria in June of 2017. If there are any avid bicyclists out there, we invite you to join!”

At that moment Brian, who was sitting next to me, gives me a knowing look and says, “You doing that?” He knew I was training for the Chicago Triathlon. I immediately retorted, “I am not an avid bicyclist!”

And in that moment I knew I would be joining the team.

(*insert comment, “Well that escalated quickly!”*)

I didn’t realize it would be 600 miles. And I also didn’t totally register the reality I had to raise $12,000.

I just knew that I leaned into feeling my heart, and then did something about it.

And that makes me feel vulnerable. That I can’t really give a better explanation other than, “I cried. And felt so hard it hurt.”

Thank God for Justin Dillon and his recent appearance on the Chasing Justice podcast. Because he puts words to what I’ve wanted to say, but have never been able to describe when I’m trying to process through those intense heart riots I get every once in a while:

This feeling, while it’s not accomplishing something in the world, is accomplishing something in me. But this feeling is also a currency, and yet I don’t know where to spend it. It’s crazy when we have these intense feelings to change the world and we don’t know where to spend that currency. If we don’t spend it on something, that’s when it starts to create a debt in our soul. It creates a callousness and cynicism. Because we were made to fight injustice. That feeling came from the infinite and touched by our finite.

Yes. Yes it’s all true. The more I internalize the deepest feelings I experience, the more callous I become. I’ve felt that tension, because it’s also pretty uncomfortable to act out on those desires. But it sure does give me more joy.

Justin continues on to talk about our culture of “giving back.”

Giving back is saying, “I’m good. I’ve got enough. I’m going to give a little bit back.” But I don’t like what it’s saying about us. It’s void of meaning. Really what the world needs is not giving back, but giving in. It’s realizing, “There’s something in me greater than what’s against others.”

Giving in. It’s not pushing away the feelings. It’s giving in to them. And being ok with what it may cause you do to.

Because love makes you do crazy things. And often they don’t have logical explanations outside of, “I just really cared.”

But that, my friends, is the most logical, and most fulfilling, way to live life.

Crazy is normal to the wholehearted person.


Would you consider supporting me on for the Ride for Hope?

We are raising funds through the end of June 2017. Every little bit helps!

Visiting brothels in India

August 4, 2016

At 1:00am this morning I finally landed in Mumbai. And so the journey begins.

That was a good 8 months ago. I’m not exactly sure why I didn’t write a blog post giving a detailed account of my trip to India soon after I returned.

Perhaps some information is too heavy, some sights too indescribable — and not in a Grand Canyon kind of “indescribable” where you are overcome with awe and wonder. More so the loss of words to define things that are preciously and grippingly sober.

There are many blog posts telling of the plight of the poor and marginalized. Much social work can have a similar story, and often told from the perspective of the powerful ones. It may be “good power,” but it’s still weighty. Maybe sounding something like this:

There are people in the world who are mistreated (by my standards) and live in unfortunate states (by my standards) and we must change their story (to look more like mine) and I get to tell their story (from my perspective).

When interacting with those who survive under the crushing arm of injustice from evil power forces, it’s easy to saunter into that situation, and proclaim, “A new sheriff has arrived in town!” Thus kicking out the evil power who’s been forcing the poor to do what they want and enforcing a “just” process that requires new rules to be followed.

Often the only thing in common in these 2 scenarios is the fact that the poor always have choices made for them. They are simply the words and not actually the writers in their own story.

So thus my hesitation in relaying experiences and being the storyteller. These are real humans and they have incredible dignity.

Yes, injustices must have light shown on it. As partners in humanity we have the privilege of using our privileges to stand in the gap and be the bridge. Yet always keeping in mind the will and autonomy of the people we meet, allowing them to be apart of the process and representing them truthfully, humanly.

And there you have my light-hearted introduction!

Most of what I’m writing below I’m pulling from my journal during the trip, so you can be sure it will read like that. Any local names have been changed to protect identities.


Mumbai, India

Often I feel anxious and troubled, that the bad people are getting away with things, that if I love I will be mistreated. But God uses the panic in our lives to lead us up to the breakthrough. He makes the way.

