The Fat Lady

Dear Internet,

We’re baaaaaaack!  Having been stuck in a rut of non-communication since January due to limited internet access in Cuba, and, consequently, paralyzed by how much there is to share about the last six weeks, we’re working hard on Candy Crush to process and sort through everything. So much to tell. So little blog space. So much magazine to write.  Continue reading The Fat Lady

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Creating Kinship With Gangbangers and Sex Workers

*This post was written while on assignment with World Next Door: a free digital social justice travel magazine. Check out our website (www.worldnextdoor.org) for more information and download our current issue! This blog became an excerpt of this feature story our Las Vegas magazine issue about The Cupcake Girls, published in February 2014.

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So. I wrote a blog last week about those Christians and these strip clubs. I wrote it to my normal tens of readers and to those 62 people who are funding our year with World Next Door, but it sparked a lot of discussion and sharing.

In the meantime, I watched a documentary on Father Greg Boyle and Homeboy Industries and their work with felons and ex-gang members. It talked not just about the work we do in the margins, but about actually creating a kinship with those we are seeking to serve. So I offer this part of our process, because Father Greg nails it in the end:

We’ve met  women in all stages here in Las Vegas— young and old, pockets-lined and dirt poor, proud and satisfied, discouraged and discontented and fearful. We’ve met mothers living double lives, and runaway teenagers posing as adults, and women living the exact life they want, and women who are on, like, plan E.

As Jeff and I process each story and share our experience with others, we keep running into to the same questions:

Was she trafficked?
Is she allowed to leave?
Was she abused?
Is she on drugs?
Wait. Was she forced to be on drugs? Did they addict her?
Could she leave if she wanted to?
Does she make a lot of money?
Does she have kids?
Is she in school?
Is she bringing home money?

We provide each answer, and then we mull it around a little trying to understand. Trying to understand her choices against our own, maybe? Trying to figure out our level of empathy? Determining whether or not we can see any part of ourselves in her?

And then I had an awful thought: What if we ask the questions because our compassion is qualified by the answers. What if we are measuring the lifestyle against the injustice to determine what type of love this person gets from us?

Does she get arms-length love?  Praying-from-afar love? Is she eligible for the minimal qualifying Jesus loves you because Jesus loves everybody love? Or does she get full-on, big, wet, sloppy kiss love? Does she get a one-armed hug or both arms with an extra squeeze?

It’s much easier, I think, to feel compassion toward an abused 14 y/o who ran away and got locked in a hotel room for 2 years; on a coke-addicted prostitute feeding an addiction that was forced onto her; on a young woman intercepted at a Nepali border station who thought she was on her way to a better life in India. I’d love those women with both arms, probably, drowning in compassion.

If she was vulnerable and exploited, I’m all in. That’s not fair, I think. It wasn’t her fault.

But what if the woman goes into the sex industry with both eyes open? What if she falls in love with a pimp and runs off with him to Texas? What if she can make more money at the strip clubs than she can selling her art projects or her chocolates and she just really likes bringing home $600- $4k per night. What if it’s totally her fault?

What then? What type of love, empathy or compassion does she get from me?

Here’s a good example. After support group last week, a friend described how she had  voluntarily entered in the sex industry but was locked in a hotel room six days a week for 20 hours a day— willingly, she thought, because of what the business had promised her: dental caps, breast implants, her own house, and a car. She didn’t realize until she came across an article on human trafficking that she was a sex slave. That her life looked exactly the same. She had been working for the promise of money, not actual money.

It turns out attention and cash are as strong and confining as any physical chain or deadbolt—only they’re more deceptive. A chain and deadbolt look like a chain and deadbolt, but attention and cash look a lot like success.

When my friend realized what was happening, she walked away. It wasn’t easy for her to do, but she found a way. Now, even as she works hard and earns success at a career she’s proud of, she fights the voice in her head that calls her back when her car payment is due and her account balance is low.

What if that was the voice I was fighting every day?  I fight voices of insignificance and insecurity and ingratitude, and the ones calling me toward the pastry counter, and the ones burrowing holes of bitterness in my heart.

But because her voices are different than mine, I would have easily sized her up on my vulnerability/exploitation scale and offered her a love, of like, 3 up front.

Now? After spending time with her and getting to know who she is? I would climb across the table and give her a real, true, both arms, wet and sloppy with a big kiss and hug love. I would give her a love of 10. Because she deserves that from me. She is worthy of that from me.

(I can’t wait to share more about my friend and her incredible journey in World Next Door’s February issue, by the way. If you’re into inspiring stories from unlikely people, download it.)

Here’s where it really hits home for me, though. It’s not just the sex industry we qualify our love for.