“I love the Lord because he hears my voice and my prayer for mercy. He bends down to listen.” Psalm 116

I thought about this passage when I was praying for the women we would be meeting. He bends down to listen— he really does. He hears the cries and the woes of the women we meet. He knows their pain, even the pain they won’t acknowledge. He wants to set them free. This is my God. If I can pray his mercy and care over them, I must accept it as well over myself.

Entrance into India

The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel at 3:00am was interesting. I was the last of the team to arrive and had to find my way to the hotel on my own. My Hindi-speaking taxi driver didn’t know where the hotel was, so he asked a group of taxi drivers on the side of the street. Then he asked another group. And then the guys at the gate. At this point I thought I would never make it there. I finally pulled it up on Google maps and found that it wasn’t too far away— just a mile. So we puttered away in the tiny car that my legs didn’t really fit in, and was thankful for the cool post-rain breeze that gave relief to the humidity.

The next morning after breakfast, we sat in the lobby and waiting for Sela to come. She’s faithfully led the brothel outreach for over 20 years in a city several hours from Mumbai. I was pining to meet her. When she showed up, I wasn’t expecting someone so small! But you could feel her care and love right away. So welcoming and inviting. I knew she could be friends with anyone in a moment.

Mumbai was quite the interesting place, but at first I was so distracted by the crazy driving, close calls, bikes, motorcycles, people … it was chaos! But our driver evaded them all. That combined with driving on the opposite side of the street was some cause for stress at times.

Then I started looking at the city around me. So much dingy housing, shacks, trash, dirt, and just overall poverty. And it wasn’t just a section. It kept going and going. At first it was a shocking sight, but then I tried hard to imagine the life of these people and that this is their life and they have plenty of dignity. They work and have families and try to provide for them. Their housing is different from mine, but it doesn’t mean they need fixing.

I think it’s important to accept the difference up front so that you can enter any home and feel welcome, because it’s humans that make you feel welcome, not just a space.

We finally arrived at our hotel after about 3 hours of driving through the mountains. Many things to take in during the ride. Children peeing on the streets, trash and junk everywhere, a woman sitting on top of tiny food cart, the red third eye many people had, the colorful clothing the women wore, groups of people sitting together for lunch outside under shade, children coming home from school in their uniforms that looked very British-like, the mass amounts of people. So much to take in and observe.

My first brothel walk

Yesterday was riveting. Yet comforting as well. I have to keep reminding myself that we walked into brothels and that is not normal. Yet it seemed so normal. I always found myself at peace. Maybe that’s kingdom stuff. Maybe this is part of the progression for me. It began with drug camps 5 years ago, then drug aftercare homes, then homeless camps, then domestic violence victims, then strip clubs, then street prostitution, then massage parlors.  I guess going into a brothel wasn’t such a huge jump. And what I saw there was similar in many ways to what I’ve seen everywhere else: women that desperately need to be loved. People trapped in the grip of sin and exploitation. This is another place where the love of the Father gets to ride in and take over.

Sela led us through the large brothel district, armed with candy, hair accessories and beanie babies. The first group of ladies were on the side of the alley, three younger women that Nora later described as having such searing  pain in their eyes that it haunted her. We gave them hair clips and asked their names and told them how beautiful they were. When we came by later a man was talking to them, another customer.

We moved on to 2 women sitting against a wall. We said hello and they smiled. The one had such a pretty smile and was so tiny. We kept moving to a group of 4-5 women under the covering of the building. Across the street was a old brothel that had recently collapsed. Rubble was everywhere. These ladies were a bit older and after giving them chocolates we sat down and talked.

First asking names, then just listening, lots of picture taking. They loved to see themselves in the pictures. Then Sela talked with them and we sang Jesus Loves Me. That is when tears came to my eyes. Jesus loves them, no matter what. And the same is for me. We then laid hands on them and prayed, a together moment. So sweet. Afterwards the picture taking continued — they were so happy and one lady even started singing and dancing. We knew the fruit of Sela’s efforts over many years brought us to this point.

We walked around the corner into another brothel, this time going inside and sitting in the front room. The women gestured to us to sit on the seats and they sat on the floor on cardboard. They were so hospitable and even offered us tea. We gave the little boy there one of the beanie babies. Then we talked and Sela interpreted. They asked our names, what we do for a living, remarking on our features. One women sat on the other side and was a bit younger and looked very sad. There were about 6-7 women all together. Then eventually we sang again and went around and we all prayed. Then Sela prayed and also sang. She has such a beautiful voice. I was reminded again that I am here in another culture sitting accepted with prostitutes. Dirt never stopped Calvary blood. Later Sela told us that there were younger girls inside that we not allowed to come out. Many never leave their rooms and haven’t seen the light of day in years.