A person I love very much is lost in heroin.

Do you know how I would have described a heroin addict before someone I loved became one? Before someone to whom I have already attached value became one?

Irresponsible. Selfish. Dangerous. Cold-hearted. Scrawny. Malnourished. Criminal. Reckless. Negligent. Thoughtless. Scary.

Do you know how I would describe a heroin addict right this heartbreaking second?

Lonely. Sad. Scared. Lost. Ashamed. Kind.  Insecure. A pleaser. A follower. In desperate need of affirmation. Lovable.

Before a person I loved became a heroin addict, I’d have offered arms-length love with a whole lot of qualifiers and very little compassion. But when a person to whom I have already attached value is addicted to heroin, I only have more love. I feel desperate compassion.

Our measure of love toward sex workers (or any population in the margins) can’t be the circumstance they find themselves in, but in how much we value each person to begin with.

So. Back to Father Boyle and Homeboy Industries. I was watching a documentary and started reading his book called Tattoos on the Heart, and I came across this:

“The measure of your compassion lies not in your service of those in the margin, but in your willingness to see yourself in kinship with them.”

Yes, that.

Kinship is a blood relationship, you know.  So here’s the question: How are we related by blood to sex workers? Gang bangers? Heroin addicts?

How are we the same?

Here’s a start. We are all made in the image of Christ. We have innate value no matter what.  And it’s only through the blood of Christ any of us have sanctification.

Even you.
Even me.

So it can no longer be us and them. It’s only us.

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For more about our time in Las Vegas: click here
To download the most recent issue of World Next Door: click here

Those Christians. And These Strip Clubs.

*This post was written while on assignment with World Next Door: a digital social justice travel magazine. Check out our website (www.worldnextdoor.org) for more information and download our most recent issue! This blog became an excerpt of this feature story our Las Vegas magazine issue about The Cupcake Girls, published in February 2014.

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Well. We’re going on a cupcake-delivering-strip-club-run tomorrow. Jeff and I will stay in the car, of course. The point of all of this cupcaking is to build relationships, and bringing a couple of eager new photojournalists into the clubs just to see what happens, outside the context of relationship, sort of turns it into a side-show.  Plus, you have to serve on another Cupcake Girls committee for 90 days first, which we haven’t done. I guess “Eating Cupcakes” is not one of their other service areas, anyway. Blast!

That said, our second week has been filled with interviews and tag-alongs with various volunteers and staff within the Cupcake Girls, and each interaction has stretched us into new areas of growth and perspective.

Here’s the way it all works, we’ve discovered:

The Cupcake Girls knock on the door to a strip club or brothel with a box of cupcakes. Sometimes they’re invited inside—not to the club part, but to the behind-the-scenes part where the women hang out to get ready.  Along the way, they cupcake (see? I verbed it) bouncers and doormen and valet guys and bartenders and DJs until, as you might imagine, they become widely welcomed, and almost everyone looks forward to their visits. Because, really. Who doesn’t love a good cupcake?

Once inside, they talk about kids and pets and vacations; they talk about how hard it was to get to the club that night from all the flooding or traffic; they compare the best ways to apply perfume and lashes. They offer help with hair and makeup while the women get ready. And sometimes, they just sit and eat cupcakes together.

The Cupcake Girls, in turn, field a million questions with a smile and a laugh:

Are you guys lesbians?
Are you cosmetology students?
Do you take tips?

Funny, but a steely reflection of the assumption in this business—in this whole town, really—that nothing is free. You can’t even get a picture with Hello Kitty or Darth Vader on the corner without the expectation of a tip, the founder explained to us during orientation. There is always an agenda. Everything is a trick. Freedom is an illusion.

So, in walks a group of trendy-looking women with cupcakes and a bag full of products, and of course suspicion abounds.

We’re not lesbians.
We’re not cosmetology students.
We don’t take tips.
We’re just here to love on ya, they say. We offer support to women in the industry.

Awesome.
But it’s the last question that really breaks my heart:
Are you those Christians?

Which Christians could they be talking about? The ones who picketed clubs last week, or the ones who threw tracts inside? The ones who dropped off beanie babies and bibles with a church invite inside? The ones who condemned the city with giant billboards explaining how their lust is dragging them down to hell?

Are they talking about those Christians who want to save them, but don’t know their names or how many kids they have or what options they had to choose from? Or maybe the ones who stay on the other side of the giant invisible wall that separates them from this area of town, except for when they pour in to feed the homeless or something at Christmas. Those Christians?

Maybe they’re talking about those Christians who don’t know what to do with sex workers.  The ones who easily say, “Jesus loves you” from a distance, but never consider saying, “I love you” right up close.