After lunch she took me and Katie to go into another large brothel house. We first stopped and talked with 2 women at the bottom. One was young and pregnant and she smiled so deeply at us. There was something in her eyes. Like a light and a hope and a plea for love and acceptance. She for some reason was so excited to see us but of course couldn’t relay that to us in English. We talked and communicated with hands. We found out she had 1 child and so we gave her a beanie baby. Then we prayed for both of them and saw tears in their eyes.

We moved on up the stairs. We walked up a total of 4 flights of stairs and saw room after room full  of women. On the first floor was much younger women who had a beautiful little girl. They weren’t open to prayer but they were still welcoming.

Then we moved up and I kept looking around at the little living rooms and bedrooms that had women after women. A true brothel house. We stopped into one room where a woman had been lying on the bed. Sela talked with her while we interacted with the little 6 year old boy who was taking our pictures. We prayed over her and then walked down the hall where there were 4 women in a kitchen watching TV. After talking briefly, Sela had us pray over them for healing. So I bent down and touched their knees and prayed as well. I want to see God’s miracles in body and soul. That he would heal their body and that they would thank him and it would lead them to Jesus who is the ultimate healer. Several of the women eyes were full of tears and we told them all God bless you and left.

While walking downstairs, it was obvious Sela knew many of the people. She would say ‘hi’ and the women would wave at us. We passed at least 4 men on our way down the stairs. It was hard to comprehend the realities they live under, that they can serve anywhere from 20-40 men a day.

The brothel children

One of my most poignant memories was the day we visited the brothel children daycare. Sela told us that when she first tried to connect with this Hindu-led daycare center, she was roughly pushed away. They hated her and the religion she represented.

But then, after months and years of persistence, she slowly gained their respect. They came to trust and love her. And invited her into the daycare to minister to the children. Soon, they started sending children to Sela’s salon in the brothel district to provide the children with clothing, toys, and prayer. It was an unlikely relationship, but a real one at that.

We walked up a staircase inside of what seemed a large empty building. At the top we were ushered into an area that had several rooms. We could hear children singing around the corner.

Sela brought us into an office where we met with one of the women in leadership. She brought in another women, a powerful Hindu lawyer, who apparently used to hate Sela, but eventually grew to respect her and now supports her work. She gave us a few guidelines and then brought us into the lesson room.

We sat down on benches in front of what had to be 30 children — all were less than 5 years old, some as young as even 1. They were so beautiful. This one girl in front of me to the right drew me in. Big brown eyes, the cutest dress, and full of baby-girl sweetness. She was probably 3 years old.

The teachers gave them some instructions, and then they started to sing with much gusto. Some of the songs we recognized the tunes — like Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star — and others Indian children songs. It was a private performance for us!

Then we had a chance to sing for them. We stuck with a song we had sang several times before, a classic, Jesus Loves Me.

This I know. For the Bible tells me so.

Little ones to him belong. 

They are weak,

But he is strong.

My voice cut off at “Little ones” because of the weight of those words.

Of the most vulnerable little ones in the world, these are the ones.

And God sees them. They belong to him. They are loved.

But I can’t make it work in my mind. They live in brothels, often hiding under their mother’s bed during service to a customer. This life they are growing up in will probably be what they are enslaved in as well?

God, where is the Jesus Loves Them at this point? Do you? Where are you? Can you?

So many emotions. Proud of their performance. Inspired by their resilience. Gripped by their vulnerability. Grieved by the abuses they may suffer outside of this safe place.

Wanting to look away, but not able to.

This is why it’s hard to write about these stories. There’s not a happy ending. There’s not an easy solution. There’s no conclusion besides this:

“And then we left.”


Modern Day Hero

I met a modern day hero and champion while in India. Sela, an incredible woman of pure gold.

I wanted to sit and listen for hours on end about her perspectives and stories and rescues and struggle and battle. Stories of daring rescues and police hunts on their home door step; girls being locked in rooms for years on end, even up to 10 years in a case she knew about; a women being healed of her illness due to Sela’s prayer; a brothel madame violently resisting Sela, and then after 5 years of prayer she amazingly opened up to a relationship and let Sela in to meet the other women; a young joyful 12 year old girl who was one day sold by her mother to a foreigner for sex one night; the young girl who pleaded to Sela that she was ready to try to escape the brothel, but since the board at that time was dysfunctional, they wouldn’t release funds for aid and Sela found out the next week the girl had hung herself; when one women was pregnant and tried to abort her baby, and the only way should wouldn’t do it is if Sela would adopt the baby. Sela ended up adopted what ended up being twin baby boys.

The more I got to know Sela, the more I realized that as we walked through the red light district, we were literally walking in the shadow of her miracle, the fruit of her harvest. It was one of my greatest honors so far in my life.

Where is the hope?

I’ve been processing for a long time. Or perhaps avoiding the process.

It’s hard to not have answers. It’s hard to deal with your own humanity. It’s hard to take a good, long look at darkness.

Because sometimes you’re afraid that what you find is that things are a lot more complex, a lot more worse, and a lot more hopeless that you thought.

I’ve been thinking…

I think that’s about where we need to arrive. To let ourselves be overcome because it’s that point where we find the limits of our own selves.

The natural runs out.

The supernatural can rush in.

I think that’s why it’s good for me to be in this space. The “impossible” space. Where I can’t be the savior or the hope of the world. Because if it were possible, I’m pretty sure I’d believe that I could solve all the world’s problems in a day. Really, I’m that self-sustainable.

But that’s not life. And it’s not reality.

Reality is there’s so much space of uncertainty, of questions that have no answers, of searching for what you may never really find.

And that’s ok.

Being fully aware of my limited scope reminds of the unlimited power of the One who can save the world, who has saved the world, and who is on the move to make all things new.

It’s hard to be the one that steps into darkness and then leaves, “getting” to be the person who talks about it and not stick around to create the frontline solution.

It’s hard to be the reader, to only hear and listen to devastation of lives that are so far removed from our own reality, being a “sharer” instead of practical hand.

But, we really do need all of us. All the gifts. All the perspectives.

Being present with uncomfortable problems is a mature thing to do. It says, “I’m sticking with this until we find breakthrough. I’m not going to quit. I’m not going anywhere.”

So you and I don’t have to be in India to be present. That’s the beauty of prayer. That’s the beauty of the Church. We’re in it together. We can talk, and share, and present, and think, and pray. And it really is all valuable.

Especially that prayer piece.

Prayer means we get to be present in sorrow — we can lament and hurt with those who labor under the grief of injustice as if we were right next to them in person.

Prayer means we get to be present in solutions — we can create and hope in prayer for something or someone to be that answer, even if we never get to do it ourselves.

Social justice need never be selfish. Just because we can’t travel or live in front of issues doesn’t mean we don’t get to be involved. Because since when was it all about us?

It’s hard to post an Instagram photo about the years of prayer for the brothel children to be set on a path of freedom and hope. But those 350 followers will sure see that white face with the brown ones in a visible sign of “good-doing.”

Yeah, on a scale of 1-to-who-cares, it’s off the charts.

So my takeaway from the India trip?

Let’s love from afar, and pray like someone’s life depends on it.

Because it really does.

Is it possible to be both single and happy? From yours truly, this Valentine’s Day.

Is it possible to be both single and happy?

It’s an intriguing question, really.

This is not ever really a direct question anyone says towards me, but sometimes it’s implied: how can you be single and happy at the same time? Not only do I feel that implication from the world around me at literally every corner, but I also at times come face to face with the question myself.

Is singleness and happiness mutually exclusive?

And just to heighten the intensity, let’s ask that on Valentine’s Day. On the cultural celebratory day of love, when you don’t have a lover, is it possible to be happy?

Let’s explore this.

This has been a top-of-mind topic since it’s come up in three separate conversations in the last 2 weeks. And those conversations have been specifically with women who feel that desire to be with someone, to be married, but also feel like, “Am I just waiting around to start living my life?”

It comes from a tension, an insecurity about committing to a specific path or personal values when knowing that means possibly saying no to a relationship, to marriage.