I might be one of those Christians, I thought, who doesn’t know what to do with the sex workers. Honestly, I had never even considered the sex workers before. I had only recently considered the hungry and the homeless and the poor, the vulnerable kids and women in far away places, the oppressed and disabled.  The marginalized.

The marginalized.

Do you know what marginalized means? It means the powerless or unimportant people within a society or group. Confined to the outer limits of social standing. Pushing people to the edge of society by not allowing them a place within it.

Could it be that those Christians are the ones accidentally marginalizing sex workers?

It’s easier to say, “Jesus loves you” instead of “I love you,” Joy C, the Director of Cupcake Care, explained. “To separate ourselves in that way—offering third party love instead first person love. But when we say I love you, we glorify God, Christian or not.” Joy C (not to be confused with Joy H, the founder) arranges for the care of both industry women and volunteers through counseling, trainings and support groups.

So, No, the Cupcake Girls say. We are not those Christians. We’re a non-religious organization— and they are.

Because here’s the thing. If you are a Christ-follower, you don’t have to go into full-time ministry or label your work Christian. You don’t have to be a Christian something-or-other. If you are a Christian, no matter what your job is, YOU ARE ALREADY IN FULL-TIME MINISTRY. So no, I agree, they’re not those Christians. They’re these Christians. They’re the ones who love you right here in this club. They’re the ones who know your names and how many kids you have. They’re the ones making deposits of love without anyone even knowing. And they’re the ones walking out into the margins to do it.

So. Back to how it all works.

After they drop the cupcakes off and visit for a while—or in some cases, drop the cupcakes off for weeks and months until they’re finally invited in—they leave the girls with this: If you need anything, call me! And then they hand over their phone numbers.

Their actual phone numbers.

Each Cupcake Girls volunteer that visits a club (these volunteers are usually referred to as meet-up girls) can build an intentional relationship with up to five industry women. This means they’ll continue to go to that specific club and maintain ongoing relationship with those specific women each visit.  And each week they’ll reach out to the women individually outside the club, offering a kind thought like: Hey, just thinking about you—hope you’re having a good week, usually following up with: Let me know if you need anything!

Eventually, someone does need something. Moving assistance. A bed. Tutoring. A dental crown.  And the meet-up girl does everything in her power to provide those tangible needs through the Cupcake Girls resource network. This network is made up of doctors, dentists, lawyers, financial counselors, educational tutors, moving trucks, federal aid assistance, counselors, etc. The moment of follow-through is the moment the rubber meets the road, the moment when the industry woman realizes the meet-up girl is for real. They actually do care. The providing of the physical need widens the relational door a little bit and deepens the trust.  We watched this happen this week as Jeff was able to help one of the meet-up girls put together a bed for a single-mom’s 12 y/o.  And yeah, the Christian meet-up girl from the non-Christian organization said, “I love you,” as they hugged before we left.

Eventually the need-filling sometimes turns into coffee dates outside the club, and then sometimes even weekly support group attendance and more—but even if it doesn’t, the authentic love and support are still there, week after week, right where the women are: in the club.

So, No, to those who are asking. The Cupcake Girls doesn’t set out to pull women out of the industry. They support each woman wherever she is— both in the industry, or walking next to her as she navigates her way out. They add value to each life knowing that the value will inform the woman’s choices. Because here’s the other thing: Jesus did not wait until we had everything together to love us unconditionally. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

And so right there in the club, the Cupcake Girls love the women, simply because they’re lovable.

Also, we love God because he first loved us, right?

Could we maybe love them first, too?

I’m almost done, I promise.

We believe in the palms-up approach at World Next Door. Palms-up meaning that instead of arriving with all the answers, we learn from the people we are there to serve. We believe in saying to the outcast, the oppressed and the marginalized: You are better than me, let me serve you. Let me learn from you.

I know what you’re thinking: What could we (the American church) possibly learn from strippers, right?
But the Cupcake Girls is showing us, I think.

 

IN CONCLUSION (yes, it’s ending) I woke up this morning with this song on my heart:

Take it away, N. Nordeman:

Oh the days when I drew lines around my faith to keep you out, to keep me in, to keep it safe.
Oh the sense of my own self-entitlement to say who’s wrong, who won’t belong, or cannot stay.
Cause somebody somewhere decided we’d be better off divided.
And somehow, despite the damage done…

He says Come

There is room enough for all of us
Please come, the arms are open wide enough
Please come, our parts are never greater than the sum
This is the heart of the one who stands before the open door and bids us come.

Oh the times when I have failed to recognize how many chairs are gathered there around the feast.
To break the bread and break these boundaries that have kept us from our only common ground:
The invitation to sit down if we will come

Come from the best of humanity
Come from the depths of depravity
Come.

For the follow-up to this post: click here
For more about our time in Las Vegas: click here
To download the most recent issue of World Next Door: click here

Welcome to Grace City

We’ve been here in Las Vegas on our current World Next Door assignment with Cupcake Girls for about a week. Having already been a not-so-secret fan of the Vegas for about a decade (what? there are other things to do here), and given that we’d have a car and familiar food, I did not imagine a cultural adjustment period.

But several things have left Jeff and I looking at each other at various times like: what world are we in?!

For example, our host family gets cheap tickets to several shows almost any night of the week, so they took us to a jaw-dropping a cappela group last night, where 5 humans created a jazz band with their mouths: a trombone, a bass, an entire drum set and an electric guitar, among other things.

On our way home, we listened as our host mom encouraged her 15 y/o son to share his garage band recordings of his own rap songs—which were actually pretty good! He likened himself to a mix Macklemore and Drake, and his mom was obviously proud of his ingenuity—lyrics and recordings all his own—though most parents I know would be laying this child at the alter in fear of what it all means. I appreciated her opposition to fear and her encouragement of his creative expression.

This, as we drove the overpass above the strip and looked down over the seedy industrial area just two streets over, passing giant glowing billboards of almost naked women—which turn no heads but the Midwestern ones—through Chinatown with it’s stacks-on-stacks-on-stacks of massage parlors, past Naked Pizza—which does not mean vegan pizza, by the way. We’d just eaten it the other night at the orientation. It’s the supposed best pizza around, has nothing to do with naked people, just a symbol of the city. When you want to order pizza in Las Vegas, these are the names of the pizza places. #nobigdeal #totallynormal

And this entire night after spending 12 hours driving to 4 different brothels delivering cupcakes to women the day before. I don’t know how you imagine the brothels in Las Vegas—actually, there are none in Las Vegas, because prostitution is only legal in certain counties—but I was not ready to see a tiny purple trailer in the middle of Death Valley, staffed by 50 y/o end-of-the-road women and owned by an elderly couple in their 80s. Sadness does not even begin to describe it. This particular brothel was no one’s plan A. This was where they ended up.

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Not all brothels were like that, though, and next week will be the strip clubs—a whole different game. For some, it’s a snowball effect of cash and attention. For others, the result of exploitation. Voluntary or not, pockets lined or dirt-poor, Las Vegas Boulevard headliner or the little purple trailer, many stand by the work as legitimate with a display of pained dignity. Pained because it’s a hard sell to most, and it’s their value on the line.

People ask all the time—to the Cupcake Girls staff transplants and their families from Michigan and Connecticut and Massachusetts, to us as we prepared to leave for this assignment, even we asked the Christ-following volunteers with teen kids who live in Vegas—how can you live here? Wouldn’t it affect you? And your kids? Doesn’t it wear on you over time?

But then it dawned on me what I shouted from the rooftops only a month ago when Jeff was undercover with Tiny Hands at the brothels in Nepal:

“The group had prayed before beginning the operations. In doing so, they drew upon the resources of a God who was already present in that place. God was in the brothel or dance club before this group had ever arrived and He would remain there long after this group left. The people and places they’d encounter were as much a part of God’s creation as any others, and God had not surrendered them to anyone, not even to the traffickers Vegas.

I knew that He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). If our faith was worth anything at all, then it had to be stronger than whatever darkness it might encounter along the way. We couldn’t remain afraid, indifferent or inactive in the face of human slavery oppression of any kind.

I knew that if one girl was to be freed due to the investigative work of these men Cupcake sharing of these women, it was because the people with the power and influence she lacked would also be people of goodwill and courage.

God cares about the women, and He has equipped the human race with everything we need— time, education, resources, cash, skills, manpower and brain capacity—to end this injustice. It is we who have not responded.”

So I look at Vegas. At the glitzy strip and the seedy industrial area, at the famous TV brothels and the tiny purple trailers, at the disproportionately small amount of voluntary workers in the midst of so many enslaved—all doing the best they can to maintain their value despite their own choices and the choices of others forced upon them, and I wonder:

Is this the best the body of Christ has to offer Las Vegas?

Raised eyebrows and fear?

In response to question everyone asks about how can we be in Vegas, I offer this one: How can we not be in Vegas?!

What I’ve seen in a week is that Cupcake Girls is offering love with no strings attached. Not love with evangelism. Not love if you leave the industry. Not love from a distance. Love right there next to her just because she has value.