For females, this is an especially difficult conundrum. In our world, especially the Christian culture, there’s always an expectation, whether quietly implied or explicitly exhorted, to find our purpose and mission through a man and through marriage. Here’s the implication:

If you’re going to mean something to this world, it’s going to come through another human being.

Though that’s a duo-gender message, for females this is often paired with the concept of submission. To submit.

And it is until we do this flawlessly, submit our will and purpose through another human being, then we will find true happiness and meaning.

Say that out loud. Sometimes logically and verbally expressing that belief brings us to a stark realization:

That conclusion is not reflective of who God is and how God made us.

First of all, in the Garden of Eden, before the Fall and any sin, God gave a job before he gave marriage. God gave purpose in an intimately personal way before giving a path to do that alongside another person.

This means that each of us is made individually unique before God — which means we each are special, set apart, called, and meaningful. Though we need community and relationships to thrive, we only need God individually to have meaning. To tie a human being to our core purpose means to resign ourselves to co-dependency, that in order to have meaning, I must be attached to you.

So, from the beginning, we are missioned and meaning-full. When God looks at you, He sees a full person that has a unique name.

when-god-looks-at-you

Second, let’s look at the word that trips us all up: submission. If one day I’m supposed to release my will and life to another person, then why would I start my own knowing I’d have to give that up? Would my primary value as a wife be my ability to serve men? And if I’m supposed to only find it through a husband, then why would I think I’d ever have something special to offer the world? And if submission only applied to marriage, then are singles not supposed to submit to anything?

I love what Lisa Bevere* said about this topic: “I heard a definition of submission that framed and aligned it with God’s plan for all Christians, not just couples. Consider this: the prefix sub means “under,” and mission is an assignment. Put them together, and we can draw a conclusion that submission means “under the same assignment or mission.”

This gives so much more intentionality and thought behind not just personal mission, but also marriage. Instead of fearfully thinking, “In order to be married, I have to loss my mission,” instead we can think, “When I choose a marriage partner, it’s because we are under the same mission together.”

Why would God ask you to submit to God ultimately, to be sent on His mission in the world, and then nullify that unique mission because you are now married?

God’s mission and call is always greater than man’s, no matter who that person is.

Which is why I think, as single women, we can freely and fearlessly move into outrageous acts of mission because that doesn’t deter God’s path or purpose for us. It will actually move us closer to the best outpouring of it.

What does this have to do with happiness?

Actually, I don’t think this has anything to do with happiness. Which is the point of this article.

I’ll use my own story as an example because I’ve always wrestled with that question: Am I happy?

Though I love being happy and can easily pinpoint those moments of extreme highs in my life (picture me prancing carelessly through a wheat field throwing flowers into the wind), I realized pretty early on that that picture of “happiness” never really motivated me. For such a long time I was always obsessed with one thing: purpose.

I mean, check out this blog title. And no, Vita By Design is not some sort of customized vitamin supplement. Vita means “life.” And By Design means, “on purpose.”

One life, on purpose.

I have a bit of an odd history, per se, with all the moves and experiences in my life. There were many crisis moments of change and I wasn’t satisfied with trite answers about silver linings. I wanted to know “why?” What was the purpose?

It began as a practice in youth and has continued through today. And I can’t say it’s been easy. Actually, a better word would be messy.

And throughout the time of trying so hard to find purpose in my life, I had to live with the question of singleness in the back of my mind. Am I resigning to singleness in order to find purpose?

From my perspective, it’s most likely only been down the road of singleness that I have found personal meaning in this world through God. I’ve had to let go of figuring out who I am in light of another person or of the expectations others perceive of me. I’ve sat down over long spaces of time and let God really show me who I am. Honestly, I was always terrified of that person because it’s much too abnormal. It took being threatened, mocked, and on the verge of losing everything before I was willing to stand up for myself and say, “No, I’m a person with worth who has a gifting in a specific way.”

You remembering that part about messy? You don’t even know the half. It’s been in this dirt of bitterness, shame and oppression (both outwardly and inwardly) that all seeds of goodness have been planted. And the harvest is the obvious things. That’s what you get to see — accomplishment, mercy, kind actions, goodness, justice for humanity. But you weren’t there when it was planted, all the bitterness, pain, self-shaming, hate for my life and my heart, loss of belief in any of the goodness or reality of God. No one else was there to save me from that.

Besides God.

Sometimes I wonder if we, as single women (or men I suppose), never get to taste the true God because we’re always looking for someone else to be our Savior. To tell us what to do when confused, to save us from despair when all is lost, to provide for us when we’re flat broke, to comfort us when we’re lost and afraid.

I remember at one specific epic low point in my life, after I had lost all the work I had and a job offer, I thought for the first time in my life, “Maybe this is why girls get married? So that when these things happen she can rely on someone else to provide for her?” It was a bitter moment, because I knew I could no longer provide for myself, financially or emotionally.

But that’s exactly when I found God as my true Husband. He showed up and he saved the day. I mean, there was a journey involved that was extremely hard. I remember not having money to buy food that day and realizing, “Well, looks like I’m fasting and praying this week!” And judging by where my life is today 2 1/2 years later, I would say it work 😉

Now here’s the hardest part of all of us, and I know that because I’ve fought it continually: if I step out and into a defined mission that I believe is tailored for me, then that means I won’t ever get married, because guys are only looking for girls that fit into their own life trajectory.

Now, once we say it out loud, it sounds a bit silly. But it’s TOTALLY real when dwelling on it, right?? And it does actually makes sense to a degree. When I train businesses on marketing, we intentionally lead them to define a target market, and that makes them really uncomfortable, because then that might be saying no to some people. But that’s what we want. We want some people to see their business and think, “Yes that’s for me!” and others to think, “Nope, that’s not for me at all.”

Choosing to live and stand for your beliefs and personal passions is going to immediately polarize some crowds. And I hate that feeling. But it’s true. And it’s actually a good thing that certain people will be attracted to you more than others due to your life choices.

And if anyone gets this, believe me, it’s me. I have been so torn and uncomfortable with my calling. Words like, “Inadequate, unprepared, naive, un-understanding, and pointless” are my constant companion when standing in the gap for those who have been sexually exploited and trafficked. I’ve come so close to giving up on this in the past because I’ve felt so incapable and unworthy.

On top of that, leaning into this mission means I’m committed to certain counter-culture things: doing outreach at strip clubs and other places of adult entertainment, believing in abstinence and then a monogamous life through marriage, exposing the harms of pornography, advocating for healing in our communities due to the brokenness through the sexualization of women. I really did believe and fear that moving into this calling would render me single forever because I couldn’t imagine men being vulnerable enough to partner with my mission from God. I just never saw too many examples of that.

This is also why I died a thousand times in my heart and soul when the mic taps were released of Trump’s verbal description of how he thinks about and uses women. It wasn’t simply that he did that (I see that everyday in the fight against sexual exploitation). It was the visceral defense of that action from not just the general community, but from Christians — men and women.

“That’s just how men are,” and “It’s standard locker room talk,” and “Boys will be boys,” and “Why should we have standards when that’s the way the culture is anyway?”

Watching this play out choked me with alone-ness and fear of the future of all women. That if we don’t submit to this belief that we are naive and unbelievable.

But in short answer to that fear, it’s not true. Men are not supposed to talk like that. Humans are not supposed to use each other. We should have standards for how we think about, treat, and talk to women and men. Period.

Which one will you choose?

As you can imagine, it can be an internal storm, and I don’t think I’m exempt or unusual. We live this — a fear that we’ll have to choose, man or mission.

At the end of the day, I believe each of us, married or single, have to look back and assess, “Did I live up to my God-given gifts today?”

Does it mean it’s a paid position, or a social cause, or a title? I don’t think so. At my core, I believe my life calling is Mercy. Which isn’t super popular because it doesn’t jive well with common sense. But despite what others may think or interpret it as, that is what gives me meaning each day and I have only God to answer for how well I lived that out.

Am I happy?

Finally we get here. Am I a happy and single girl on Valentine’s Day?

Honestly, I can’t say I am. Once I start asking myself “Am I happy?” I start remembering all the pain that has stolen good, happy moments in my life that isn’t necessarily even related to relationships. The wounds start throbbing again and I easily make a case for all the reasons I’m not fulfilled.

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But here’s the thing: I don’t think we were made to be happy. Happy implies a lack of strains and cares. It’s a false reality we think we can obtain by building walls around ourselves and staying as safe as we possibly can, the thought that only hurt-less people are truly happy people.