In less than a week, my perspective has shifted from “fun city” when I arrived, to “sin city” when we started poking around the less than glitzy areas, and then flipped to the digital negative when our host mom sat down with us on the first night and said: Welcome to Grace City.

Vegas and Jesus co-exist, you guys (as quoted by myself back in 2007 when I was Myspace blogging- both nailing it and discrediting myself in the same blog. Wink.)

Viva Las Vegas! (or something)

Morning friends!

We are just a few hours from taking off for our next assignment in…   Las Vegas!  (You should see the look we get when we tell people this. Wait. Maybe it’s the look you have right now?)

All year-long fellows are able to choose one Stateside assignment of the five, and we are partnering with an organization called The Cupcake Girls.

The Cupcake Girls is a group of volunteers who are committed to providing non-judgmental support, consistent caring, and messages of faith, hope and love to women working in the strip clubs. The volunteers do this without agenda and believe that sometimes it’s the smallest act of kindness that leads to the greatest change.  Many of the individuals working at Cupcake Girls are Christians, but after hearing heartbreaking stories of Christian groups coming into the clubs throwing tracts at the girls in the name of Christ without ever talking to them, they understood that the real way to show Christ’s love would be through relationships.

For that reason, they purposely formed The Cupcake Girls as a non-religious non-profit in the hopes of breaking through some of those thick barriers. This group is essentially living out Christianity without the Christian sign on their foreheads.

It was obvious when talking to key staff and volunteers that their faith is their motivating factor. They have the freedom within the organization to share their own faith if someone asks what motivates them to do the job they’re doing, and volunteers link women up with spiritual resources through the churches that support them, but they don’t “push” Christianity onto the women. They establish trusting relationships and walk with them in or out of the industry. As their trust grows, monthly cupcakes turn into coffee dates and the Cupcake Girls are invited into the women’s lives where they’re able to assist the women in whatever ways they can through their services at the Women’s Resource Center:

Medical Assistance, Dental Assistance, Federal/County Aid Application Assistance, Financial Advisor, Educational Tutors- for both entertainers and their children, Nutritionist, Law Consultation, Coffee and Cupcakes Groups, One on One Mentoring, Emergency Care Packages, Moving Assistance, Drug and, Alcohol Rehab Assistance, Domestic Violence Assistance, Safe House Assistance, Hosting Baby Showers and Birthday Parties.

Literally, everything anyone could possibly need, the Cupcake Girls tries to provide for.

So, here’s a little trivia question. What US city do you think has the highest rate of strip clubs per capita?

Hint: It’s not Vegas.

Would you believe our beloved Portland?! Yes, Portland has the highest rate of strip clubs per capita in the US, so the Cupcake Girls has opened a location in Portland, too, and we hope to get the chance to visit the programs there, because the ultimate goal of the Cupcake Girls is to open in every major US city.

Jeff is also hoping to hook up with an organization called MST Project, which focuses on the mens. MST believes that the men who patron the brothels and strip clubs are themselves made in the image of Christ and are deserving of love and healing. We don’t know a whole lot about this org, other than that we first found them in Phnom Penh, and their headquarters are in Portland with a branch in Las Vegas. They keep popping up in all our cities, though, so we’d kind of like to see what they’re all about.

So. We feel inspired by The Cupcake Girls, and while the time between Nepal and Vegas was (too) short, we are excited to get started in Las Vegas!

OTHER EXCITING NEWS:

Book Launch Group Pic Storytelling 2

Our book launched on Tuesday! We had a fantastic party filled with desserts and storytelling from Nepal and Bangladesh. This is a hard-copy book of all the adorable kids from the places and organizations World Next Door has partnered with all over the world. November’s (free) magazine is a special issue companion to the book with about half the photos but a ton of additional video clips of the kids. So cute.

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The book is available here for $17 along with calendars and postcards. These would be great Christmas gifts :)

NEPAL STUFF

Speaking of magazine issues… Our Nepal issue will be available on the World Next Door app in your newsstand in December, and you WILL NOT BELIEVE everything we experienced there. Undercover brothels, border station interceptions, modern day 101 y/o prophets, awe-inspiring parents of 14 kids in a children’s home, entire albums of monkeys and mountains, a bunch of lost-in-translation moments, and some Everest trivia.

If you just can’t wait until December (I don’t blame you), here are links to blog posts written along the way while we were there.  These are Jeff’s reflections in the brothels, Nepal as the land of extremes, the back story of Tiny Hands, and what the border stations were like.

Fist pumping alone in my pajamas wearing a headlight

Undercover: A night out with the guys… and girls

Land of Extremes: Valleys and high places

The back story, which is kind of THE story, and the borders

Thanks for following, pals.