I look back at my life and some of my “highest” moments were moments when I was living purely who I am and who I was made to be. It was those Mercy-filled moments when God’s purpose and my gifts collided. It hasn’t always been a happy life, per se. But it sure has been meaningful.

So, is this single girl happy on Valentine’s Day? I guess not. But I sure do have meaning.

And, you know what?

I guess that’s what makes me so happy.


I’ll end with a selection from Ron Rolheiser which has additionally inspired me recently in light of conversations with friends about singleness. I hope you lean into desiring a meaningful life today, not necessarily a happy one. I think that comes after the meaningful part.

Am I happy? Is my life a happy one? Am I happy inside my marriage? Am I happy with my family? Am I happy in my job? Am I happy with my church? Am I happy inside my own skin?

Are these good questions to ask ourselves? No. They’re questions with which to torture ourselves. When we face our lives honestly this kind of question about happiness is more likely to bring tears to our eyes than solace to our souls because, no matter how well our lives are going, none of us live perfectly fulfilled lives. Always there are unfulfilled dreams. Always there are areas of frustration. Always there are tensions. Always there are deeper hungers that are being stifled

The question should not be: Am I happy? Rather the questions should be: Is there meaning in my life? Is there meaning in my marriage? Is there meaning in my family? Is there meaning in my job? Is there meaning inside my church?

We need to ask the deep questions about our lives in terms of meaning rather than in terms of happiness because, for the most part, we have a false, over-idealized, and unrealistic concept of happiness.

We tend to equate happiness with two things, pleasure and lack of tension. Hence we fantasize that for us to be happy we would need to be in a situation within which we would be free of all the tensions that normally flood into our lives.

But that isn’t what constitutes happiness. Meaning is what constitutes happiness and meaning isn’t contingent upon pain and tension being absent from our lives:  Imagine if someone had come up to Jesus as he was dying on the cross and asked him the question: Are you happy up there? His answer, I am sure, would have been unequivocal: “No!” However, the perspective is quite different if, while on the cross, Jesus would have been asked this question: “Is there meaning in what you are doing up there?”

There can be deep meaning in something even if there isn’t happiness in the way we superficially conceive of it.

*quote from Lisa Bevere’s book, Lioness Arising.

Let’s talk about Refugees

Friends.

My dear friends.

How can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?

My brothers, my sisters.

Don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith.

How does this plays out in our lives?

For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you say to the rich person, “Sit here, sir, this is the best seat in the house!” and either ignore the street person or say, “Better sit here in the back row,” haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted? Doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?

Listen to me, my dear friends.

Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him?

But you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it clear by now that God operates quite differently? He chose the world’s down-and-out as the kingdom’s first citizens, with full rights and privileges. This kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God. And here you are abusing these same citizens!

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Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and who use the courts to rob you blind? Isn’t it the high and mighty who exploit you? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ?   Aren’t they the ones who scorn your name,—“Christian”?

What if you twist the Golden Rule?

You do well when you complete the Royal Rule of the Scriptures: “Love others as you love yourself.” But if you play up to these so-called important people, you go against the Rule and stand convicted by it.

If you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You can’t pick and choose in these things, specializing in keeping one or two things in God’s law and ignoring others.

Talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free. There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.

Kind mercy wins over harsh judgment every time.

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We can’t claim the Faith without exhibiting generosity.

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it?

For instance, you come upon a person dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit! I’ll pray for you!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you?

Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.” Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful?

Yeah, that’s just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands? Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?

Wasn’t our ancestor Abraham “made right with God by works” when he placed his son Isaac on the sacrificial altar? Isn’t it obvious that faith and works are yoked partners, that faith expresses itself in works? That the works are “works of faith”? You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete.

It’s that mesh of believing and acting that got Abraham named “God’s friend.”

Rahab the prostitute is another example. Wasn’t her action in hiding God’s spies and helping them escape—that seamless unity of believing and doing—what counted with God?

See, the very moment you separate body and spirit, you end up with a corpse.

Separate faith and works and you get the same thing: a dead corpse.


~Excerpt from chapter 2 of the Book of James, the Apostle of Jesus Christ. Translations NLT and MSG

Casting our votes: what we’re willing to fight over

Donald Trump is an incompetent liar.

Hillary is a shady crook.

Human trafficking is the greatest evil of our time. 

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I’ve been analyzing a data set. Granted, it’s my own and from the results of my own posts and writings, so not a wide array of information. Nevertheless, I am aware of when I write a blog or post articles on my social media which ones get the most traffic and interest.

It’s become clear to me that comments, likes, and clicks are like votes. Each time we comment, like, or click, it’s a vote showing where our heart cares most. When we are elated and celebratory, we cast a vote. When we are offended and threatened, we cast a vote. That’s what comments and likes do. They show everyone where you spend your votes, what rules your heart.

Now I struggle with this, because as a writer it’s become increasingly clear what topics stir the pot — which opinions brings out the masses. Having access to that data, I have to consciously decide to not pursue numbers and to stick to topics that have lasting impact, the ones that are near to my heart. Every time I post something to my blog, I pray it influences just one person for good, and that’s enough, because otherwise the numbers become addicting.

But I can’t help but notice the overwhelming amounts of feedback and comments I get when I post something related to politics. Or something that may be interpreted as “political.” It’s crazy — people start doing odd things, like writing me emails, sending messages, or even calling me. If I were in business, I would be like, “I definitely found the market!”

But I have a problem with this.

Let’s go back to those introductory phrases above. One is negative towards Trump, the other towards Hillary. The thing is, my social network is pretty much split over these 2 people. Some hate one, some hate the other.

Posting something related to either of these two individuals evoke an visceral emotional reaction from, it seems, everybody. And I hear “You’re right on!” or “You’re a stupid head!

Yet for each one political post I throw on social media, I have probably shared at least 10 articles and posts talking about the realities of sex trafficking. The plight of the poor. The exploitation of the vulnerable. The lost without a home.

Specifically?

How children in our neighborhoods are secretly being sex trafficked.

How pornography is the fuel for the massive sex trafficking economy.

How men, women, and children are literally sold as slaves in “slave-free” countries.

How sexual assault, abuse and discrimination are rampant towards all women, including myself.

And there is nary a word in response.

Slim votes. Minor care.

After seeing all the quick and lively comments and conversation about politics, I’m sitting here thinking, “Where did all you guys go??”

Why is it we are so passionate about defending (and defeating) political positions, and yet can not have that same passion towards fellow human beings? To my own network I say, why so enthralled by majoring on the minors? You show up to “Amen” a post that affirms your political stance, or, to the other, show up to discredit the incompetence of the same post, but when it comes to things that really matter, it’s all silent on the home-front?

You’re casting your votes, showing your colors.

And I really don’t know why. I want to assume it’s because we feel too vulnerable to actually show care for sensitive topics like trafficking on open social media platforms. Or perhaps we’re just vastly unaware. I don’t know why — I just see the votes.

And I’ve been there, and still feel the pull. The gut-reaction to make sure someone is set right and knows the real truth of the matter. But I normally end up walking away feeling . . . like I wasted a lot of time and effort for something that had no tangible results (besides pitting someone against me, of course).

I’m reminded of Isaiah 58, one of the chapters in the Bible that has literally been the most transformative ones in my life. The first half is a rebuke to the religious performance of “good” people, who I’m sure had really solid, air-tight opinions:

“On your day of fasting you do as you please and exploit your workers, and it ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do and expect your voice to be heard on high.”

God then transitions to talk about the fast, the life of faith, that he directly calls us to:

“This is the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice, to see the oppressed free and break every chain. Is it not to share your food with the hungry and the provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked to clothe them? If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness.”

That’s the life I want, the life I’ve been pursing, one that is more action and less talk. But I’ve had to question things recently: do my friends, do the people in my life, seek this out as well? Who is in my circle? Those who will stand in the gap for the oppressed, or those who will point fingers and quarrel?

What are my friends voting for, and is that what I choose to surround myself with?

I think that’s why more and more I like spending time with the poor. They seem to see things a bit more clearly and aren’t concerned with winning arguments because they are just trying to live. Also, many are some of the most giving, generous people I’ve ever met. They inspire me.

Because if all we can do is defend a position, we have missed everything in life. We become troll junkies, looking for the next comment thread fix to satisfy our insatiable need of being right.

If I can suggest something, try love and ridiculous generosity. It is much harder to do. And more rewarding.

I dare you.

Give as you have been given

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.”

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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.

Upon gifts.

Upon gifts.

Upon 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.

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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.

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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.